F.B.I. Agent Says Superior Altered Report, Foiling Inquiry

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May 25, 2002

F.B.I. Agent Says Superior Altered Report, Foiling Inquiry


WASHINGTON, May 24 — A senior F.B.I. agent in Minneapolis has accused a supervisor at the agency's Washington headquarters of altering a report in a way that made it impossible for investigators to obtain crucial evidence in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, government officials said today.

Coleen Rowley, an agent and counsel in the F.B.I.'s Minneapolis field office, wrote in a 13-page letter received this week by the joint Congressional committee investigating the terrorist attacks that changes in the search warrant application made it all but impossible to convince the F.B.I.'s national security lawyers to pursue court authorization for the search. The identity of the supervisor at F.B.I. headquarters mentioned in Ms. Rowley's letter could not be determined.

Officials who have seen Ms. Rowley's letter say it accuses the supervisor of altering the application to play down the significance of information provided by French intelligence officials about Mr. Moussaoui's links to Islamic extremists.

Mr. Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was arrested in Minnesota on Aug. 16 on immigration-related charges after an employee of a local flight school notified the F.B.I. that he was acting suspiciously while taking flight lessons. F.B.I. agents in Minneapolis repeatedly questioned Mr. Moussaoui in late August, and one F.B.I. agent accused him of being a terrorist. But the F.B.I. did not obtain a search warrant to examine his computer and other belongings until after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mr. Moussaoui has since been indicted on charges connected with the attacks.

Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, and Representative Porter Goss, a Florida Republican, the co-chairmen of the joint committee investigating the terrorist attacks, said today that they were planning to closely examine Ms. Rowley's accusations that officials at F.B.I. headquarters obstructed efforts to aggressively investigate the Moussaoui case.

Central to the dispute between Minneapolis and F.B.I. headquarters over the Moussaoui search warrant application was the quality of intelligence the bureau had received from the French intelligence service about Mr. Moussaoui.

According to Ms. Rowley's letter and other bureau officials, the Minneapolis field office believed that the French report on Mr. Moussaoui provided enough troubling information about his ties to Islamic extremism to go to court to obtain a search warrant under the federal law that allows the government to carry out searches and surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases. Under the statute, investigators do not have to show that a subject committed a crime, only that they have reason to believe the suspect is engaged in terrorist activity or espionage on behalf of a foreign power or a terrorist organization.

But headquarters officials did not believe the French report was sufficient to justify a search warrant. F.B.I. officials said today that the French report showed that Mr. Moussaoui was an Islamic extremist, but did not reveal any direct links to specific terrorist groups. The French report revealed that Mr. Moussaoui had a close friend who had fought and died with Islamic separatist fighters battling the Russians in Chechnya, but F.B.I. headquarters believed that connection was too indirect to link Mr. Moussaoui to terrorism.

Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency have also played down the significance of the French information, saying that it did not provide conclusive proof of Mr. Moussaoui's terrorist ties.

In her letter, Ms. Rowley states that F.B.I. headquarters did not take the Minneapolis agents seriously when they made their search warrant request, and that headquarters officials were too dismissive of the quality of the French information. Out of frustration, officials in the Minneapolis field office called directly to the F.B.I.'s legal attaché in Paris in an effort to obtain more French information on Mr. Moussaoui. The agents in Minneapolis also went around F.B.I. headquarters and contacted counterterrorism experts at the C.I.A. to further build their case, an action that prompted a reprimand from F.B.I. headquarters.

In her letter, Ms. Rowley was especially critical of the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, whom she wrote had made "misleading" public statements on how the F.B.I. handled the Moussaoui case both before and after Sept. 11, according to officials who have read her letter. She asserted that Mr. Mueller had been covering up for the bureau on the Moussaoui case since the attacks.

"Certain facts have been omitted, downplayed, glossed over, or mischaracterized," Ms. Rowley said, referring to Mr. Mueller's public statements since the hijackings, said officials who have copies of the letter.

The Rowley letter has sent shock waves through the F.B.I. and has seriously damaged Mr. Mueller's standing with the Congressional committee just as it is preparing for it first hearings.

Mr. Graham and Mr. Goss announced today that the joint panel would hold its first closed hearing on June 4, and that it planned public hearings in late June, and Mr. Mueller and the C.I.A.'s director, George J. Tenet, would be asked to testify in those open hearings.

Officials said that particularly damaging for the F.B.I. director was Ms. Rowley's assertion that either intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Mueller has since Sept. 11 directed people at the bureau to muddy the waters in their public statements about the Moussaoui case.

In her letter, Ms. Rowley criticizes assertions by F.B.I. leaders that the bureau's failure to act on the Moussaoui case and other clues last summer did not make a difference in preventing the attacks. She said that if the same officials at F.B.I. headquarters who handled the search warrant request from the Minneapolis office had been aware of a July memo from an agent in the F.B.I.'s Phoenix office warning that terrorists connected with Osama bin Laden might be trying to go to American flight schools, the Moussaoui case would have been handled differently.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), May 25, 2002



-- efgoo8 (HKKK@dd.com), September 30, 2003.

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