FBI Headquarters Thwarts Pre-9/11 Moussaoui Search, But Why?

Editor’s Note:
Here are two articles on the Moussaoui trial, with testimony from one of those ‘spun up’ FBI agents in Minneapolis who couldn’t get FBI headquarters to sign on to searching Moussaoui’s laptop in August 2001.
What is striking about agent Samit’s account, like the account of his office-mate Coleen Rowley, is the assumption of “criminal negligence” on the part of FBI headquarters, and RFU head David Frasca and Michael Maltbie in particular. Best I can see, criminal complicity has not been ruled out whatsoever.
I’m grateful for the testimony of Mr. Samit, and for Rowley’s whistleblowing, but how exactly can either know for sure that the RFU’s obstructionism was the result of careerism or ‘criminal incompetence’ rather than something else? I don’t claim to know the reasons, but Samit and Rowley certainly cannot know for sure, either.
Remember, there is evidence that Frasca intentionally and without good cause (and thus not negligently) obstructed the flow of information up the FBI’s chain of command. You may recall the ‘Time’ magazine story early in 2002 which detailed agent Rowley’s charges. The story’s authors claimed that Ken Williams’ infamous “Phoenix Memo” was received by Frasca a couple of months in advance of 9/11:

Rowley’s letter lays out the case that the FBI made fateful miscalculations by failing to see a possible connection between the Minneapolis investigation of flight student Moussaoui and the hunch of Phoenix agent Kenneth Williams — posited in a report to HQ two months earlier — that al-Qaeda operatives were attending U.S. flight schools. Law-enforcement and congressional sources told Time that both reports landed on the desk of Dave Frasca, the head of the FBI’s radical-fundamentalist unit. The Phoenix memo was buried; the Moussaoui warrant request was denied.

Williams’ memo implored the FBI to immediately begin a surveillance program to monitor suspicious flight school students training in the US. Now imagine receiving Samit’s request about Moussaoui only a few weeks later if you’re Frasca! Think you might remember getting the ‘Phoenix Memo’ a month or so before?
Of course you would, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Contrary to the claims in the ‘Time’ article quoted above and according to the Senate/House Intelligence Committees’ Joint Inquiry of 2002, Frasca denied ever receiving the Phoenix Memo!:

The Chiefs of both the RFU and UBLU informed the Joint Inquiry that they did not see the Phoenix EC before September 11. They do not remember even hearing about the flight school issue until after September 11. An FBI audit of the central records system requested by the Joint Inquiry supports their statements.

Frasca was the head of the RFU at the time, so we can infer he is saying he never saw the Phoenix Memo. Here we have a clear conflict: “law enforcement and congressional sources” say one thing, Frasca and the ever-trustworthy FBI audit says another. It’s a critical point, because it’s simply inconceivable that a well-meaning unit head would not find some way to assist the Minneapolis office with their Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist flight-school trainee so soon after receiving the Phoenix memo.
We know that David Schippers has claimed foreknowledge of the attacks on the part of FBI agents weeks before 9/11. Sibel Edmonds said she came across documents indicating FBI foreknowledge of a 9/11-type attack in April 2001. If Frasca saw the Phoenix Memo, a claim for which the ‘Time’ article claims several sources, incompetence becomes a much less likely reason for his failure to act on Minneapolis’ requests to search Moussaoui’s possessions.
In a sense you can understand the blind spot of FBI agents Samit and Rowley — they may be constitutionally unsuited to think the worst of their own. But the failure of the corporate press to even consider the more sinister possibility remains the big story. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

–Bryan Sacks

FBI Was Warned About Moussaoui

Agent Tells Court Of Repeated Efforts Before 9/11 Attacks

By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 21, 2006; A01

Photo of Zacarias Moussaoui
Zacarias Moussaoui

An FBI agent who interrogated Zacarias Moussaoui before Sept. 11, 2001, warned his supervisors more than 70 times that Moussaoui was a terrorist and spelled out his suspicions that the al-Qaeda operative was plotting to hijack an airplane, according to federal court testimony yesterday.

Agent Harry Samit told jurors at Moussaoui’s death penalty trial that his efforts to secure a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings were frustrated at every turn by FBI officials he accused of “criminal negligence.” Samit said he had sought help from a colleague, writing that he was “so desperate to get into Moussaoui’s computer I’ll take anything.”

That was on Sept. 10, 2001.

Samit’s testimony added striking detail to the voluminous public record on the FBI’s bungling of the Moussaoui case. It also could help Moussaoui’s defense. Samit is a prosecution witness who had earlier backed the government’s central theory of the case: that the FBI would have raised “alarm bells” and could have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks if Moussaoui had not lied to agents. But under cross-examination by the defense yesterday, Samit said that he did raise those alarms — repeatedly — but that his bosses impeded his efforts.

The testimony came as the sentencing hearing resumed for the only person convicted in the United States of charges stemming from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Jurors in Alexandria will determine whether Moussaoui should live or die. The proceeding was derailed last week by the misconduct of government attorney Carla J. Martin, who improperly shared testimony with upcoming witnesses and coached them.

An angry U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema halted the hearing for a week. She barred the testimony of the witnesses Martin had contacted and all aviation evidence, gutting the government’s case. But after prosecutors offered a compromise, Brinkema issued a revised order Friday saying they could use new aviation witnesses not tainted by Martin’s conduct.

Brinkema began the day yesterday by welcoming jurors back to court and quizzing them about whether they had seen or read any of the extensive media coverage, which she had barred them from doing. When they shook their heads no in unison, the judge said, “You’ve been wonderful.”

Nowhere to be seen was Martin, the Transportation Security Administration lawyer whom Brinkema has blamed for the disruption. She could face contempt of court or other criminal charges, and Moussaoui’s attorneys had urged her to explain her actions at a special hearing yesterday. That hearing was never convened, and Brinkema did not mention it. Martin’s attorney has said she would not testify.

Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment on the testimony from Samit, who remains an agent in the FBI’s Minneapolis office. The primary supervisor Samit accused of impeding his investigation, Michael Maltbie, said in a phone interview yesterday that the issues raised in court “have been looked at extensively by Congress, the Justice Department, my own people.”

“The [FBI] director has given me a chance to respond to some of these issues that have come up,” said Maltbie, a former counterterrorism supervisor at headquarters in Washington and now a supervisory special agent in Cleveland.

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks. He was sitting in jail on that day of terror because of his arrest a month earlier after his activities raised suspicion at a Minnesota flight school.

The FBI’s missteps have been examined in depth by congressional investigators and the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yesterday, as jurors watched images of FBI documents flashing on TV screens, defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr. walked Samit through a recital of government mistakes, framing nearly every question with the words:“You wanted people in Washington to know that . . . right?”

MacMahon zeroed in on increasingly urgent warnings Samit issued to his FBI supervisors after he interviewed Moussaoui at a Minnesota jail in mid-August 2001. Moussaoui had raised Samit’s suspicions because he was training on a 747 simulator with limited flying experience and could not explain his foreign sources of income.

By Aug. 18, 2001, Samit was telling FBI headquarters that he believed Moussaoui intended to hijack a plane “for the purpose of seizing control of the aircraft.” A few days later, he learned from FBI agents in France that Moussaoui had been a recruiter for a Muslim group in Chechnya linked to Osama bin Laden.

But when Samit tried to use the French intelligence in his draft application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings, he said, Maltbie edited out the connection with bin Laden because it did not show that a foreign government was involved.

“How are you supposed to establish a connection with a foreign power if it’s deleted from the document?” MacMahon asked.

“Well, sir, you can’t,” Samit replied.

Samit said he also sent an e-mail to the FBI’s bin Laden unit but did not receive a response before Sept. 11, 2001. By late August, the agent had concluded that Maltbie and other FBI officials were no longer interested in investigating Moussaoui. Samit acknowledged that he told the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office that his supervisors engaged in “criminal negligence” and were trying to “run out the clock” because they wanted to deport Moussaoui rather than prosecute him.

Most portions of the inspector general’s report dealing with Moussaoui have never been made public.

“You thought a terrorist attack was coming, and you were being obstructed, right?” MacMahon asked.

“Yes, sir,” Samit answered.

Samit said he kept trying to persuade his bosses to authorize the surveillance warrant or a criminal search warrant right up until the day before the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“You never stopped trying, did you?” MacMahon said.

“No, sir,” Samit replied.

Staff writer Dan Eggen and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report


FBI Agent Slams Bosses at Moussaoui Trial
By Michael J. Sniffen
The Associated Press

Monday 20 March 2006

Alexandria, Va. – The FBI agent who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 testified Monday he spent almost four weeks trying to warn U.S. officials about the radical Islamic student pilot but “criminal negligence” by superiors in Washington thwarted a chance to stop the 9/11 attacks.

FBI agent Harry Samit of Minneapolis originally testified as a government witness, on March 9, but his daylong cross examination by defense attorney Edward MacMahon was the strongest moment so far for the court-appointed lawyers defending Moussaoui. The 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent is the only person charged in this country in connection with al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

MacMahon displayed a communication addressed to Samit and FBI headquarters agent Mike Maltbie from a bureau agent in Paris relaying word from French intelligence that Moussaoui was “very dangerous,” had been indoctrinated in radical Islamic Fundamentalism at London’s Finnsbury Park mosque, was “completely devoted” to a variety of radical fundamentalism that Osama bin Laden espoused, and had been to Afghanistan.

Based on what he already knew, Samit suspected that meant Moussaoui had been to training camps there, although the communication did not say that.

The communication arrived Aug. 30, 2001. The Sept. 11 Commission reported that British intelligence told U.S. officials on Sept 13, 2001, that Moussaoui had attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. “Had this information been available in late August 2001, the Moussaoui case would almost certainly have received intense, high-level attention,” the commission concluded.

But Samit told MacMahon he couldn’t persuade FBI headquarters or the Justice Department to take his fears seriously. No one from Washington called Samit to say this intelligence altered the picture the agent had been painting since Aug. 18 in a running battle with Maltbie and Maltbie’s boss, David Frasca, chief of the radical fundamentalist unit at headquarters.

They fought over Samit’s desire for a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer and belongings. Maltbie and Frasca said Samit had not established a link between Moussaoui and terrorists.

Samit testified that on Aug. 22 he had learned from the French that Moussaoui had recruited someone to go to Chechnya in 2000 to fight with Islamic radicals under Emir Ibn al-Khattab. He said a CIA official told him on Aug. 22 or 23 that al-Khattab had fought alongside bin Laden in the past. This, too, failed to sway Maltbie or Frasca.

Under questioning from MacMahon, Samit acknowledged that he had told the Justice Department inspector general that “obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism” on the part of FBI headquarters officials had prevented him from getting a warrant that would have revealed more about Moussaoui’s associates. He said that opposition blocked “a serious opportunity to stop the 9/11 attacks.”

The FBI’s actions between Moussaoui’s arrest, in Minnesota on immigration violations on Aug. 16, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, are crucial to his trial because prosecutors allege that Moussaoui’s lies prevented the FBI from discovering the identities of 9/11 hijackers and the Federal Aviation Administration from taking airport security steps.

But MacMahon made clear the Moussaoui’s lies never fooled Samit. The agent sent a memo to FBI headquarters on Aug. 18 accusing Moussaoui of plotting international terrorism and air piracy over the United States, two of the six crimes he pleaded guilty to in 2005.

To obtain a death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui’s actions led directly to the death of at least one person on 9/11.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty last April to conspiring with al-Qaida to fly planes into U.S. buildings. But he says he had nothing to do with 9/11 and was training to fly a 747 jetliner into the White House as part of a possible later attack.

Samit’s complaints echoed those raised in 2002 by Coleen Rowley, the bureau’s agent-lawyer in the Minneapolis office, who tried to help get a warrant. Rowley went public with her frustrations, was named a Time magazine person of the year for whistleblowing and is now running for Congress.

Samit revealed far more than Rowley of the details of the investigation.

MacMahon walked Samit through e-mails and letters the agent sent seeking help from the FBI’s London, Paris and Oklahoma City offices, FBI headquarters files, the CIA’s counterterrorism center, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, an intelligence agency not identified publicly by name in court (possibly the National Security Agency), and the FBI’s Iran, Osama bin Laden, radical fundamentalist, and national security law units at headquarters.

Samit described useful information from French intelligence and the CIA before 9/11 but said he was not told that CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on the Moussaoui threat on Aug. 23 and never saw until after 9/11 a memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix about radical Islamists taking flight training there.

For each nugget of information, MacMahon asked Samit if Washington officials called to assess the implications. Time after time, Samit said no.

MacMahon introduced an Aug. 31 letter Samit drafted “to advise the FAA of a potential threat to security of commercial aircraft” from whomever Moussaoui was conspiring with.

But Maltbie barred him from sending it to FAA headquarters, saying he would handle that, Samit testified. The agent added that he did tell FAA officials in Minneapolis of his suspicions.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.

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