Why Didn't the FBI Fully Investigate Moussaoui?

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Not denying the charges: FBI Director Mueller

In the hours after September 11th, FBI agents in Minneapolis shared a macabre joke. For weeks prior, they had tried to interest FBI headquarters in Washington in Zacarias Moussaoui, now known as the 20th hijacker. They had begged FBI Headquarters to give them permission to seek a search warrant of Moussaoui's computer. They were denied. In their frustration, they joked that headquarters back in Washington must be infiltrated by agents of Osama Bin Laden. Why else would their work have been thwarted?

This disturbing story is told in a 13-page, single-spaced letter written to FBI Director Robert Mueller by Colleen Rowley. The letter, portions of which TIME magazine has obtained, chronicle the efforts of Rowley, the Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel, to get the FBI interested in Moussaoui. Moussaoui was arrested in August on a visa violation after the Minnesota flight school at which the French national was taking lessons notified the FBI about his suspicious behavior.

Much of the letter recounts Rowley's efforts to convince FBI headquarters to pursue a search warrant of Moussaoui's computer. The FBI maintained that probable cause did not exist and that a warrant would not be approved by the U.S. Attorney. Rowley argues forcefully that a warrant was indeed appropriate, citing French intelligence reports given to the bureau that linked Moussaoui with radical Islamic causes.

The letter portrays the FBI as a place where agents are thwarted from doing their job by a "climate of fear." She writes: "Numerous high-ranking FBI officials who have made decisions or have taken actions which, in hindsight, turned out to be mistaken or just turned out badly (i.e. Ruby Ridge, Waco, etc.) have seen their careers plummet and end. This has in turn resulted in a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive FBI law enforcement action/decisions. In a large hierarchical bureaucracy such as the FBI, with the requirement for numerous supervisors' approvals/oversight, the premium on career enhancement, and interjecting a chilling factor brought on by recent extreme public congressional criticism/oversight, and I think you will see at least the makings of the most likely explanation."

As an example she claims that a supervisory special agent at headquarters balked at approving a request for a warrant because the French intelligence information might be "worthless." Why? The supervisor was concerned that the French only identified Moussaoui by name and that there might be more than one Zacarias Moussaoui in France.

Rowley, an agent at the bureau for more than two decades, describes herself as a whistleblower and asks Mueller not to take retribution against her for her criticisms. She said she wrote her letter "from the heart." Rowley did not return calls from TIME.

While explicitly saying that she does not believe the FBI director engaged in a cover up she accuses Mueller and senior officials at FBI headquarters of having "omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mischaracterized" her office's investigation of Moussaoui "in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons."

Rowley takes aim at what she characterized as Mueller's assertion after September 11 that the FBI may have been able to prevent the attack if it had had advanced warning. She said that she made numerous efforts before writing this letter, dated May 21 of this year, to make it clear that there had, indeed, been such a warning. She attributes the revisionism of FBI leaders to a "circle the wagons" mentality "in an apparent effort to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny."

Rowley says that had the FBI supported instead of stymied the Minneapolis investigation the bureau may have uncovered other terrorists in flight training but she does not go so far as to say that the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented entirely.

FBI director Mueller isn't denying Rowley's charges. He said Thursday night he has asked Justice Department Inspector General Glen Fine to investigate her claims. "While I cannot comment on the specifics of the letter, I am convinced that a different approach is required," Mueller said. "New strategies, new technologies, new analytical capacities and a different culture make us an agency that is changing post 9/11. There is no room for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts."