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Context of 'February 26, 2003: Whistleblower Believes FBI Not Prepared for New Terrorist Threats'

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After Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested (see August 16, 2001), the FBI’s Minneapolis field office becomes very concerned that he may be part of a larger operation involving hijacked aircraft and that he represents a real threat to US national security. One of the agents, Harry Samit, will later say that he and his colleagues are “obsessed” with Moussaoui. Samit sends over 70 communications warning about Moussaoui to the following:
bullet The Hezbollah, bin Laden, and Radical Fundamentalist Units at FBI headquarters (see August 20-September 11, 2001);
bullet Another FBI field office (see August 23, 2001);
bullet The CIA (see August 24, 2001);
bullet The FBI’s offices in Paris and London;
bullet The FAA;
bullet The Secret Service;
bullet The Immigration and Naturalization Service; and
bullet Another intelligence agency (possibly the National Security Agency).
While some of these bodies are responsive (see August 22, 2001 and August 24, 2001), Samit and his colleagues in Minnesota are forced to engage in a running battle with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, which obstructs their attempts to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings. Samit will later accuse the RFU of “criminal negligence” because they were trying to “run out the clock” to deport Moussaoui, instead of prosecuting him. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 101-221 pdf file; USA Today, 3/9/2006; Washington Post, 3/21/2006]

Entity Tags: FBI Minnesota field office, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, FBI Headquarters, Harry Samit, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

August 16, 2001: Zacarias Moussaoui Arrested

Zacarias Moussaoui after his arrest.Zacarias Moussaoui after his arrest. [Source: FBI]After being warned that Zacarias Moussaoui has raised suspicions at flight school (see August 11-15, 2001 and August 13-15, 2001), the FBI learns they can arrest him because he is in the US illegally. Four agents, Harry Samit, John Weess, Dave Rapp (all FBI) and Steve Nordmann (INS), drive to the Residence Inn, where Moussaoui and his associate Hussein al-Attas are staying. At the hotel Samit speaks on the phone to Joe Manarang from FBI headquarters; Manarang appeals for them to take the “cautious route” and not arrest Moussaoui. However, Samit refuses, as he has already notified the hotel clerk of their interest. Moussaoui is arrested around 4:00 p.m. on an immigration violation. At first Moussaoui shows the agents some documents, but then he becomes upset at missing his flight training. The FBI confiscates his belongings, including a computer laptop, but Moussaoui refuses permission for the belongings to be searched. A search of Moussaoui’s person yields a dagger with a two-inch blade, and another knife with a three-inch blade belonging to Moussoaui is found in the car. He also has boxing gloves and shin guards, and the arresting agents note he has prepared “through physical training for violent confrontation.” Al-Attas allows the agents to search his belongings and they believe al-Attas is in the US legally, so he is not arrested. However, al-Attas tells the FBI that Moussaoui is a radical religious Muslim and later makes several statements indicating Moussaoui may be a terrorist (see August 16, 2001). [MSNBC, 12/11/2001; US Congress, 10/17/2002; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 3/9/2006; Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/4/2006] Al-Attas is arrested the next day (see August 17, 2001).

Entity Tags: John Weess, Zacarias Moussaoui, Steve Nordmann, Joe Manarang, Harry Samit, David Rapp, FBI Minnesota field office, Hussein al-Attas

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI Minneapolis field office wishes to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings, which will later be found to contain enough information to potentially stop 9/11 (see August 16, 2001). To do so it must get the approval of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters. However, the RFU throws obstacles in the warrant request’s path:
bullet RFU chief Dave Frasca stops the Minneapolis office from pursuing a criminal warrant (see August 21, 2001);
bullet When French authorities say that Moussaoui is connected to the Chechen rebels, RFU agent Mike Maltbie insists that the FBI representative in Paris go through all telephone directories in France to see how many Zacarias Moussaouis live there (see August 22, 2001);
bullet Maltbie stops Minneapolis from informing the Justice Department’s Criminal Division about the case (see August 22, 2001);
bullet When RFU agent Rita Flack, who is working on the Moussaoui case, reads the Phoenix memo suggesting that bin Laden is sending pilots to the US for training, she apparently does not tell her colleagues about it, even though it was addressed to several of them, including Frasca (see July 10, 2001 and August 22, 2001);
bullet The RFU does not provide the relevant documentation to attorneys consulted about the request. In particular, Flack does not tell them about the Phoenix Memo, even though one of the attorneys will later say she asked Flack if anyone is sending radical Islamists to the US to learn to fly (see August 22-28, 2001);
bullet When Minneapolis learns Moussaoui apparently wants to go on jihad, Frasca is not concerned and says jihad does not necessarily mean holy war. However, a top Justice Department attorney will later say “he would have tied bells and whistles” to this comment in a request for a search warrant had he known this (see August 17, 2001 and August 29, 2001);
bullet Maltbie tells the Minneapolis office that getting a warrant will “take a few months” (see August 24, 2001). He also tells Minneapolis, “We know what’s going on. You will not question us.” (see August 27, 2001);
bullet Maltbie weakens the warrant request by editing it and removing a statement by a CIA officer that Chechen rebel leader Ibn Khattab was closely connected to Osama bin Laden, despite there being intelligence linking that leader to bin Laden (see August 28, 2001);
bullet In a key meeting with an attorney about the request, Maltbie and Flack, who are submitting the warrant, are adamant that it is not sufficiently supported (see August 28, 2001);
bullet Frasca opposes a plan to put an undercover officer in the jail cell with Moussaoui to find out more information about his connections to Islamic militants (August 29, 2001 and Shortly After);
bullet The RFU does not want a Minneapolis agent to accompany Moussaoui when he is deported (see (August 30-September 10, 2001));
bullet The RFU does not re-consider getting a criminal search warrant after a decision is taken not to seek a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see After August 28, 2001);
bullet Frasca and Maltbie are said to oppose a search warrant after 9/11 (see September 11, 2001).
It is unclear why the RFU opposes the warrant so strongly. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later criticize the RFU staff, but will conclude that they did not intentionally sabotage the warrant application. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 101-222 pdf file] A 2004 book by independent researcher Mike Ruppert will speculate that Frasca is actually a CIA agent. Ruppert suggests that the CIA placed Frasca in the FBI to prevent CIA operations from being compromised by FBI investigations. But he does not provide any direct evidence of ties between Frasca and the CIA (see October 1, 2004). The Minneapolis agents will offer a different interpretation of RFU actions. Coleen Rowley will say, “I feel that certain facts… have, up to now, been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mischaracterized 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.” She asks, “Why would an FBI agent deliberately sabotage a case? The superiors acted so strangely that some agents in the Minneapolis office openly joked that these higher-ups ‘had to be spies or moles… working for Osama bin Laden.’… Our best real guess, however, is that, in most cases avoidance of all ‘unnecessary’ actions/decisions by FBI [headquarters] managers… has, in recent years, been seen as the safest FBI career course. 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… 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.” [Time, 5/21/2002] Minneapolis FBI agent Harry Samit will agree with explanation, telling the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that the RFU is guilty of “obstructionism, criminal negligence, and careerism.” [Associated Press, 3/20/2006] Samit will also say that Maltbie even told him he was acting this way to “preserve the existence of his advancement potential” in the FBI. [Newsday, 3/21/2006]

Entity Tags: Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Michael Maltbie, David Frasca, FBI Headquarters, Harry Samit, Rita Flack, Coleen Rowley

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Coleen Rowley.
Coleen Rowley. [Source: Publicity photo]Minnesota FBI agent Coleen Rowley, upset with what she considers lying from FBI Director Robert Mueller and others in the FBI about the handling of the Zacarias Moussaoui case, releases a long memo she wrote about the case two weeks before 9/11. [Time, 5/21/2002] Rowley also applies for whistleblower protection. Time magazine calls the memo a “colossal indictment of our chief law enforcement agency’s neglect,” and says it “raises serious doubts about whether the FBI is capable of protecting the public—and whether it still deserves the public’s trust.” [Time, 5/27/2002] Three days after 9/11, Mueller made statements such as, “There were no warning signs that I’m aware of that would indicate this type of operation in the country.” Rowley and other Minnesota FBI agents had “immediately sought to reach [Mueller’s] office through an assortment of higher-level FBI [headquarters] contacts, in order to quickly make [him] aware of the background of the Moussaoui investigation and forewarn [him] so that [his] public statements could be accordingly modified.” Yet Mueller continued to make similar comments, including in a Senate hearing on May 8, 2002. [Time, 5/21/2002; New York Times, 5/31/2002] Finally, after Rowley’s memo becomes public, Mueller states, “I cannot say for sure that there wasn’t a possibility we could have come across some lead that would have led us to the hijackers.” He also admits, “I have made mistakes occasionally in my public comments based on information or a lack of information that I subsequently got.” [New York Times, 5/31/2002] Time magazine will later name Rowley as one of three “Persons of the Year” for 2002, along with fellow whistleblowers Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom and Sherron Watkins of Enron. [Time, 12/22/2002; Time, 12/22/2002]

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, FBI Minnesota field office, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Coleen Rowley, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who was proclaimed Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2002, sends another public letter to FBI Director Mueller. She believes the FBI is not prepared for new terrorist attacks likely to result from the upcoming Iraq war. She also says counterterrorism cases are being mishandled. She claims the FBI and the Justice Department have not questioned captured al-Qaeda suspects Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid about their al-Qaeda contacts, choosing instead to focus entirely on prosecution. She writes, “Lack of follow-through with regard to Moussaoui and Reid gives a hollow ring to our ‘top priority’ —i.e., preventing another terrorist attack. Moussaoui almost certainly would know of other al-Qaeda contacts, possibly in the US, and would also be able to alert us to the motive behind his and Mohamed Atta’s interest in crop-dusting.” Moussaoui’s lawyer also says the government has not attempted to talk to Moussaoui since 9/11. [New York Times, 3/5/2003; New York Times, 3/6/2003]

Entity Tags: Richard C. Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Department of Justice, Robert S. Mueller III, Coleen Rowley

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Tabman, the Minneapolis FBI field office’s special agent in charge, prevents Harry Samit from speaking at a national security forum about the Moussaoui case and removes him from counterterrorism investigations. Samit was an important figure in the Zacarias Moussaoui investigation just before 9/11 (see August 15-September 10, 2001, August 16, 2001 and August 20-September 11, 2001). Unlike his former colleague Coleen Rowley (see May 21, 2002 and February 26, 2003), Samit has never gone public with his criticism of the FBI’s handling of the case. Tabman has been working at the Minneapolis office only since 2005. After Samit files a complaint, FBI headquarters will reassign him to counterterrorism and send Tabman back to headquarters. [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/23/2006; Associated Press, 1/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Harry Samit, Hamis, FBI Headquarters

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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