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Context of 'July 27, 2001 and after: Phoenix Memo Received by FBI Headquarters; Little Action Taken in Response'

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FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529]
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. [Associated Press, 5/22/2002] Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001]
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” [Insight, 5/27/2002] However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI headquarters.FBI headquarters. [Source: GlobeXplorer]FBI headquarters receives the Phoenix Memo, but does not act on it. The memo was drafted by Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams and warns that a large number of Islamic extremists are learning to fly in the US. It is dated 17 days earlier, but is not uploaded until this date (see July 10, 2001). Although the memo is addressed to eight specific agents, it is apparently not received by all of them. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later say that the memo was not delivered directly to the addressees, but uploaded to a central dispatching point, from where it was assigned to Radical Fundamentalist Unit agent Elizabeth Matson on July 30. Before sending the memo, Williams called both Matson and her colleague Fred Stremmel to talk to them about it. Matson pulls up the memo, which has “routine” precedence, and prints and reads it. However, she thinks it should go to the bin Laden unit. A week later she discusses the matter with bin Laden unit agent Jennifer Maitner and they agree that Maitner will do some research and then they will talk again. Matson will later tell the Office of Inspector General she may have mentioned the memo to her superior, but is not sure. Her superior will say he was not consulted. Maitner discusses the memo with bin Laden unit chief Rod Middleton and also sends it to the FBI’s Portland, Oregon, field office, which was previously interested in one of the men named in the memo. However, she does not do anything else with it before 9/11, apparently due to her high workload. The FBI will later acknowledge the memo did not receive the sufficient or timely analysis that it deserved. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 65-77, 80 pdf file] The memo is also seen by the FBI’s New York field office (see July 27, 2001 or Shortly After), another RFU agent researching the Moussaoui case (see August 22, 2001) and possibly the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see (July 27, 2001)).

Entity Tags: Rod Middleton, Ken Williams, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Fred Stremmel, FBI Headquarters, Elizabeth Matson, FBI Portland field office, Jennifer Maitner

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism, receives Ken Williams’ Phoenix Memo, but only briefly checks the named radicals and does not respond to Williams. In the memo, Williams noted that there is a suspiciously large number of Islamic extremists learning to fly in Arizona. Some of them will turn out to be connected to 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). Williams sent the memo to FBI headquarters (see July 27, 2001 and after) and the I-49 squad in the New York FBI field office. In New York, the memo is read by FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of the I-49 squad. Cloonan believes that the memo has a “glaring deficiency,” as he thinks bin Laden does not have a support operation in Arizona any more. He forms the opinion that William’s theory and conclusions are “faulty.” However, two of the hijackers were in Arizona in early 2001 (see December 12, 2000-March 2001) and some of the people named in the memo will later be linked to bin Laden (see October 1996-Late April 1999). In August 2001, Cloonan will ask, “Who’s going to conduct the thirty thousand interviews? When the f_ck do we have time for this?” Nonetheless, he checks out the eight names mentioned in the memo. He will apparently find nothing, although several individuals associated with the Phoenix cell are Sunni extremists (see November 1999-August 2001). The memo is also read by an analyst and an auditor in New York while they are researching other matters, and Cloonan will tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) he may have discussed the memo with some of his colleagues. The OIG’s report will say Cloonan told investigators that “he did not contact Williams or anyone else in Phoenix to discuss the [memo].” However, in a 2006 book author Lawrence Wright, citing an interview with Cloonan, will say that Cloonan spoke to Williams’ supervisor in Phoenix about it. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 77-9 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 350, 426] The I-49 squad possibly forwards the memo to the Alec Station bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see (July 27, 2001)).

Entity Tags: I-49, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), Jack Cloonan, Ken Williams

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA officers who draft a presidential daily briefing (PDB) item given to George Bush on August 6 (see August 6, 2001) ask an FBI agent for additional information and also to review a draft of the memo, but she does not provide all the additional information she could. The 9/11 Commission will refer to the FBI agent as “Jen M,” so she is presumably Jennifer Maitner, an agent with the Osama bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters. The purpose of the memo is to communicate to the president the intelligence community’s view that the threat of attacks by bin Laden is both current and serious. But Maitner fails to add some important information that she has: around the end of July, she was informed of the Phoenix memo, which suggests that an inordinate number of bin Laden-related Arabs are taking flying lessons in the US (see July 10, 2001). She does not link this to the portion of the memo discussing aircraft hijackings. Responsibility for dealing with the Phoenix memo is formally transferred to her on August 7, when she reads the full text. The finished PDB item discusses the possibility bin Laden operatives may hijack an airliner and says that there are “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings.” It is unclear whether the draft PDB item Maitner reviews contains this information. However, if it does, it apparently does not inspire her to take any significant action on the memo before 9/11, such as contacting the agents in Phoenix to notify them of the preparations for hijackings (see July 27, 2001 and after). The PDB will contain an error, saying that the FBI was conducting 70 full field investigations of bin Laden-related individuals (see August 6, 2001), but this error is added after Maitner reviews the draft, so she does not have the opportunity to remove it. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260-2, 535; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 69-77 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, FBI Headquarters, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Jennifer Maitner

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Rita Flack, an intelligence operations specialist with the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit, is looking for evidence of ties between Zacarias Moussaoui and a foreign power so the agency can obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 21, 2001). On this day, she comes across the Phoenix memo written by FBI agent Ken Williams (see July 10, 2001) which observed that an unusual number of Islamic radicals are taking aviation training in the US. In the memo, Williams suggested that bin Laden may be coordinating the flight training as part of preparations for a terrorist attack. Flack prints the Phoenix memo. She will later tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that it is her usual practice to read the documents she prints, but she will not recall actually reading the Phoenix memo. She will also say she did not give the memo to anyone else, including colleague Mike Maltbie or the Minneapolis FBI field office. Nor did she discuss it with anyone, she says. After 9/11, she will say that there was nothing in the memo that would have bolstered Moussaoui’s connection to a foreign power, although this will be disputed by three National Security Law Unit attorneys (see August 22-28, 2001). The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will state: “We believe she should have at least recognized the relevance of the [memo] and the potential relationship of its theories to the Moussaoui case… We think [Flack] should have brought the Phoenix [memo] to someone’s attention.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 145-6, 217-8 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file] The Senate Judiciary Committee will also later say, “The [Phoenix memo] contained information that was material to the decision whether or not to seek a FISA warrant in the Moussaoui case.” [US Congress, 2/2003]

Entity Tags: Ken Williams, FBI Headquarters, Rita Flack, Radical Fundamentalist Unit

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Barbara Grewe.Barbara Grewe. [Source: Barbara Grewe]Barbara Grewe, a key investigator on the Justice Department inspector general’s investigation of the FBI’s failures before 9/11, moves to the 9/11 Commission. [University of Michigan Law School, 3/7/2005] She was recommended to the Commission by a former colleague who worked at the office of inspector general at the Justice Department. [University Record Online, 3/14/2005] As special investigative counsel at the Justice Department’s office of the inspector general between July and December 2002 she had investigated and reported on the FBI’s handling of intelligence prior to 9/11, and directed part of the investigation into information sharing between the FBI and CIA, missed opportunities to locate the hijackers before 9/11, and earlier warnings about terrorists using airplanes as weapons. This is similar to the work she does on the 9/11 Commission. According to a press release for a lecture she will give in 2005, Grewe also “drafted and edited” the “relevant sections” of the Justice Department’s final report. [University of Michigan Law School, 3/7/2005; Center for American Progress Action Fund, 4/16/2008] However, it is unclear how she could have done this, as she left the Justice Department’s investigation in 2003. Although December 2002 is early on in the Justice Department inspector general’s probe, the following important interviews have been conducted by this time:
bullet Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer later detailed to the FBI who was involved in many pre-9/11 intelligence failures (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, March 5, 2000, May 15, 2001, Mid-May 2001, Late May, 2001, July 23, 2001, August 22, 2001, and August 24, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502]
bullet “Michael,” a female CIA officer who had blocked notification to the FBI saying that one of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, had a US visa (see Around 7:00 p.m. January 5, 2000 and January 6, 2000); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502]
bullet Dina Corsi, an FBI official who withheld intelligence information from criminal investigators in the summer of 2001 (see June 12-September 11, 2001, Before August 22, 2001, August 27-28, 2001, August 28, 2001, and August 28-29, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 474]
bullet Clark Shannon, a CIA officer who withheld information about Almihdhar from the FBI (see June 11, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 537]
bullet Margaret Gillespie, an FBI agent detailed to the FBI involved in information sharing problems (see (Late May-Early June) and August 21-22, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 538]
bullet Robert Fuller, an FBI agent who searched for Almihdhar in the US just before the 9/11 attacks, but failed to find him (see September 4, 2001, September 4-5, 2001, and September 4-5, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 539]
bullet Russell Fincher and Steve Bongardt, FBI agents from whom the CIA withheld information (see June 11, 2001, June 12-September 11, 2001, and August 29, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 537]
bullet Sherry Sabol, an attorney involved in errors in the Moussaoui and Almihdhar cases (see August 22-28, 2001 and August 28-29, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 538]
bullet An FBI official who handled an al-Qaeda informer in Pakistan (see January 4, 2001); [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 537]
bullet Harry Samit (see August 15-20, 2001), Greg Jones (see August 27, 2001), John Weess (see August 16, 2001), and Coleen Rowley (see May 21, 2002), FBI officials who worked on the Moussaoui case; [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 531, 540]
bullet Rodney Middleton, acting head of the FBI’s bin Laden unit before 9/11 (see July 27, 2001 and after); and [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 538]
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an FBI official involved in the Phoenix memo and President Bush’s August 6 presidential daily briefing (see July 10, 2001, July 27, 2001 and after, and (August 4-5, 2001)). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 536]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, US Department of Justice, Barbara Grewe, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

FBI Director Robert Mueller personally awards Marion (Spike) Bowman with a presidential citation and cash bonus of approximately 25 percent of his salary. [Salon, 3/3/2003] Bowman, head of the FBI’s national security law unit and the person who refused to seek a special warrant for a search of Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings before the 9/11 attacks (see August 28, 2001), is among nine recipients of bureau awards for “exceptional performance.” The award comes shortly after a 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report saying Bowman’s unit gave Minneapolis FBI agents “inexcusably confused and inaccurate information” that was “patently false.” [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 12/22/2002] Bowman’s unit was also involved in the failure to locate 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi after their names were put on a watch list (see August 28-29, 2001). In early 2000, the FBI acknowledged serious blunders in surveillance Bowman’s unit conducted during sensitive terrorism and espionage investigations, including agents who illegally videotaped suspects, intercepted e-mails without court permission, and recorded the wrong phone conversations. [Associated Press, 1/10/2003] As Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and others have pointed out, not only has no one in government been fired or punished for 9/11, but several others have been promoted: [Salon, 3/3/2003]
bullet Richard Blee, chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, was made chief of the CIA’s new Kabul station in December 2001 (see December 9, 2001), where he aggressively expanded the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). Blee was the government’s main briefer on al-Qaeda threats in the summer of 2001, but failed to mention that one of the 9/11 hijackers was in the US (see August 22-September 10, 2001).
bullet In addition to Blee, the CIA also promoted his former director for operations at Alec Station, a woman who took the unit’s number two position. This was despite the fact that the unit failed to put the two suspected terrorists on the watch list (see August 23, 2001). “The leaders were promoted even though some people in the intelligence community and in Congress say the counterterrorism unit they ran bore some responsibility for waiting until August 2001 to put the suspect pair on the interagency watch list.” CIA Director George Tenet has failed to fulfill a promise given to Congress in late 2002 that he would name the CIA officials responsible for 9/11 failures. [New York Times, 5/15/2003]
bullet Pasquale D’Amuro, the FBI’s counterterrorism chief in New York City before 9/11, was promoted to the bureau’s top counterterrorism post. [Time, 12/30/2002]
bullet FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michael Maltbie, who removed information from the Minnesota FBI’s application to get the search warrant for Moussaoui, was promoted to field supervisor and goes on to head the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI’s Cleveland office. [Salon, 3/3/2003; Newsday, 3/21/2006]
bullet David Frasca, head of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit, is “still at headquarters,” Grassley notes. [Salon, 3/3/2003] The Phoenix memo, which was addressed to Frasca, was received by his unit and warned that al-Qaeda terrorists could be using flight schools inside the US (see July 10, 2001 and July 27, 2001 and after). Two weeks later Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested while training to fly a 747, but Frasca’s unit was unhelpful when local FBI agents wanted to search his belongings—a step that could have prevented 9/11 (see August 16, 2001 and August 20-September 11, 2001). “The Phoenix memo was buried; the Moussaoui warrant request was denied.” [Time, 5/27/2002] Even after 9/11, Frasca continued to “[throw] up roadblocks” in the Moussaoui case. [New York Times, 5/27/2002]
bullet Dina Corsi, an intelligence operations specialist in the FBI’s bin Laden unit in the run-up to 9/11, later became a supervisory intelligence analyst. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 279-280 pdf file; CNN, 7/22/2005] Corsi repeatedly hampered the investigation of Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the summer of 2001 (see June 11, 2001, June 12-September 11, 2001, Before August 22, 2001, August 27-28, 2001, August 28, 2001, August 28-29, 2001, and (September 5, 2001)).
bullet President Bush later names Barbara Bodine the director of Central Iraq shortly after the US conquest of Iraq. Many in government are upset about the appointment because of her blocking of the USS Cole investigation, which some say could have uncovered the 9/11 plot (see October 14-Late November, 2000). She did not apologize or admit she was wrong. [Washington Times, 4/10/2003] However, she is fired after about a month, apparently for doing a poor job.
bullet An FBI official who tolerates penetration of the translation department by Turkish spies and encourages slow translations just after 9/11 was promoted (see March 22, 2002). [CBS News, 10/25/2002]

Entity Tags: Barbara Bodine, George W. Bush, Charles Grassley, David Frasca, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Almihdhar, Michael Maltbie, Dina Corsi, Marion (“Spike”) Bowman, Robert S. Mueller III, Pasquale D’Amuro, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard Blee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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