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Context of '(August 4-5, 2001): Phoenix Memo Agent Vets Bush PDB, Fails to Add Relevant Information, Does Not Contact Phoenix Office'

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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 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

President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings.President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings. [Source: White House]President Bush receives a classified presidential daily briefing (PDB) at his Crawford, Texas ranch indicating that Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. The PDB provided to him is entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The entire briefing focuses on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002] The analysts who drafted the briefing will say that they drafted it on the CIA’s initiative (see July 13, 2004), whereas in 2004 Bush will state that he requested a briefing on the topic due to threats relating to a conference in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, where Western intelligence agencies believed Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders (see April 13, 2004). The analysts will later explain that they saw it as an opportunity to convey that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the US was both current and serious. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260] The existence of this briefing is kept secret, until it is leaked in May 2002, causing a storm of controversy (see May 15, 2002). While National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim the memo is only one and a half pages long, other accounts state it is 11 1/2 pages instead of the usual two or three. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] A page and a half of the contents will be released on April 10, 2004; this reportedly is the full content of the briefing. [Washington Post, 4/10/2004] The briefing, as released, states as follows (note that the spelling of certain words are corrected and links have been added):
bullet Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US (see December 1, 1998). Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America” (see May 26, 1998).
bullet After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -REDACTED-service (see December 21, 1998).
bullet An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told -REDACTED- service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
bullet The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden’s first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself (see December 14, 1999), but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaida was planning his own US attack (see Late March-Early April 2001 and May 30, 2001).
bullet Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
bullet Although bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993 (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
bullet Al-Qaeda members—including some who are US citizens—have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks (see January 25, 2001). Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens (see September 15, 1998), and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s (see November 1989 and September 10, 1998).
bullet A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks (see October-November 1998).
bullet “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman and other US-held extremists” (see 1998, December 4, 1998, and May 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223] According to the Washington Post, this information came from a British service. [Washington Post, 5/18/2002]
bullet Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York (see May 30, 2001).
bullet The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related (see August 6, 2001). CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives (see May 16-17, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
In retrospect, the briefing is remarkable for the many warnings that apparently are not included (see for instance, from the summer of 2001 prior to August alone: May 2001, June 2001, June 12, 2001, June 19, 2001, Late Summer 2001, July 2001, July 16, 2001, Late July 2001, Late July 2001, Summer 2001, June 30-July 1, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Early August 2001). According to one account, after the PDB has been given to him, Bush tells the CIA briefer, “You’ve covered your ass now” (see August 6, 2001). Incredibly, the New York Times later reports that after being given the briefing, Bush “[breaks] off from work early and [spends] most of the day fishing.” [New York Times, 5/25/2002] In 2002 and again in 2004, National Security Adviser Rice will incorrectly claim under oath that the briefing only contained historical information from 1998 and before (see May 16, 2002 and April 8, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Islamic Jihad, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles International Airport, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA’s Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) given to President Bush on this day (see August 6, 2001) contains the important line, “The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related.” Bush will state in 2004 that, based on this, “I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into.” National Security Adviser Rice will explain that since the FBI had 70 “full-field investigations under way of cells” in the US, “there was no recommendation [coming from the White House] that we do something about” the large number of warnings coming in. However, the number and content of the FBI investigations appears grossly exaggerated. The FBI later will reveal that the investigations are not limited to al-Qaeda and do not focus on al-Qaeda cells. Many were criminal investigations, which typically are not likely to help prevent future terrorist acts. An FBI spokesman will say the FBI does not know how that number got into Bush’s PDB. The 9/11 Commission will later conclude, “The 70 full-field investigations number was a generous calculation that included fund-raising investigations. It also counted each individual connected to an investigation as a separate full-field investigation. Many of these investigations should not have been included, such as the one that related to a dead person, four that concerned people who had been in long-term custody, and eight that had been closed well before August 6, 2001.” [Newsday, 4/10/2004; Associated Press, 4/11/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 262, 535]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Condoleezza Rice, Osama bin Laden

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

Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL), speaking on MSNBC’s The Ed Show to host Ed Schultz, criticizes former President Bush while discussing a current controversy regarding a combined mosque and Islamic community center being built near the ruins of the World Trade Center. Grayson says: “If we are going to talk about 9/11, why don’t we talk about how not so much the people who died on 9/11 were disgraced by the possibility of an Islamic athletic center several blocks away; how about the fact that they were disgraced by a president who let it happen? Who went on vacation for the entire month of August after he was warned in writing that Osama bin Laden was actually finding targets in NYC and learning how to take these planes and do terrible things with them? The [warning] itself said ‘hijacking’ and they did nothing about it” (See August 6, 2001, (August 4-5, 2001), and Between August 6 and September 10, 2001). [Raw Story, 8/21/2010]

Entity Tags: Alan Grayson, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline


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