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Context of 'August 22-28, 2001: Phoenix Memo Withheld from FISA Attorneys in Moussaoui Case'

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Dale Watson, head of the FBI’s counterterrorism program, sends a memo to FBI Director Louis Freeh warning that Islamic radicals are planning a “terrorist operation.” The memo states that “Sunni extremists with links to Ibn al Kahhatb, an extremist leader in Chechnya, and to Osama bin Laden [have been involved in] serious operational planning… since late 2000, with an intended culmination in late spring 2001.” Watson says the planning was sparked by the renewal of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000. “[A]ll the players are heavily intertwined,” the memo notes. Additionally, the memo says that “[m]ultiple sources also suggest that [bin Laden’s] organization is planning a terrorist attack against US interests.” The memo is also sent to other FBI officials, such as International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS) chief Michael Rolince, who will later be involved in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui (see Late August 2001 and (August 30-September 10, 2001)) [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 4/2001 pdf file] Based on this report, ITOS sends an e-mail (see April 13, 2001) to all field offices, asking agents to help identify information pertaining to the “current operational activities relating to Sunni extremism.” The e-mail does not mention Ibn Khattab. [Associated Press, 3/21/2006] These plans may be for the 9/11 attacks—at least some of the alleged hijackers are linked to bin Laden (see January 5-8, 2000), and Zacarias Moussaoui is linked to Ibn Khattab (see Late 1999-Late 2000). Some of the hijackers fought in Chechnya and therefore might also be linked to Ibn Khattab (see 1996-December 2000). Officials at FBI headquarters will later refuse a search warrant for Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings saying they believe Ibn Khattab is not closely connected to Osama bin Laden and is not hostile to the US (see August 22, 2001 and August 23-27, 2001).

Entity Tags: Louis J. Freeh, Michael Rolince, Dale Watson, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ibn Khattab

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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

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

The FBI’s Minneapolis field office drafts an application for a FISA warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings and sends it to the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters. From there, the application is sent to four attorneys at the FBI’s national security law unit (NSLU), as it needs to be legally cleared by them before being submitted to the FISA court. All four attorneys are doubtful that the application contains enough evidence to secure a warrant. Although they are aware that Moussaoui is connected to Chechen rebels, they do not believe the FISA court will consider the Chechen rebels to be a foreign power. Moreover, they do not think the connection between the Chechens and Osama bin Laden is strong enough to make Moussaoui an agent of al-Qaeda. However, the attorneys are not given the relevant documentation. For example, they are not informed that the FBI was warned in April that the Chechen rebel leader and bin Laden were planning an attack against the US (see Before April 13, 2001). Nor are they provided with a copy of the Phoenix memo, in which Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams correctly theorized that bin Laden was sending agents to the US to train in flight schools (see July 10, 2001). Attorney Sherry Sabol will later say that she asked RFU agents Mike Maltbie and Rita Flack whether there was any evidence of people being sent to the US for flight training. Flack, who read the Phoenix memo five days before (see August 22, 2001), said no. Maltbie will later say he does not recall this, and Flack will deny it. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 139-160 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file] The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later criticize Flack for failing to inform the attorneys of the memo. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 208 pdf file] Sabol, fellow NSLU attorney Tom Ainora, and another attorney whose name is unknown will say that they would have taken actions to support the application if they had known about the Phoenix memo. However, they do not believe that material from the Phoenix memo would have been enough to secure the FISA warrant. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 146-8, 158-160, 208 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Tom Ainora, Sherry Sabol, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), National Security Law Unit, Michael Maltbie, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Rita Flack

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mike Maltbie and Rita Flack of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) forward a request for a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 21, 2001) to National Security Law Unit chief Spike Bowman. The request was submitted by the Minneapolis field office (see August 22-28, 2001), which has been trying to obtain a warrant for some time. Earlier in the day, Maltbie edited the request, removing information connecting Moussaoui to al-Qaeda through a rebel group in Chechnya (see August 28, 2001). RFU chief Dave Frasca was to attend the meeting, but is called away at the last minute. According to Bowman, who is already very familiar with the facts in this case, Maltbie is adamant that there is not enough evidence to issue the warrant. Bowman agrees, saying that the evidence fails to implicate Moussaoui as an agent of a foreign power. The FBI thus abandons the effort to obtain a FISA warrant and begins planning his deportation (see (August 30-September 10, 2001)). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 164-6, 168 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Rita Flack, Marion (“Spike”) Bowman, FBI Headquarters, FBI Minnesota field office, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Michael Maltbie, National Security Law 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


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