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Context of 'August 23-27, 2001: Minnesota FBI Agents ‘Absolutely Convinced’ Moussaoui Plans to Hijack Plane; They Are Undermined by FBI Headquarters'

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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

A letter that Zacarias Moussaoui had in his possession when he was arrested. It is signed by Yazid Sufaat, whose apartment was used for a 9/11 planning meeting in January 2000 that was monitored by the authorities.A letter that Zacarias Moussaoui had in his possession when he was arrested. It is signed by Yazid Sufaat, whose apartment was used for a 9/11 planning meeting in January 2000 that was monitored by the authorities. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division] (click image to enlarge)After Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested, the FBI wishes to search his possessions (see August 16, 2001 and August 23-27, 2001). According to a presentation made by FBI agent Aaron Zebley at Moussaoui’s trial, the belongings are sufficient to potentially connect Moussaoui to eleven of the 9/11 hijackers: Mohamed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, Ziad Jarrah, Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, Fayez Banihammad, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Hamza Alghamdi, Satam Al Suqami, and Waleed Alshehri. The connections would be made, for example, through Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who spoke with Moussaoui on the telephone and wired him money (see July 29, 2001-August 3, 2001), and who was linked to three of the hijacker pilots from their time in Germany together (see November 1, 1998-February 2001). Bin al-Shibh also received money from Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who was connected to hijacker Fayez Ahmed Banihammad (see June 25, 2001). [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006] Moussaoui’s notebook contained two recognizable control numbers for the Western Union wire transfers from bin al-Shibh and, according to McClatchy newspapers, a check on these numbers “would probably have uncovered other wires in the preceding days” to bin al-Shibh from al-Hawsawi. [McClatchy Newspapers, 9/11/2007] The discovery of the eleven hijackers could potentially have led to the discovery of some or all of the remaining eight plot members, as they were brothers (Wail and Waleed Alshehri, Nawaf and Salem Alhazmi), opened bank accounts together (see May 1-July 18, 2001 and June 27-August 23, 2001), lived together (see March 2001-September 1, 2001), obtained identity documents together (see April 12-September 7, 2001 and August 1-2, 2001), arrived in the US together (see April 23-June 29, 2001), and booked tickets on the same four flights on 9/11 (see August 25-September 5, 2001).

Entity Tags: Saeed Alghamdi, Salem Alhazmi, Satam Al Suqami, Waleed Alshehri, Zacarias Moussaoui, Ziad Jarrah, Wail Alshehri, Mohand Alshehri, Nawaf Alhazmi, Marwan Alshehhi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alghamdi, Mohamed Atta, Fayez Ahmed Banihammad, Abdulaziz Alomari, Hani Hanjour, Hamza Alghamdi, Ahmed Alnami, Majed Moqed, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Dave Frasca of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) denies a request from the Minneapolis FBI field office to seek a criminal warrant to search the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested on August 15 as part of an intelligence investigation (see August 16, 2001 and August 16, 2001). Minneapolis agents believe they had uncovered sufficient evidence that Moussaoui is involved in a criminal conspiracy, and want to obtain a criminal search warrant instead of a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). But because they originally opened an intelligence investigation, they cannot go directly to the local US attorney’s office for the warrant. In order to begin a parallel criminal investigation, they must first obtain permission from the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) so they can pass the information over the “wall.” [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 3/9/2006] Harry Samit, a Minneapolis FBI agent on the Moussaoui case, calls Dave Frasca, the head of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, to discuss the request. Samit tells Frasca that they have already completed the paperwork for a criminal investigation, but, according to Samit, Frasca says, “You will not open it, you will not open a criminal case.” Frasca says that argument for probable cause in seeking a criminal warrant is “shaky” and notes that if they fail to obtain a criminal warrant, they will be unable to obtain a warrant under FISA. Samit, who has only been with the FBI since 1999, defers to his superior, and writes on the paperwork, “Not opened per instructions of Dave Frasca.” Samit then tells his Chief Division Counsel, Coleen Rowley, about the conversation, and she also advises him that it would be better to apply for a warrant under FISA. When the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) interviews Frasca after 9/11, he will claim he never spoke to Samit about this matter, and that the conversation was with Chris Briese, one of Samit’s superiors. However, Briese will deny this and the OIG will conclude that the conversation was between Samit and Frasca. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 128-132 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file] To get a FISA search warrant for Moussaoui’s belongings the FBI must now show there is probable cause to believe Moussaoui is an agent of a foreign power. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 3/9/2006] A criminal warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings will be granted only after the 9/11 attacks (see September 11, 2001).

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

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who assisted the FBI with the Moussaoui case.Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who assisted the FBI with the Moussaoui case. [Source: Michel Lipchitz / Associated Press]After arresting Zacarias Moussaoui, the FBI’s Minneapolis field office asks French authorities if they have any information on him. The French then provide the US with intelligence indicating that Moussaoui is associated with a radical militant who died fighting for the Chechen rebels in 2000 (see Late 1999-Late 2000). The French interviewed one of this militant’s associates who said he had been recruited by Moussaoui to fight in Chechnya and described Moussaoui as “the dangerous one.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 140-1 pdf file] French authorities attempt to gather additional information by talking to Moussaoui’s mother. Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s lead investigating magistrate in charge of counterterrorism affairs, also provides information. “Let’s just say that Zacarias Moussaoui was well-known by the French security service…,” Bruguiere later recalls in a 2004 interview with CBC. “When the names come from abroad, we usually have a file, and it was the same with him. He was a well-known personality. He lived in France and then left here to go to England.” Bruguiere will also say that the French provided US authorities with information on Moussaoui’s activities in both France and England (see 1999 and August 21, 2001-September 13, 2001). [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 3/16/2004] Upon reviewing this information, Mike Maltbie of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters will inform Minneapolis that it is not enough for a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, because, even though the French sent information about Moussaoui, Maltbie objects that the Moussaoui the French are talking about may not be the same one Minneapolis has in custody. The result of this is that FBI staff are sent on what Minneapolis agent Harry Samit will later call a “wild goose chase”—they are asked to spend days poring through French phone books to make sure they have the right Moussaoui. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 8/27/2001 pdf file; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 8/28/2001 pdf file; Newsday, 3/21/2006; Los Angeles Times, 3/21/2006] For a search warrant to be granted there must be probable cause to believe Moussaoui is an agent of a foreign power. Maltbie claims that the Chechen rebels, who have never been treated as a foreign power before for a FISA warrant, cannot be treated as such, because they are not a “recognized” foreign power, only dissidents engaged in a civil war, and are not hostile to the US. In fact, the FBI has already received information indicating a close relationships between Chechen rebels and bin Laden (see, e.g., 1986-March 19, 2002 , August 24, 2001, and (October 1993-November 2001)) and that the two groups are working together on a strike against US interests (see Before April 13, 2001). Maltbie says that even if the Chechen rebels are a foreign power, then it will take some time to develop this information to the point where a FISA application can be submitted. Previous to this, Maltbie had only once advised a field office it was not going to get a FISA warrant. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 141-4 pdf file] The French provide more information on Moussaoui a few days later (see August 30, 2001).

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, Michael Maltbie, Harry Samit, France, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, FBI Headquarters, FBI Minnesota field office

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Zacarias Moussaoui’™s laptop, not opened until after 9/11.Zacarias Moussaoui’™s laptop, not opened until after 9/11. [Source: FBI]In the wake of the French intelligence report (see August 22, 2001) on Zacarias Moussaoui, FBI agents in Minneapolis, Minnesota, are “in a frenzy” and “absolutely convinced he [is] planning to do something with a plane.” Agent Greg Jones tells FBI headquarters that Moussaoui might “fly something into the World Trade Center.” [Newsweek, 5/20/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 153 pdf file] Minneapolis FBI agents become “desperate to search the computer lap top” and “conduct a more thorough search of his personal effects,” especially since Moussaoui acted as if he was hiding something important in the laptop when arrested. [Time, 5/21/2002; Time, 5/27/2002] As the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters has already blocked an application for a criminal warrant (see August 21, 2001), the FBI’s Minneapolis field office must apply for one under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Minneapolis agent Harry Samit completes an application for a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings on August 25. To obtain the warrant, he has to show there is probable cause to believe Moussaoui is an agent of a foreign power. The memo states that Moussaoui recruited a fighter for a particular Chechen rebel group connected to al-Qaeda, so he is connected to al-Qaeda through the Chechens. However, the RFU at FBI headquarters believes that the Chechen rebels should not be described as a foreign power and that the link between the Chechens and bin Laden is not strong enough. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 128-132 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file] However, earlier in 2001 the FBI had received information indicating that this Chechen group and bin Laden were planning to attack US interests (see Before April 13, 2001). Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley later sums up how the Minneapolis agents feel at this point, when she says FBI headquarters “almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks” and undermine their efforts. Headquarters personnel bring up “almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause.” One of Jones’ e-mails to FBI headquarters says they are “setting this up for failure.” That turns out to be correct. [Time, 5/21/2002; Time, 5/27/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 161 pdf file]

Entity Tags: World Trade Center, Zacarias Moussaoui, Harry Samit, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, FBI Headquarters, FBI Minnesota field office, Greg Jones, Coleen Rowley, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI’s Minneapolis field office has submitted a memorandum to the Radical Fundamental Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters for a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 23-27, 2001). Before it is submitted, RFU agent Mike Maltbie makes several alterations to the memo. In particular, he deletes a key section saying that a CIA officer had described Chechen rebel leader Ibn Khattab, to whom Moussaoui was connected, as an associate of bin Laden. He deletes this even though the FBI was recently warned that bin Laden and Ibn Khattab may be working together on attacks against US interests (see Before April 13, 2001). However, Minneapolis FBI agent Greg Jones objects in a lengthy e-mail that “we are setting this up for failure if we don’t have the foreign power connection firmly established for the initial review.” Jones also complains about other changes made by Maltbie, including:
bullet Maltbie changes a statement about Moussaoui “preparing himself to fight” to one saying he and an associate “train together in defensive tactics.”
bullet Maltbie changes the sentence, “Moussaoui was unable to give a convincing explanation for his paying $8300 for 747-400 training,” to “Moussaoui would give an explanation for his paying $8300 in cash for 747-700 flight simulation training.”
bullet Maltbie changes a statement that Moussaoui has no convincing explanation for the large sums of money he had to “Moussaoui would not explain the large sums of money known to have been in his possession.”
Maltbie responds by saying that they will attempt to put something together for the foreign power requirement and by changing some, but not all of the sections Jones complains about. However, Minneapolis is still unhappy and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will state that after Jones’ complaints are taken into consideration the memo is only “slightly less persuasive.” The key section about Chechnya is not reinstated, but Moussaoui’s links to Chechnya are discussed at the relevant meeting with an attorney about the request (see August 28, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 161-4, 209-211 pdf file]

Entity Tags: FBI Minnesota field office, FBI Headquarters, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Greg Jones, Michael Maltbie

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, just hours before the testimony of FBI agent Coleen Rowley, whose accusations of FBI malfeasance before the 9/11 attacks have sparked Congressional interest (see June 6, 2002). Mueller promises the committee that Rowley will not be punished for speaking out, and admits that Rowley is correct in some of her assessments, including her insistence that the bureau change to meet the threats posed by loosely organized terrorist groups. “When we looked back, we saw things that we should have done better and things that we should have done differently, but we also saw things that were done well and things that we should do more,” Mueller tells the assembled lawmakers. [CNN, 6/6/2002] Some senators take Mueller’s assessments even farther. Herbert Kohl (D-WI) says, “Had the FBI been totally alert and had the FBI used its current capabilities to the best of its ability, there was at least a very good chance that the terrorist plot could have been uncovered.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/7/2002]
Refuses to Answer Questions about Presidential Discussions - Committee member Joe Biden (D-DE) repeatedly asks Mueller whether President Bush consulted with him before the 2001 reorganization of the nation’s domestic security apparatus under the Homeland Security rubric (see September 20, 2001). Mueller refuses to discuss his conversations with Bush. “There is no executive privilege here,” Biden says. “I’m asking you whether you were consulted. I think this is ridiculous.” Law enforcement officials later confirm that both Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft were consulted as part of planning for the reorganization.
'Antiquated' Computer System - Democratic senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) questions Mueller about the antiquated computer system used by the FBI (Rowley herself will testify that her agents could not search FBI files for information pertaining to their inquiry into so-called “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui—see August 21, 2001 and August 23-27, 2001). Mueller confirms that Rowley and agents working with her could not search for terms such as “flight school,” but instead were limited to single-word searches such as “flight” or “school,” which produced masses of irrelevant results. Schumer calls the FBI system “almost laughable,” and adds, “It just makes my jaw drop to think that on 9/11 or on 9/10 the kind of technology that is available to most school kids, and certainly every small business in this country, wasn’t available to the FBI.” Mueller says it will take two or three years to upgrade the FBI’s computers. “I think we are way behind the curve,” he says.
Criticism of Civil Liberties Reductions - Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) criticizes Mueller for his decision, in conjunction with Attorney General John Ashcroft, to loosen restrictions on the FBI that limit the bureau’s ability to investigate and monitor citizen dissidents and organizations. “In particular, I’m troubled by the visa-holder-registration policy announced yesterday,” he says, referring to a Justice Department plan to require that about 100,000 foreigners in the United States be fingerprinted by the government. “Your agency is expending valuable time and resources to recruit these US citizens in our Arab and Muslim communities. And at the same time, the Justice Department is photographing, fingerprinting and registering their law-abiding siblings, cousins, visiting the United States.” [New York Times, 6/7/2002] “What impact do you think these policies will have on the Arab and Muslim communities in the US if you’re holding job fairs in the morning and fingerprinting them in the afternoon?” Kennedy asks. Mueller responds that the FBI will be careful not to step on anyone’s constitutional rights: “I still believe that we have to protect the freedoms that we have in this country that are guaranteed by the Constitution, or all the work we do to protect it will be at naught.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/7/2002]

Entity Tags: Charles Schumer, John Ashcroft, Coleen Rowley, Herbert Kohl, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, Joseph Biden, Robert S. Mueller III, Senate Judiciary Committee, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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