Profile: Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU)
Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) was a participant or observer in the following events:
The FBI creates the Radical Fundamentalist Unit to investigate international radical fundamentalism, including al-Qaeda. (An FBI unit focusing on bin Laden will not be created until 1999.) [US Congress, 7/24/2003 ]
FBI Minneapolis agent Harry Samit learns that an unnamed man plans to travel from the US to Afghanistan to train militants there, and that one of his relatives has applied to join the Minnesota National Guard. Samit wants to run a check on him and notify the National Guard, as he is worried because guardsmen have access to local airports. However, he is blocked for several months by Michael Maltbie, an agent in the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters, who becomes “extremely agitated” and says this is “just the sort of thing that would get the FBI into trouble.” [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 3/21/2006; Knight Ridder, 3/21/2006; Hearst Newspapers, 3/21/2006] Samit and Maltbie will later have another running disagreement over the Zacarias Moussaoui case (see August 15-September 10, 2001, August 20-September 11, 2001, August 27, 2001, and August 28, 2001).
Dave Frasca, who will later play a key role in the FBI’s failure to get a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings before 9/11 (see August 21, 2001 and August 29, 2001), is promoted to chief of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit at the bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Section. Frasca had previously worked counterterrorism issues for the FBI’s Miami office (see 1998). The Radical Fundamentalist Unit deals with Sunni Muslim terrorist suspects not directly linked to Osama bin Laden. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 123 ]
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:
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 ; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
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]
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 ]
Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ] 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]
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]
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]
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]
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.)
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:
Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 ; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ]
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 ] 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. [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 ] 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)).
After Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested (see August 16, 2001), the FBI’s Minneapolis field office becomes very concerned that he may be part of a larger operation involving hijacked aircraft and that he represents a real threat to US national security. One of the agents, Harry Samit, will later say that he and his colleagues are “obsessed” with Moussaoui. Samit sends over 70 communications warning about Moussaoui to the following:
The Hezbollah, bin Laden, and Radical Fundamentalist Units at FBI headquarters (see August 20-September 11, 2001);
Another FBI field office (see August 23, 2001);
The CIA (see August 24, 2001);
The FBI’s offices in Paris and London;
The Secret Service;
The Immigration and Naturalization Service; and
Another intelligence agency (possibly the National Security Agency).
While some of these bodies are responsive (see August 22, 2001 and August 24, 2001), Samit and his colleagues in Minnesota are forced to engage in a running battle with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, which obstructs their attempts to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings. Samit will later accuse the RFU of “criminal negligence” because they were trying to “run out the clock” to deport Moussaoui, instead of prosecuting him. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 101-221 ; USA Today, 3/9/2006; Washington Post, 3/21/2006]
Charles Frahm. [Source: Ben Bloker / Stars and Stripes]After the Zacarias Moussaoui case (see August 16, 2001) is transferred from the Iran unit to the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters (see August 20-September 11, 2001), RFU chief Dave Frasca contacts Charles Frahm, an FBI manager detailed to the CIA with responsibility for Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. According to Frahm, who has already been contacted by the FBI Minneapolis field office (see August 18, 2001 or Shortly Before), Frasca asks CIA headquarters to quickly share any information it has on Moussaoui with the FBI, but does not send the agency a formal request, even though FBI headquarters continues to coordinate the case with the CIA. In an e-mail sent around August 28, Frahm will indicate that the CIA has still not received a formal request from the bureau. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 123, 154-5, 231-2 ; Wright, 2006, pp. 313] The CIA will tell FBI agent Harry Samit that it thinks there is enough information to firmly link Moussaoui to a terrorist group (see August 24, 2001).
Mike Maltbie, a supervisory agent with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, tells Minneapolis agent Harry Samit, who has arrested Zacarias Moussaoui and wants to search his belongings, that getting an intelligence warrant can be bad for an agent’s career if it gets fouled up. Maltbie comments that he wants to “preserve the existence of his advancement potential.” The Minneapolis field office is in dispute with the RFU over whether a warrant should be granted to search Moussaoui’s belongings, which contain enough information to potentially prevent 9/11 (see August 16, 2001 and August 20-September 11, 2001). At a key meeting with an attorney about whether to go forward with the warrant request, Maltbie is adamant that the warrant should not be granted (see August 28, 2001). [Newsday, 3/21/2006]
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:
RFU chief Dave Frasca stops the Minneapolis office from pursuing a criminal warrant (see August 21, 2001);
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);
Maltbie stops Minneapolis from informing the Justice Department’s Criminal Division about the case (see August 22, 2001);
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);
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);
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);
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);
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);
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);
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);
The RFU does not want a Minneapolis agent to accompany Moussaoui when he is deported (see (August 30-September 10, 2001));
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);
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 ] 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]
A memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft about the FISA process, obtained by the Center for Grassroots Oversight by FOIA request. [Source: Office of the Attorney General] (click image to enlarge)A key Justice Department unit, the Office of Intelligence and Policy Review (OIPR), is not consulted about a request to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings. Although it is this office that would submit an application for a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the legal aspects of the application are discussed only with the National Security Law Unit, which is beneath the OIPR (see August 22-28, 2001). FBI officials discuss what they think the OIPR will want in a warrant application, but do not ask it directly. Sherry Sabol, an attorney in the lower National Security Law Unit, will later say that she would have contacted the OIPR to discuss a possible warrant application, if FBI headquarters agents had not withheld information from her (see August 22-28, 2001). When shown the relevant documentation for the Moussaoui case after 9/11, the OIPR’s general counsel will say he would have considered the application and, if submitted, he “would have tied bells and whistles” to a comment by Moussaoui’s imam that Moussaoui and an associate wanted to “go on jihad” (see August 17, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 132-166, 182-4, 201 ] However, a memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft issued in May to improve the efficiency of the FISA process recommended communications between field offices, FBI headquarters, and the OIPR. In addition, the OIPR and the FBI should hold regular monthly meetings to discuss FISA warrants. It is unclear if such a meeting is held in the three weeks between Moussaoui’s arrest and 9/11. However, one of the people supposed to attend such meetings is Spike Bowman, chief of the National Security Law Unit, who is involved in the Moussaoui case (see August 28, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 5/18/2001 ]
At a meeting attended by Mike Maltbie of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU), RFU chief Dave Frasca, FBI agent Rita Flack, and an FAA representative who is familiar with the Moussaoui case, a decision is made not to advise the FAA about the Moussaoui investigation at this point because Moussaoui and Al-Attas are presumably in custody. (Al-Attas is bailed out of custody on August 20) [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 134, 149-150 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] Al-Attas is suspected of involvement in terrorism at this point and investigators believe he and Moussaoui may be involved in a plot against the US that involves the hijacking of an airplane (see August 17, 2001 and August 24, 2001). The FBI will eventually warn the FAA, but it will fail to mention that its Minneapolis office believes Moussaoui intends to hijack an airliner (see September 4, 2001).
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 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] 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).
Staff at the FBI’s Minneapolis field office form the opinion that there is a “reasonable indication” Zacarias Moussaoui wants to commit a “significant federal crime,” meaning that, under the amended 1995 “wall” procedures (see July 19, 1995 and August 6, 2001), they must inform an attorney at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division about the case. However, Mike Maltbie, an agent with the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit, blocks the notification. Minneapolis agents Chris Briese and Greg Jones believe that if the Criminal Division were notified, it would then order Minneapolis to seek a criminal warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings, overcoming opposition to the search being put up by Maltbie and his colleagues (see August 20-September 11, 2001 and August 21, 2001). However, Maltbie prevents the notification from being sent, saying that he does not see any evidence of a federal crime, and that asking for a criminal warrant could unfavorably affect the chances of getting a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), if the criminal application were unsuccessful. He also says that getting a FISA warrant is easier, although two days later he says obtaining a FISA warrant will “take a few months” (see August 24, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 127-8, 143-4 ]
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 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] 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]
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 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 ] 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 ] 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 ]
Zacarias Moussaoui’Â™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 ] 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 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] 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 ]
Mike Maltbie of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters tells Greg Jones of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office that obtaining a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Act (FISA) for Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings could “take a few months” because there are “hundreds of these FISA requests.” (FISA warrants can actually be obtained in a matter of hours if needed, and can even be approved retroactively) Maltbie tells Jones that the situation is not an emergency, as he believes an act of terrorism is not imminent in this case, but that Minneapolis can write a letterhead memorandum for FBI headquarters about the case. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 48, 53, 148-9 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ]
Mike Maltbie, a supervisory special agent with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters, writes to Tom Wilshire, a CIA manager stationed with the FBI, about the case of Zacarias Moussaoui and Hussein al-Attas (see August 24, 2001). He tells Wilshire what actions the FBI has taken on the case and concludes by saying, “Please bear in mind that there is no indication that either of these two had plans for nefarious activity as was apparently indicated in an earlier communication.” The word “no” is underlined. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 151 ] However, the FBI’s field office in Minneapolis suspects Moussaoui is part of a wider plot to hijack airliners and Maltbie is aware of their concerns (see August 15-20, 2001).
Harry Samit and Greg Jones, agents at the FBI’s Minneapolis field office investigating Zacarias Moussaoui, are having some problems with Mike Maltbie, a supervisory special agent at FBI headquarters’ Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) (see August 20-September 11, 2001). They ask their boss to call RFU head Dave Frasca to “find out what [Maltbie]‘s problem [is].” Jones and his boss place the call. According to Jones, when the call starts, Frasca is “immediately defensive” and asks Maltbie to join the call. Jones’ notes indicate that he asks what is going to happen if “they won’t let us go criminal” and there is not enough information for a warrant under FISA. Jones asks what will happen if Moussaoui cannot be connected to a known group. The answer recorded in his notes is “That isn’t something for you to worry about.” However, Frasca will state he never said this. Maltbie’s performance—the original reason for the call—is apparently not discussed. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 155-8 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ]
FBI agents at the bureau’s Minneapolis field office have been arguing with the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) over whether there is sufficient evidence to secure a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 20-September 11, 2001). The tensions surface in a call between Minneapolis agent Greg Jones and Supervisory Special Agent Mike Maltbie. This is a partial reconstruction of the conversation based on Jones’ notes: Maltbie: “What you have done is couched [the request] in such a way that people get spun up.” Jones: “Good. We want to make sure he doesn’t get control of an airplane and crash it into the [World Trade Center] or something like that.” Maltbie: “[T]hat’ not going to happen. We don’t know he’s a terrorist. You don’t have enough to show he is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft—that is it.” Jones also asks whether the warrant request has been shown to Section Chief Michael Rolince yet, and Maltbie replies it has not. [US Congress, 10/17/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 153-5 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] Another Minneapolis agent, Harry Samit, also contacts Maltbie and expresses his frustration with RFU’s position that they do not have enough evidence. In an interview with the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General he recalls telling Maltbie: “… if you’re not going to advance this the FISA route, or if you don’t believe we have enough for a FISA, I shudder to think—and that’s all I got out. And [Maltbie]
cut me off and said, ‘You will not question the unit chief and you will not question me. We’ve been through a lot. We know what’s going on. You will not question us.’ And that could be the mantra for FBI supervisors.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 155 ]
Dave Frasca, head of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalism Unit (RFU), and Michael Rolince, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS), have at least two brief conversations about the Zacarias Moussaoui case. Moussaoui, suspected of having ties to Islamic militants, was arrested in mid-August (see August 16, 2001). Though it is not known what Frasca and Rolince talk about, it is possible their discussions concern complaints from the Minneapolis field office about how RFU is handling the case (see August 27, 2001). According to the 9/11 Commission, there is no evidence that this discussion ever reaches Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Dale Watson or Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard. If this is true, the FBI’s handling of the case is remarkably different than the approach taken in the CIA, where Director George Tenet is briefed repeatedly on the matter (see August 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 275; Associated Press, 3/21/2006] A warning that Osama bin Laden and Chechen rebel leader Ibn Khattab were planning a joint operation against the US was sent to Rolince earlier in the year (see Before April 13, 2001) and the FBI is aware that Moussaoui had recruited for the Chechen rebels (see August 22, 2001). Rolince will be involved in preparations for Moussaoui’s deportation to France shortly before 9/11 (see (August 30-September 10, 2001)).
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:
Maltbie changes a statement about Moussaoui “preparing himself to fight” to one saying he and an associate “train together in defensive tactics.”
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.”
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 ]
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 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ]
The Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters learns of a translated conversation (see August 17, 2001) between Zacarias Moussaoui’s roommate, Hussein al-Attas, and an imam from a mosque in Norman, Oklahoma, in which the imam had said, “I heard you guys wanted to go on jihad.” On this day, the FBI also learns about al-Attas’s will, which states that “death is near” and that “those who participate in jihad can expect to see God.” After receiving the information, RFU chief Dave Frasca replies in an e-mail, “The will is interesting. The jihad comment doesn’t concern me by itself in that this word can mean many things in various [M]uslim cultures and is frequently taken out of context.” However, a top Justice Department attorney who submits applications for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), will later say that “he would have tied bells and whistles” to the jihad comment in a FISA application. A later investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will conclude that the comment was “significant” and “should have been given greater weight in considering whether there was probable cause to believe Moussaoui was connected to a terrorist group.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 134, 167-8, 201 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ]
After the FBI decides not to seek a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (see August 28, 2001), it fails to reconsider the possibility of applying for a criminal warrant. A criminal warrant was not sought initially, partially because if the warrant application were unsuccessful, it would adversely affect the chances of getting a FISA warrant (see August 21, 2001). Now that a FISA warrant is not to be sought, this potential consequence is irrelevant. Dave Frasca, head of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, will later say that he does not know why he, his subordinate Mike Maltbie, and the FBI’s Minneapolis field office do not bring this possibility up at this time, but will suggest that everybody probably forgot to raise the matter. Maltbie will say he does not think there is enough evidence for a warrant. Minneapolis personnel will say they do not bring the issue up because they do not think of it, are not in charge of the case, and the RFU has previously blocked this route. The Justice Department’s inspector general will say that the failure to reconsider obtaining a criminal search warrant is “puzzling” and “even more troubling” than the previous errors in the case’s handling, adding that it “also shows a troubling lack of initiative and acceptance of responsibility by FBI headquarters.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 168-9, 191-2 ]
Harry Samit, an agent at the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, drafts a memo to the FAA summarizing the facts of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. In it, he writes, “Minneapolis believes that Moussaoui, [his roommate Hussein] al-Attas, and others not yet known were engaged in preparing to seize a Boeing 747-400 in commission of a terrorist act. As Moussaoui denied requests for consent to search his belongings and was arrested before sufficient evidence of criminal activity was revealed, it is not known how far advanced were his plans to do so.” He also mentions Moussaoui’s physical and marital arts training and expresses concern that France, where Moussaoui will soon be deported, may not be able to hold him or his property for long. But Mike Maltbie of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) instructs the Minneapolis field office not to send the memo because he is also drafting a memo on the Moussaoui case that will be sent to the FAA and other agencies. However Maltbie’s memo lacks a threat assessment and does not mention Minneapolis’ suspicions that Moussaoui might be planning a terrorist act involving a hijacked airplane. The memo does not result in any FAA action. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 174-7 ; Los Angeles Times, 3/20/2006] A meeting between Samit and a Minneapolis FAA officer will also fail to produce any FAA action (see September 4, 2001).
Following the collapse of the FBI’s attempts to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 28, 2001), the FBI begins working on a plan to deport him to France so his belongings can be searched there. The French ask that a law enforcement officer from the US accompany Moussaoui. The FBI’s Minneapolis field office and the FBI’s assistant legal attache in Paris ask that Minneapolis agent Harry Samit and an INS agent go to France with Moussaoui to brief the French and await the results of the search of his belongings. Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) chief Dave Frasca opposes this plan. Michael Rolince, head of the bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Section, opposes it as well, later claiming that he thought Samit might try to obtain information from Moussaoui on the journey. For several days, Frasca and one of his subordinates, Mike Maltbie, continue to haggle with Minneapolis over whether Samit can accompany Moussaoui. But when the French and the assistant legal attache insist, they drop their objections. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 171-3 ] Minneapolis is highly unsatisfied with this solution and would have preferred to obtain a warrant to search his belongings. Samit writes before 9/11 that deporting Moussaoui “was a distant third in my list of desired outcomes, but at this point I am so desperate to get into his computer I’ll take anything.” [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/10/2001 ] Samit will later accuse the RFU of “criminal negligence” because they were trying to “run out the clock” and deport Moussaoui, instead of prosecuting him. [Washington Post, 3/21/2006] The 9/11 attacks occur before the deportation can take place (see September 11, 2001).
After failing to obtain a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 28, 2001), the FBI’s Minneapolis field office considers inserting an Arabic speaking undercover officer into Moussaoui’s cell “in an attempt to learn the name or description of the recognized foreign power with whom Moussaoui is aligned.” Minneapolis sees no problem with the idea and contacts the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters about it. RFU chief Dave Frasca replies, “Let us look into this asap. Do NOT go forward with the [undercover officer] until we weigh in…” Frasca then discusses the idea with an expert at the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, who says the proposal is “ridiculous” and should not be implemented. Frasca also tells Minneapolis the idea is problematic because in the event of criminal proceedings the undercover officer will not be in a position to testify. The plan is abandoned and the FBI continues with preparations to deport Moussaoui (see (August 30-September 10, 2001)). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 166-7 ]
FBI headquarters dispatches a memo to the entire US intelligence community summarizing what has been learned about Zacarias Moussaoui. The memo, written by Mike Maltbie, an agent in the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU), reports that the FBI has become suspicious of Moussaoui because he took flight simulation training for a 747 jet, a course normally taken by airline pilots. Moussaoui, who has no flying experience, paid cash for the training, the memo also notes. It also says that Moussaoui has radical Islamic fundamentalist beliefs and has been linked to Chechen militants. However, the memo does not include a threat assessment or indicate that some FBI investigators believe Moussaoui is part of a yet unknown plot to hijack an airplane and use it in a terrorist attack. As a later congressional inquiry will report, the memo fails to “recommend that the addressees take any action or look for any additional indicators of a terrorist attack, nor [does] it provide any analysis of a possible hijacking threat or provide any specific warnings.” [US Congress, 9/24/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 175-6 ] Several days earlier, Maltbie blocked the release of a memo from the FBI’s Minneapolis field office that was addressed to the FAA and did contain a threat assessment (see August 29-September 4, 2001). When the FAA receives the FBI memo, it decides not to issue a security alert to the nation’s airports in response. An FAA representative later explains to the New York Post, “[Moussaoui] was in jail and there was no evidence he was connected to other people.” [New York Post, 5/21/2002] The FBI memo contrasts sharply with an internal CIA warning sent out on August 24. That memo, which was based on less information, warned that Moussaoui might be “involved in a larger plot to target airlines traveling from Europe to the US” (see August 24, 2001). [US Congress, 9/18/2002] It turns out that prior to this time, al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam had started cooperating with investigators. He had trained with Moussaoui in Afghanistan and will willingly share this information after 9/11. The FBI dispatch, with its notable lack of urgency and details, fails to prompt the agents in Seattle holding Ressam to question him about Moussaoui. Had the connection between these two men been learned before 9/11, presumably the search warrant for Moussaoui would have been approved and the 9/11 plot might have unraveled (see Late August-Early September 2001). [Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002]
Two pages from Moussaoui’s notebooks mentioning Ahad Sabet (Ramzi bin al-Shibh’s alias), plus phone number and mention of his residence in Germany. [Source: FBI]Within an hour of the 9/11 attacks, the Minnesota FBI uses a memo written to FBI headquarters shortly after Zacarias Moussaoui’s arrest to ask permission from a judge for the search warrant they have been desperately seeking. After the World Trade Center is hit for the first time at 8:46 a.m., Mike Maltbie of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters calls the Minneapolis field office and talks to FBI agent Coleen Rowley. When Rowley says it is essential they get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings, Maltbie instructs her to take no action, because it could have an impact on matters of which she is not aware. Rowley replies that it would have to be the “hugest coincidence” if Moussaoui were not related to the attack. She will recall that Maltbie replies that coincidence is the right word. Maltbie will later say he does not recall using the word “coincidence” in the conversation. Maltbie then consults Tom Ainora, an attorney at the FBI’s national security law unit, who says Minneapolis should seek the warrant. While Rowley is waiting for Maltbie to call back, one of her colleagues, Chris Briese, talks to RFU chief Dave Frasca. According to Briese, Frasca initially says there is not enough evidence for a criminal warrant, but when they find out the Pentagon has been hit Frasca consents. Frasca will say that he consents immediately. [Time, 5/21/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 178-9 ] Briese later tells Samit that Frasca also initially claims it is just “a coincidence.” [Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/4/2006] A federal judge approves a criminal search warrant this afternoon. [New Yorker, 9/30/2002; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 3/9/2006] The Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters had previously blocked requests for criminal and intelligence search warrants (see August 21, 2001 and August 28, 2001). Rowley will note that this very memo was previously deemed insufficient by FBI headquarters to get a search warrant, and the fact that they are immediately granted one when finally allowed to ask shows “the missing piece of probable cause was only the [FBI headquarters’] failure to appreciate that such an event could occur.” [Time, 5/21/2002] After the warrant is granted, Moussaoui’s belongings are then rushed to an evidence response team, which discovers documents linking Moussaoui to 11 of the hijackers (see August 16, 2001). Rowley later suggests that if they had received the search warrant sooner, “There is at least some chance that… may have limited the September 11th attacks and resulting loss of life.” [Time, 5/27/2002]
Entity Tags: Michael Maltbie, Tom Ainora, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Zacarias Moussaoui, Harry Samit, FBI Minnesota field office, National Security Law Unit, David Frasca, Chris Briese, FBI Headquarters, Coleen Rowley
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
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