WASHINGTON - An FBI agent who feared that terrorists might be training at U.S. flight schools to fly commercial jets was on the trail of an associate of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers in the months before the attacks, a congressional report said yesterday.
The agent, Kenneth Williams, wrote a now well-publicized memo to FBI headquarters in the summer of 2001, outlining his concern that Osama bin Laden might be using U.S. aviation schools to train operatives for a terrorist attack. The report released yesterday indicated for the first time just how close that memo might have come to uncovering the Sept. 11 plot.
Williams, who worked in the FBI's office in Phoenix, Ariz., sought permission to investigate several suspected al-Qaida operatives, especially one who had close ties to men on the government's terrorist watch list.
But according to the report, his memo was disregarded at FBI headquarters, where it was passed back and forth among units and agents for about a week until it was shelved altogether.
Once the bureau revisited the memo after the attacks, the report says, agents determined that the unnamed operative Williams was looking into had been closely associated with Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have been the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The report says the FBI now believes that Hanjour and the operative trained together at a flight school in Arizona, possibly attended religious services and carpooled together and, on one occasion, the school's flight logs show, flew on the same plane.
"These associations continue to raise questions about the FBI's knowledge and understanding of the radical fundamentalist network in the United States prior to Sept. 11," said Eleanor Hill, staff director of the congressional inquiry into U.S. intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks.
"Our review of the circumstances surrounding the Phoenix memo reveals a number of weaknesses at the FBI that, if left uncorrected, will continue to undercut counter-terrorist efforts."
It is unclear where the suspected operative is now, though he is not believed to be in the United States.
The Phoenix memo's close connection to the Sept. 11 plot was one of a few new revelations yesterday that, combined with others that have emerged in recent months, suggest that the FBI mishandled hints of an impending terrorist attack.
The report said the bureau was consumed by a "focus on short-term operational priorities, often at the expense of long-term strategic analysis," which, it argued, often prevented it from communicating properly among agents, analyzing the information it had and recognizing its significance.
Yesterday's report also took issue with the bureau's handling of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected would-be 20th hijacker. The report said officials at FBI headquarters failed to understand the legal requirements needed for a warrant to search Moussaoui's computer and apartment before the attacks and should have approved the Minneapolis field office's request for the warrant.
Agents in the FBI's Minneapolis office, who were investigating Moussaoui, tried repeatedly to persuade the agency's headquarters to pay attention to their investigation and to approve the warrant request, which it would not do.
At one point, according to the report, an agent in Minneapolis became so frustrated that he told a headquarters agent he wanted to make sure that Moussaoui "did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center."
The Minneapolis agent told congressional investigators that the headquarters agent replied: "That's not going to happen. We don't know he's a terrorist. You don't have enough to show he's is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft - that is it."
The headquarters agent told congressional investigators that he did not recall the conversation, according to the report.
Lawmakers on the joint House and Senate committee investigating the attack seemed frustrated by the failure to determine exactly who at the FBI had mishandled their responsibilities in the months before the attacks.
Lawmakers repeatedly asked to whom the Phoenix memo had gone and who had dealt with the Moussaoui case.
But in most cases the answer was elusive. Memos changed hands frequently, and multiple supervisors were needed to sign off on search warrants and investigative requests.
The Phoenix memo, the report says, was one of 68,000 terrorism-related leads the FBI has in its computer system that have still not been pursued. FBI officials told the committee, though, that that figure might be overstated because agents often pursue leads without using the agency's computer system.
Some such leads that might have fallen through include several examples that congressional investigators found in the FBI's files of terrorist groups sending operatives before the Sept. 11 plot to the United States to attend flight schools.
In 1998 the FBI received reports that a terrorist group that had conducted surveillance and security tests at airports was planning to send students to enroll, though there is no indication that the group did so.
In 1999, an FBI counter-terrorism unit sent out a memo warning that another group was planning something similar. And, as has been disclosed, in 1998 the chief pilot of the FBI's Oklahoma field office contacted an agent in the counter-terrorism squad to express his concerns that terrorists might be using U.S. aviation schools.
Williams, who has been widely identified, and an agent from the Minneapolis office appeared before the committee with a headquarters' supervisor behind a partition. Williams complained that his identity has not been properly concealed by lawmakers and that he was asked to testify in open session.
But Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is one of the co-chairmen of the committee, defended the committee's actions and the need to keep as much information as possible in the open.
"I think we owe it to the American people to let them see what the problems are," Shelby said outside the hearing. "Without their support, we'll have a tougher time changing" the intelligence agencies.
"The bureau has grossly failed to have any fusion of information," the senator said. "The FBI shouldn't be trying to make excuses. What happened with the Phoenix memo and the Moussaoui case was not a matter of resources but rather a lack of judgment."
Hill, the staff director of the congressional inquiry, said:
"No one will ever know whether a greater focus on the connection between these events would have led to the unraveling of the Sept. 11 plot.
"But clearly," she said, reading from the report, "it might have drawn greater attention to the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United States, generated a heightened state of alert regarding such attacks, and prompted more aggressive investigation and intelligence-gathering regarding the information our government did possess prior to Sept. 11."