Ashcroft knew of FBI memo soon after 9/11

He, Mueller did not brief Bush until recently, administration says

May 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert S. Mueller III were told a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks that the FBI had received a memorandum from its Phoenix office the previous July that Osama bin Laden's followers might be training at American flight schools, government officials said yesterday.

But senior Bush administration officials said yesterday that neither Ashcroft nor Mueller briefed President Bush and his national security staff until recently about a Phoenix FBI agent's fears that al-Qaida members were training at U.S. flight schools, though the two men began daily briefings of the president at the White House in the days immediately after the hijackings.

The disclosure that neither Ashcroft nor Mueller told the White House or congressional leaders about the memo once they learned about it shortly after Sept. 11 is likely to magnify criticism of the FBI's performance, including its failure to act on the memo before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Neither Mueller nor Ashcroft have publicly said when they learned of the memorandum dated July 10, but officials said senior law enforcement officials grasped the document's significance as a potentially important missed signal within days of the attacks.

Yesterday, several FBI and Justice Department officials said that in the chaotic days after the attacks, discussions between Ashcroft and Mueller were hurried and that their recollection of events was blurred by the frenetic pace of activity. Some officials said they recalled high-level discussions of how the hijackers had attended U.S. flight schools, but one Justice Department official did not recall a briefing about the memorandum.

Spokesmen for Mueller and Ashcroft would not discuss the issue yesterday. A senior Justice Department official said: "The attorney general was not briefed in any detail or with any specificity about the document known as the Phoenix memo until about a month ago."

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary who was traveling yesterday with the president in Miami, said, "We have nothing that indicates the president had seen or even heard about this memo prior to a few weeks ago."

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said last Thursday that the president had not heard about the memorandum before the hijackings and had only recently learned of it. "I personally became aware of it just recently," Rice said, adding that she asked Mueller and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, to review the matter.

The memo, written by Kenneth Williams, an FBI agent in Phoenix, was sent to FBI headquarters as an electronic computer message July 10. It was reviewed by mid-level supervisors who headed the agency's bin Laden and Islamic extremist counterterrorism units.

But the officials said the memo was never sent to top FBI managers such as Thomas J. Pickard, who was acting director before Mueller took over early last September. Other senior officials were unaware of the memorandum before Sept. 11, including Michael Rolince, who managed the bureau's international terrorism unit, and Dale Watson, his superior, the officials said.

The issue of when top officials knew of the Phoenix memorandum is emerging as a main focus in congressional inquiries getting under way. Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has asked the FBI to identify anyone at the agency who knew about the memo before the attacks.

But lawmakers also want to know when Bush administration officials learned about the memo after the attacks. Some lawmakers have asked whether administration officials were told about the memorandum soon after the attacks but were slow to disclose it.

Several lawmakers, including Richard C. Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have singled out the FBI for blunt criticism after Williams' memorandum came to light several weeks ago.

The Phoenix memorandum is one of two documents under heavy scrutiny by congressional investigators. The other is a daily intelligence report shown to Bush on Aug. 6. The report mentions the threat of al-Qaida members' carrying out hijackings in the United States. The White House has refused to produce the document, and administration officials have said the information was too vague to act on.

Mueller has acknowledged that the bureau's failure to fully evaluate the Phoenix memorandum was an analytical failure that the FBI has tried to correct. "It is a very worthwhile process and a process we are undertaking to change what we do in response to that instance and others where perhaps we did not have the analytical capability," Mueller said at a Judiciary Committee hearing May 8.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.