Judge considers release of report said to take FBI to task over Sept. 11

Lawyers for Moussaoui worry about document

February 13, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A federal judge is weighing whether to make public a Justice Department report that officials say is sharply critical of the FBI for failing to piece together leads before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a court filing dated Feb. 1, the Justice Department inspector general's office asked a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., for permission to release a declassified version of the report, which the inspector general completed in July after investigating the FBI's handling of intelligence related to the attacks in 2001.

But defense lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui, an admitted member of al-Qaida who is the only person charged in a U.S. court in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, are worried that the public release of the report - which deals in part with Moussaoui's case - could compromise his ability to get a fair trial and an unbiased jury, officials said.

Moussaoui's lawyers filed a sealed motion last week addressing their concerns to Leonie M. Brinkema, the federal judge in Virginia who is handling Moussaoui's long-stalled trial.

Declassified report

Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, gave Brinkema a declassified version of his FBI report to review this month, and she must decide whether it can be released publicly in its entirety, as Fine is seeking.

The decision comes at a time of stepped-up scrutiny over the federal government's secrecy in classifying important material, particularly documents relating to terrorism.

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration filed with the National Archives a declassified report from the Sept. 11 commission that detailed the failings of the Federal Aviation Administration in preparing for threats before Sept. 11.

But commission members say they believe the entire aviation report should now be made public.

Fine's report focuses on the FBI's inability to piece together disparate strands of intelligence that might have led investigators to militants involved in the Sept. 11 hijackings, officials who have been briefed on the report said.

"It's a very critical, very thorough and, overall, very fair look at the FBI and where things went wrong before 9/11," said a former government official who had read portions of the report but spoke on the condition of anonymity because it remains classified.

Failure to follow leads

Officials who have read the classified version of the report, which totals several hundred pages, said it focused largely on missteps by the FBI in failing to follow leads adequately before the Sept. 11 attacks: in Minneapolis, where Moussaoui was jailed after acting suspiciously at a flight training school; in Phoenix, where an FBI agent warned about the prospect of militants training at flight schools; and in San Diego, where two of the Sept. 11 hijackers who were on a watch list had been living.

All three episodes have been fairly well covered before - both by the Sept. 11 commission in its final report last summer and by a joint House-Senate intelligence committee investigation before that.

But Fine's report is considered the most comprehensive investigation to focus exclusively on the FBI in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, and officials say the investigation's lessons, if made public, may prove critical in ensuring that the bureau is able to remake itself as a first line of defense against terrorism.

The FBI, which along with the CIA has borne the brunt of criticism for failing to deter the Sept. 11 attacks, has worked for the past three years to strengthen its intelligence-gathering and analytical abilities to prevent another attack.

Reforms questioned

But some members of Congress and outside experts have questioned the pace of the bureau's reforms, particularly in light of the FBI's recent failure to develop a usable computer software system to file, search and link its active investigations.

FBI officials said they were unconcerned by the prospect that the inspector general's report could become public.

"The investigation didn't really find any new facts," said a senior FBI official who had read the classified version and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The FBI official said the investigation had not revealed anything that could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Could we have done better?" the official asked. "Yes, but we can't change what's happened. The real issue is that we're moving forward and that we're taking steps to better coordinate our counter-terrorism efforts."

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