In her indictment of the FBI’s handling of alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, Minneapolis FBI counsel Coleen Rowley accuses top bureau management of trying to cover the FBI’s bureaucratic backside. But it may be much worse than that. A look at testimony about the Moussaoui case given to Congress by a top FBI official last October suggests the FBI’s statements were so carefully worded that they appeared intended to deceive lawmakers.
Recent press accounts have focused on Rowley’s anger at statements made by FBI Director Robert Mueller in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. “You, Director Mueller, made the statement to the effect that if the FBI had only had any advance warning of the attacks, we (meaning the FBI) may have been able to take some action to prevent the tragedy,” Rowley wrote in her May 21 memo to Mueller. Angered by such statements — Rowley knew that agents in Minneapolis had clues that Moussaoui was involved in something suspicious — Rowley writes that she feared Mueller’s words “could easily come back to haunt the FBI upon revelation of the information that had been developed pre-September 11 about Moussaoui.” Accordingly, Rowley and others tried to contact top-level FBI officials to make sure they knew all about the Moussaoui investigation.
But what really appears to have angered Rowley, however, were statements made later by the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, James T. Caruso, who also suggested that the FBI had no clues prior to September 11. “When similar comments were made weeks later, in Assistant Director Caruso’s congressional testimony in response to the first public leaks about Moussaoui,” Rowley writes, “we faced the sad realization that the remarks indicated someone, possibly with your [Mueller's] approval, had decided to circle the wagons at FBI Headquarters in an apparent effort to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny.”
A look at Caruso’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee’s Homeland Defense Subcommittee last October 3 suggests that the FBI’s desire to “circle the wagons” included making statements that, if taken on their face, could well have misled Congress about what happened in the Moussaoui case. This is what Caruso said:
The media has focused on an individual in Minneapolis who has been detained since August 17 on Immigration charges. It has been suggested that this individual, Zacarias Moussaoui, was training to be the fifth hijacker on the flight that crashed into Pennsylvania. Media accounts also suggest that the FBI did not actively investigate Moussaoui until after the September 11 attacks. The FBI conducted vigorous investigation of Moussaoui upon learning of his detention in mid-August to include seizing his computer, contacting foreign officials for additional information and seeking a number of authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, to conduct further investigation.
In addition, information about Moussaoui was shared throughout the intelligence community prior to September 11. Although the Department of Justice and the FBI agreed there was insufficient evidence to establish that Moussaoui was an agent of a foreign power or terrorists group as required by the FISA warrant, the FBI pursued all reasonable and lawful investigative steps since mid-August.
Caruso said the FBI did three things: 1) it seized Moussaoui’s computer, 2) it sought information from foreign officials, and 3) it sought “a number of authorities” under FISA. Two of those claims appear to be seriously misleading. In the first instance, while the FBI did seize Moussaoui’s computer, agents were not able to examine its contents without a warrant (in fact, the computer was not examined before September 11). On the issue of a warrant, the FBI did not seek either a court warrant or a warrant from the special FISA court to search the computer, as Caruso suggested when he said the FBI sought “a number of authorities” under FISA. Instead, according to Rowley, the Minnesota agents’ requests for a FISA warrant were stopped inside the FBI bureaucracy. (One part of Caruso’s testimony appears to be accurate: The FBI did seek information from foreign-intelligence sources, although it was the Minnesota agents, not headquarters.) Finally, on the question of whether the Moussaoui information was “shared throughout the intelligence community,” as Caruso said, Rowley writes that when Minneapolis agents tried to tell the CIA about Moussaoui, they were “chastised” by FBI headquarters.
In an interview with National Review Online, an FBI spokesman defended Caruso’s testimony as accurate, saying the FBI did indeed seize Moussaoui’s computer (although agents did not examine its contents). As for the FISA warrant, the spokesman said only that “there is a series of approvals” involved before a case is turned over to a FISA court, and that “what happened is all subject to review right now.”