Politics & Policy

Did the FBI Lie to Congress?

A congressman wants to know.

On Capitol Hill today, there are new questions about the truthfulness of testimony given by a top FBI official in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee’s Homeland Defense subcommittee, says he wants to question James T. Caruso, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, about Caruso’s claim that the FBI conducted a “vigorous investigation” of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, in the month prior to Sept. 11.

An article Friday in National Review Online raised doubts about Caruso’s testimony in light of new revelations from Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI counsel who says agents in her office wanted to investigate Moussaoui but were largely thwarted by FBI headquarters. After rereading Caruso’s testimony, given during a hearing last October 3, Chambliss says there are “some problems” with Caruso’s remarks that need to be cleared up.

Caruso told Chambliss’s subcommittee that the FBI had “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.” Caruso also told lawmakers that “information about Moussaoui was shared throughout the intelligence community prior to September 11.”

Today, after the publication of Rowley’s May 21 memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, that testimony appears inaccurate, at best, and deceptive at worst. For example, Caruso said the FBI seized Moussaoui’s computer, but did not mention that agents did not look at the computer’s contents. Caruso also said the FBI contacted foreign officials about Moussaoui, but did not say that it was the Minneapolis agents, and not headquarters, who took that initiative. Caruso said the FBI sought “a number of authorities” under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but did not say that the FBI did not actually seek a FISA warrant; in fact, that warrant request, made by the Minneapolis agents, was shot down at FBI headquarters. Finally, Caruso said the Moussaoui information was “shared throughout the intelligence community,” but the Rowley memo says Minneapolis agents were “chastised” by FBI headquarters when they tried to share their information with the CIA.

Rep. Chambliss says the testimony gave him the wrong impression about the thoroughness of the FBI’s investigation. “When he said they seized [Moussaoui’s] computer, I assumed they meant they had seized his computer and searched his computer,” Chambliss says. “Obviously, that had not taken place.” Looking back on Caruso’s testimony about “seeking a number of authorities” under FISA, Chambliss says simply, “I’m not sure what he meant by that.”

When asked if he feels misled by the testimony, Chambliss answered, “I can’t say that at this point. It’s going to require bringing the FBI in and having them explain this to us.” Chambliss says he has great respect for Caruso and believes Caruso may not have had first-hand knowledge of the Moussaoui case. But he adds, “This was testimony before my subcommittee, and I want to know what he meant by a ‘vigorous investigation’….If somebody told him that they had vigorously investigated the case, I want to know who that was and what they meant by ‘vigorous investigation.’”

Caruso’s testimony, which has received little press attention, was apparently deeply discouraging for Rowley and the other agents in the Minnesota office. While Rowley writes that she was upset to hear FBI Director Robert Mueller say that the bureau had no clues prior to Sept. 11, she was truly angry to learn of Caruso’s testimony. “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.”

Now, Chambliss says his staff is reviewing other testimony by Caruso and other law-enforcement and intelligence officials. That review could raise serious problems for the FBI and other agencies. Not only are the House and Senate intelligence committees studying what law enforcement and intelligence agencies did in the months prior to Sept. 11, lawmakers are also looking at statements made by agency officials in the months after Sept. 11. If lawmakers come to believe that the agencies tried to hide or minimize their pre-Sept. 11 knowledge, it will certainly make the coming investigation more adversarial and could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to criminal investigation as well as a congressional probe.

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