The supervisor said he had no reason to believe Moussaoui was planning such an attack, but made the remark in a frustrated attempt to convince headquarters that a special search warrant was needed to search Moussaoui's computer, investigator Eleanor Hill told a House-Senate committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui is now accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers to commit terrorism, and Hill outlined the Minneapolis FBI's office's repeated and unsuccessful efforts to convince headquarters that he was a possible terrorist.
The supervisor told the committee staff he was "trying to get people at FBI headquarters 'spun up' because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui 'did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center,'" Hill testified.
Hill said the headquarters agent responded, "That's not going to happen. We don't know he's a terrorist. You don't have enough to show he is a terrorist."
The headquarters agent told the investigators he did not recall the conversation.
The bungling was just one in a series of similar episodes uncovered by Congress, reports CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer.
Testifying from behind screens to protect their identity, agents put some of the responsibility on Congress, urging it to give them more resources. One said his own life was now in danger because he believes Congress revealed his name after he testified earlier in a secret session. —
"I believe that al Qaeda would consider me a terrorist target and would want to kill me," said the agent. "Sadly, I can thank the United States Congress for my current situation."
Whatever the case, this is far from over. At the urging of families of 9/11 victims the Senate voted overwhelmingly to create a national commission to conduct an even broader investigation.
Hill also said that a July 2001 memo by an FBI agent warning that Osama bin Laden might send terrorists to the United States for flight training was disregarded by headquarters, which was unaware officials previously tried to identify Middle Eastern flight students in this country.
The investigator said the failure to connect the so-called Phoenix memo with the arrest of Moussaoui a month later — and a general increase of terrorist alerts — represented major intelligence failings before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"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," said Hill.
"But clearly, 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," she said in a report for the committees.
The committees looked into the handling of the Phoenix memo and the Moussaoui case as it held its fourth public hearing into the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Phoenix-based agent, Kenneth Williams, wrote a memo to his superiors in Washington two months before the attacks, suggesting that terrorists might be learning to fly commercial jetliners at U.S. flight schools. He asked for a check of flight schools, but no checks were made.
Williams was not identified by name in the report and was to testify later anonymously. As his own prepared testimony noted, his identity has already been revealed in many news accounts of his memo, which was disclosed earlier this year.
Hill said New York FBI personnel who reviewed the memo found it "speculative and not particularly significant." They said they knew some flight students were affiliated with bin Laden, she said, but believed they were intended to fly goods and personnel in Afghanistan.
Hill wrote that both Williams and the FBI agents in headquarters were unaware that the FBI had received a report in 1998 that a terrorist organization might be planning to bring students to the United States to train at flight schools.
By November 2000, though, an analyst wrote a memo informing FBI offices that he found no evidence of terrorists studying aviation and that further investigation "is deemed imprudent" by FBI headquarters.
Agents involved in the Moussaoui case also were unaware of the Phoenix memo and the earlier investigation.
Moussaoui was arrested by FBI agents in Minnesota on immigration charges in August 2001 after a flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to fly a commercial jet. FBI headquarters denied agents' request to seek a warrant to search his computer. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his prepared testimony, a Minneapolis-based FBI agent blamed legal restrictions, FBI headquarters and the circumstances of the case for impeding a more aggressive investigation of Moussaoui before Sept. 11.
"We are subject to human factors and limitations and are occasionally hamstrung by legal constraints, both real and imagined," the unidentified agent said.
Lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors since June, but public hearings were delayed until last week, partly because of questions about what information could be revealed in the Moussaoui case.
Justice Department officials were concerned that details of the case disclosed at the hearings could undermine the prosecution. Also, court rules prohibit prosecutors from revealing information about the case that could become public.
In two reports at last week's hearings, Hill outlined missed counterterrorism opportunities before the attacks.