FBI Erred Widely in Moussaoui Probe, Report Says
'Numerous Systemic Problems' Kept Agency From Discovering al-Qaeda Operative's Role Before 9/11

By Jerry Markon and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The FBI's mistakes in the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui extended from headquarters officials who dismissed the threat posed by the al-Qaeda operative down to field agents and even a prominent FBI whistle-blower, according to a government report made public yesterday.

The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said "numerous systemic problems" within the bureau prevented the FBI from unraveling Moussaoui's role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror plot when he was arrested a month before the attacks. Moussaoui later became the only person charged in a U.S. courtroom in connection with the attacks. He was sentenced to life in prison last month.

Fine concluded that senior FBI managers failed to move aggressively to gain a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings before Sept. 11. But unlike previous public criticisms of the FBI's bungling of the case -- which have focused on senior FBI managers in Washington -- Fine's analysis said there was plenty of blame to go around.

The inspector general said former FBI lawyer Colleen Rowley, who gained fame as a whistle-blower when she pointed out the errors by headquarters, had failed to properly guide agents on what type of search warrant to seek.

He said agents in Minneapolis, who have been hailed for warning supervisors about Moussaoui, rushed to open an intelligence investigation before realizing that they would need a criminal search warrant. The so-called "wall" that existed at the time between intelligence and criminal investigators has been blamed for the failure to examine Moussaoui's belongings until after Sept. 11.

Ultimately, Fine concluded, no FBI policies or procedures were violated in the Moussaoui investigation. "It is important to state that we did not conclude that any FBI employee committed intentional misconduct, or that anyone attempted to deliberately 'sabotage' " the investigation, Fine wrote.

His probe was triggered by a 2002 letter from Rowley to FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, which accused FBI headquarters of deliberately undercutting the Minneapolis agents. Most of the report was released last year; the Moussaoui portion was withheld until the conclusion of his death penalty trial.

In a statement, the FBI emphasized that Fine had "dismissed any instances of intentional wrongdoing by FBI employees or any violation of FBI policies or practices" and found there was no attempt by FBI headquarters "to intentionally thwart the efforts" of Minneapolis agents.

Intelligence and other reforms since Sept. 11, the bureau added, have left the FBI "much better positioned today to detect and prevent terrorism."

Rowley, in an interview yesterday, accepted blame for failing to push FBI headquarters to authorize a search warrant. "When the agents met some roadblocks," she said, "I should have picked up the phone and argued."

But Rowley, who retired from the FBI in 2004 and is now running for a congressional seat in Minnesota, said she was "proud that I had the guts to bring up" the mistakes. "I think it accomplished something," she said.

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 on immigration charges in Minnesota, and agents there soon concluded that he was a potential hijacker. But they could not persuade supervisors to seek either a criminal or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings.

The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks singled out the FBI's handling of Moussaoui as a key missed opportunity to stop the hijackings. Fine's report, however, concluded that under FBI procedures at the time, persuading a judge to issue a warrant was not a "slam dunk."

The previously released version of Fine's report called the FBI's inability to detect the Sept. 11 plot a "significant failure," finding that a warning about possible flight training by terrorists was mishandled and that the FBI missed five distinct opportunities to identify two of the suicide hijackers.

The FBI's pre-Sept. 11 failures were also a major focus at Moussaoui's recent trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Prosecutors said that Moussaoui deserved to die because he lied to the FBI and that the plot could have been stopped if he had told agents what he knew. Defense attorneys argued that the FBI ignored numerous warning signs before Sept. 11 and would have failed to act on Moussaoui's information as well.

Jurors would up voting 11 to 1 for death on one of the three counts against Moussaoui. The one holdout juror told The Washington Post that he dismissed the defense argument about the bureau because "the FBI wasn't on trial. Moussaoui was."

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