The FBI was under intense pressure yesterday to explain why its top officials had apparently stymied efforts by their own agents to investigate a long and clear pattern of evidence that Islamic extremists were plotting terror attacks on US soil.
In a letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent in Minnesota who tipped off her superiors last August to the activities of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged '20th hijacker' and the sole person charged in the 11 September attacks, accused the agency of operating in 'a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive... law enforcement action'.
In a scathing indictment, Rowley accused her supervisor of altering her application to investigate Moussaoui in order to play down the significance of information provided by French intelligence that Moussaoui was a suspected terrorist - not merely a radical Islamic fundamentalist.
Rowley accused Mueller of making 'misleading' statements on how the FBI handled the Moussaoui case before and after 11 September, and claimed Mueller had covered up FBI mistakes.
Rowley said she and her Minneapolis colleagues came to the 'sad realization that someone, possibly with your approval, had decided to circle the wagons at FBI headquarters in an apparent attempt to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny. I have deep concerns that a delicate and subtle shading - skewing of facts by you and others at the highest levels of FBI management - has occurred and is occurring.'
In Washington, there is growing fury at the daily revelations of FBI incompetence and accusations of trying to deflect responsibility. Senator Charles E. Grassley, a frequent FBI critic, expressed outrage after he learned of the letter. 'Director Mueller can label this letter classified but a cover-up is not going to work,' he said.
Furthermore, Rowley disputes FBI claims that their failure to act last summer did not make a difference in preventing the attacks. After her application to investigate Moussaoui was turned down, Rowley took her suspicions to the CIA. She was later reprimanded for going to the rival agency.
The impression of incompetence at FBI headquarters in Washington is further underscored by new revelations that Rowley's 'Minnesota memo' was sent to the same counter-terrorism supervisor who received the now infamous 'Phoenix memo' that warned of Arab nationals enrolled in flight schools who should be urgently investigated.
For unknown reasons, David Frasca, who heads the FBI's Radical Fundamentalist Unit, did not see Agent Kenneth Williams's 'Phoenix memo' until after 11 September, officials said yesterday. A congressional official who asked not to be identified said lawmakers will seek to determine whether Frasca did in fact see Williams's memo and why his unit never adequately linked Williams's suspicions to the Moussaoui case.
Why Frasca did not see the Phoenix memo is likely to be the key question in a congressional intelligence committee inquiry into the spectacular failure of intelligence and interpretation in the months before the World Trade Center attacks.
As one congressional source said, the two cases were 'at the same desk. You'd think they could have put it together. The only explanations can be that either [Frasca] did not make the mental connection or he did not read a memo that was addressed to him'.
Williams has accused his superiors of ignoring abundant evidence that Middle Eastern extremists were operating in Arizona. In a letter written five months before the Phoenix memo last July, he complained that counter-terrorism was 'the lowest investigative priority in the Phoenix Division'.
As far back as 1994, Williams wrote, his office had evidence of Islamic potential terrorists operating in the region. That year agents were monitoring a Phoenix FBI informant who had been recruited as a suicide bomber, he said. One of those recruiting the informant, according to a source, was linked to a terrorist involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002