OF the case of Zacarias Moussaoui—who is now being held in detention in
New York—has raised new questions about how U.S. law enforcement officials
handled critical intelligence that, in retrospect, might have alerted them
in advance to the deadliest terrorist plot in U.S. history.
|| Sources familiar
with the case tell NEWSWEEK that FBI agents in Minneapolis seized
Moussaoui’s computer in mid-August after officials at an Eagan, Minn.,
flight school tipped them off that the 33-year-old French citizen was
acting suspiciously. Moussaoui had sought training only in making
turns—not take-offs and landings—and specifically asked about flying over
New York air space, officials said.
while Moussaoui himself was placed in detention on minor immigration
charges on August 17, agents in Minneapolis were never given approval by
Justice Department officials in Washington to open up the hard drive on
the suspect’s computer. The Minneapolis agents sought approval to do
so—and to take other investigative steps aimed at Moussaoui—in early
September under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),
officials said. This came after a FBI “trace”—a request for information
from friendly foreign governments—yielded a report from French
intelligence that Moussaoui had been associated with members of an
Algerian terrorist group and may have traveled to Afghanistan.
|| When agents
finally cracked into the computer hard drive after the Sept. 11 attack,
officials found new information that only made them more suspicious about
Moussaoui. Among the contents, sources said, was data on “wind patterns”
relating to crop-dusters as well as a wealth of other information he had
pulled down from the Internet involving crop-dusting aircraft.
The information was considered sufficiently alarming
that FBI officials requested the immediate downing of all crop-dusting
aircraft, fearing that terrorists might be plotting to use them for a
chemical or biological attack. (The planes have since been allowed to
fly—but not over urban areas.)
moment he was detained more than six weeks ago, Moussaoui has consistently
refused to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement and many officials are now
highly suspicious of his conduct. One widely held theory among the law
enforcement community is that Moussaoui—who entered the country only last
February after living in London—was supposed to have been the fifth
hijacker on the United Airlines flight that crashed in southwest
Pennsylvania, the only one of the four seized that day that had only four,
instead of five, hijackers aboard.
there is still no consensus on the matter. “The bottom line is that nobody
in the intelligence community has been able to figure out what this guy
was up to,” said one official.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack, the rejection of the
FISA warrant has produced tension between field agents in Minneapolis and
their Justice Department and FBI superiors in Washington. Officials in
Washington are adamant that there was insufficient grounds to approve the
warrant based on what was produced by Minneapolis agents. “There does not
seem to be any disagreement that the legal standards [for a FISA warrant]
weren’t met,” said one top U.S. law enforcement official. The law requires
the bureau to show evidence that the suspect is an “agent” of a foreign
power or terrorist group, something the Minneapolis field agents never
had, the officials said.
But other law enforcement officials are equally insistent that a
more aggressive probe of Moussaoui—when combined with other intelligence
in the possession of U.S. agencies—might have yielded sufficient clues
about the impending plot. “The question being asked here is if they put
two and two together, they could have gotten a lot more information about
the guy—if not stopped the hijacking,” said one investigator.
© 2001 Newsweek,