A key point in unraveling why the FBI failed to follow up leads on Al Qaeda terrorism now centers on the Bureau’s contemptuously brushing aside warnings from French intelligence a few days before 9-11. In a footnote to her May 21, 2002, letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Coleen Rowley, the director of the FBI’s Minneapolis office, cryptically alluded to the FBI supervising agent in Washington being given info on the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, by the French last summer, but choosing not to act on it.
French officials were long known to have been frustrated with Washington’s neglect. Shortly after the attack, Le Monde reported on a meeting between French and U.S. intelligence: “The first lapse has to do with the processing of intelligence items that come out of Europe. According to our information, French and American officials did in fact hold important meetings in Paris from the 5th to the 6th of September, that is, a few days prior to the attacks. Those sessions brought representatives of the American Special Services together with officers of the DST (Directorate of Territorial Security) and military personnel from the DGSE (General Overseas Security Administration).
“Their discussion turned to some of the serious threats made against American interests in Europe, specifically one targeting the U.S. Embassy in Paris,” Le Monde continued. “During these talks, the DST directed the American visitors’ attention to a Moroccan-born Frenchman who had been detained in the United States since August 17 and who was considered to be a key high-level Islamic fundamentalist. But the American delegation, preoccupied above all with questions of administrative procedure, paid no attention to this ‘first alarm,’ basically concluding that they were going to take no one’s advice, and that an attack on American soil was inconceivable. It took September 11 for the FBI to show any real interest in this man, who we now know attended two aviation training schools, as did at least seven of the kamikaze terrorists.”
In her report, Rowley presents a picture of an agency asleep at the wheel. “For example, at one point, the Supervisory Special Agent at FBI HQ posited that the French information could be worthless because it only identified Zacarias Moussaoui by name and he, the SSA, didn’t know how many people by that name existed in France. A Minneapolis agent attempted to surmount that problem by quickly phoning the FBI’s legal attache in Paris, France, so that a check could be made of the French telephone directories. Although the attache did not have access to all of the French telephone directories, he was able to quickly ascertain that there was only one listed in the Paris directory. It is not known if this sufficiently answered the question, for the SSA continued to find new reasons to stall.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 28, 2002