The warnings from Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams in July 2001 seemed to foretell the carnage that would come two months later, when 19 hijackers launched the worst act of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil.
But as with more than a dozen similar intelligence reports that had come in the six years before, the warning was largely ignored, relegated to a dead-end file deep within the FBI bureaucracy.
It was only after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, that Williams' memo reached the highest echelons of the FBI and other intelligence agencies. By then more than 3,000 people were dead.
Two of the hijackers, Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi, had lived in Arizona. Neither is mentioned in the Williams memo.
Williams raised the possibility that disciples of Osama bin Laden were training at flight schools in Arizona when he sent the memo July 10, 2001. He asked for intensive analysis of his theory in the intelligence community and for an investigation of students taking flight lessons across the nation.
But within a month of being sent, the memo was dismissed by counterterrorism specialists at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., amid concerns about the legality of the actions it proposed and the fear that it might amount to racial profiling.
There are also indications that even Williams did not aggressively pursue his own hunches after sending the memo, which he marked “routine.”
The way the FBI handled the so-called “Phoenix memo” is symptomatic of the agency's failure to critically analyze intelligence information that might have pointed to the attacks being planned by bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network, according to a recently released congressional report.
Williams would not consent to an interview with the Tribune for this story. Susan Herskovits, spokeswoman for the FBI in Phoenix, refused to discuss his memo.
But according to a 838-page congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI's traditional “case-oriented” approach gave high priority to investigations that would eventually lead to criminal prosecutions in court. Analytical intelligence, like that offered in the Phoenix memo, was haphazard or nonexistent, according to the report, which documents the findings of a joint House-Senate investigative committee.
Even Williams said counterterrorism was the “bastard stepchild” of the FBI. He told the congressional committee that he had little hope that his memo would generate much interest when he sent it.
“At the time that I am sending this in, having worked this stuff for 13 years, and watched the unit in action over the years, I knew that this was going to be at the bottom of the pile, so to speak,” Williams testified.
Williams was right. The Phoenix memo was relegated to the bottom of the intelligence file after he sent it to counterterrorism squads in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
In Arizona, Williams apparently did not pursue his own recommendations.
Representatives of Arizona flight schools, including the one specifically mentioned in the Phoenix memo, say they were not contacted by the FBI about the possibility that terrorists were honing their piloting skills at aviation academies in the state in the months leading up to the attacks.
Gwen Raubolt, spokeswoman for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, said administrators at that flight school were not questioned about Middle Eastern students taking flight lessons until after the Sept. 11 attacks. Embry-Riddle is specifically mentioned in the Phoenix memo.
Duncan Hastie, owner of CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, said he was asked by an FBI agent, possibly Williams, before the attacks whether there was an unusually high number of Middle Eastern students taking lessons. But the agent did not seek any specific information and made no mention of possible terrorism training during the brief conversation, Hastie said.
The congressional report shows Williams did not send his memo to counterterrorism squads in other field offices throughout the country. That is something he should have done if he believed students at aeronautical schools posed a potential terrorism threat, said John Vincent, a former counterterrorism specialist with the FBI who retired in January after 27 years with the bureau.
Vincent has publicly criticized the bureau for not being aggressive in pursuing counterterrorism investigations, even after the Sept. 11 attacks. He now works for Judicial Watch, a private government watchdog group.
Instead of sending his memo to other field offices, Williams appears to have dropped the matter when he did not get a response from Washington, a “deep, dark hole” for intelligence information, Vincent said.
“There are agents I have seen that would have been on that like a bulldog and never let it go,” Vincent said of the Williams memo. “If they didn't get a response from Washington, they would have sent the communication to every field office in the FBI. That's routine.
“An agent with the experience that Ken Williams had, there is no supervisor that could have stopped him if he wanted to proceed. It was all in his ballpark. The bottom line is, he reported it. But I don't think he thought it was serious.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the congressional committee that Williams' memo should have more widely distributed.
“The Phoenix memo should have been disseminated to all field offices and to our sister agencies, and it should have triggered a broader analytical approach,” Mueller said.
Vincent said criticisms of the FBI in the congressional report match his experience. The attitude in Washington and in field offices was that criminal cases which generate impressive statistics are the top priority, he said. Intelligence work, which may never lead to a criminal prosecution but might prevent a terrorist attack, is given low priority, he said.
While the congressional report praises Williams as one of the few people in the FBI who showed analytical thinking that is lacking in the bureau, it does conclude that if the Phoenix memo had been more widely circulated it might have allowed agents to crack the developing plot.
Since 1995, there was a continual stream of intelligence from U.S. agencies that bin Laden was recruiting followers in the United States, that terrorists might be using American flight schools for training, and that bin Laden had plans to use hijacked aircraft as weapons, according to the report.
One critical report received in 1999 was strikingly similar to Williams' memo. The FBI had received information that a terrorist organization was planning to send students to the United States for aviation training. That report was sent to 24 FBI field offices, including Phoenix, for investigation.
Williams told the congressional committee he was unaware of most of the earlier reports, including the briefings that described a plot similar to the Sept. 11 attacks. He was aware of the 1995 intelligence that bin Laden wanted to crash a hijacked airplane into CIA headquarters.
The information in the Phoenix memo would have been particularly useful to the FBI field office in Minneapolis, according to the congressional report. In August 2001, agents in Minneapolis arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, who federal authorities now describe as the “20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11 plot. Moussaoui was enrolled in flight training in Minnesota. But since the Phoenix memo was not forwarded to the Minneapolis field office, no connection was made to the possibility of a wider plot, according to the report.
“Although relevant information that is significant in retrospect regarding the attacks was available to the intelligence community prior to September 11, 2001, the community too often failed to focus on that information and consider and appreciate its collective significance in terms of a probable terrorist attack,” the report concludes.