The Terrible Missed Chance

By Shenon, Philip | Newsweek, September 12, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Terrible Missed Chance


Shenon, Philip, Newsweek


Byline: Philip Shenon

Exclusive interviews show how FBI headquarters dropped the ball on the last chance to stop 9/11.

Special Agent Harry Samit of the FBI's Minneapolis field office knew he was looking into the eyes of a terrorist. It was early afternoon on Friday, Aug. 17, 2001. Across from him sat Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French-born student arrested the day before for overstaying his visa. Moussaoui had paid more than $8,000 in cash that summer to sit in a cockpit simulator in a flight school in the suburbs of Minneapolis and learn--in a matter of days--the basics of how to fly a 747-400. Samit, a former intelligence officer at the Navy's celebrated Top Gun flight school, felt sure the man across the desk from him was a Muslim extremist who was part of a plot to hijack a commercial jetliner filled with passengers. "The trick," Samit wrote, in a soon-to-be-released excerpt of a book he's written about the case, "was getting Moussaoui to admit this and reveal details and associates to allow us to stop the plot."

Surely, the bureau brass in Washington would share his concern, Samit thought. He was wrong.

That same day, halfway across the country in the fluorescent-lit hallways of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters building in Washington, counterterrorism supervisors were treating Samit's first reports about Moussaoui with skepticism, even contempt. Michael Maltbie, a D.C. counterterrorism specialist, insisted repeatedly in the days after the arrest that there was no clear link between Moussaoui and Al Qaeda--the link needed for a warrant. Maltbie thought Moussaoui was a "dirty bird," he later told investigators, but favored deporting him to France.

Believing a hijacking might be imminent, Samit appealed to his boss in Minneapolis, Special Agent Greg Jones. Jones picked up the phone on Aug. 27 and called Maltbie at FBI HQ.

Moussaoui, he said, might be part of a plot "to get control of an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center or something like that."

Maltbie scoffed. "You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft," Maltbie replied, according to FBI documents. "That is it." (Maltbie declined requests for an interview.)

At least Maltbie was paying attention. Michael Rolince, who ran the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section, was arguably the bureau's most important go-between with the White House on domestic terrorist threats in the summer of 2001. He tells Newsweek he spent "less than 20 seconds" being briefed on the Moussaoui case that August. His office was inundated with terrorism probes, he said; since Moussaoui was in custody already, he posed no immediate threat. "Did it rise to the level of something that I would take upstairs?" Rolince asks. "The answer is no."

At CIA headquarters, alarm bells were ringing loudly. CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on Moussaoui within days of the arrest, receiving a paper with the eye-catching headline "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." But the FBI's acting director that summer and the bureau's most senior counterterrorism official were left in the dark.

The broad outlines of the Moussaoui case are well established. But new disclosures about Samit's story suggest that FBI agents in Minneapolis were much closer to unraveling the 9/11 plot than previously known. A Newsweek investigation shows that the officials directly involved in the case were denied access to a key internal memo--prepared for outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh--that could have allowed the Minneapolis field office to connect the dots and possibly preempt the attacks. Their efforts were thwarted by a group of arrogant, slow-moving supervisors at FBI headquarters.

At the Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., recruiters were intrigued by several emails in 2001 from a prospective student who identified himself only by a pilot's mock call sign--"Zuluzulu Tangoman."

"I was originally told he was a French businessman who had this ego thing--that he wanted to tell friends that he could take off and land a 747," flight instructor Tim Nelson says now, recounting his initial impression of Moussaoui.

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