Zacarias Moussaoui: What We Don’t Know Might Hurt Us

A Significant Stimulus for the Reform that Never Came

By Kevin Fenton


 Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the numerous “20th hijackers,” was arrested ten years ago next Tuesday, outside the Residence Inn in Eagan, Minnesota. The arrest was one of the first events in a case that gave the FBI a chance to blow open the 9/11 plot, but resulted in abject humiliation for the bureau when its headquarters’ string of errors was exposed in the press.

The Moussaoui case is a poster boy for the state of our knowledge about the attacks: we have some of the details, but know some are missing. Also, two key questions remain unanswered. This despite the wealth of information that came out at the trial and the fact that Moussaoui, although largely ignored by the 9/11 Commission’s final report—partly due to the forthcoming trial—was a major topic of the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s pre-attack failings.

mouThese are the bare bones of the case: Moussaoui had been a known extremist for years prior to his arrest. Before the bureau first heard his name on August 15, he had been under surveillance by French and British intelligence and the CIA, although the agency would claim it only knew him under an alias. He was sent to the US for flight training by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, possibly to participate in 9/11, possibly to participate in a follow-up operation. However, he was a poor student and dropped out of basic flight school before obtaining a licence and went to learn about flying a Boeing 747, which aroused suspicion.

When the FBI was brought in, the Minneapolis agents realized he was dangerous and arrested him on an immigration violation—despite being told not to do so by headquarters. This was the first of many times the Minneapolis field office and FBI headquarters clashed over the case. Essentially, even though they did not know he was linked to al-Qaeda, the local agents understood the risk Moussaoui posed—one even speculated he would fly a large airliner into the World Trade Center—and they wanted a warrant to search his belongings to get information that would lead to his accomplices. On the other hand, headquarters seemed to think they were alarmist and there was nothing to the case. They kept throwing up roadblocks.

Although it is uncertain whether Moussaoui would have participated in the 9/11 attacks if he had remained free, or whether he ever met any of the nineteen hijackers, he certainly had very visible links to some of their key associates, such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Yazid Sufaat. These links would have led to eleven of the nineteen. Some of the connections between what Moussaoui had in his possession and the hijackers would have been easy to make. For example, the CIA knew that Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi had stayed at Sufaat’s apartment during al-Qaeda’s January 2000 summit in Kuala Lumpur.

There were four key figures who dealt with the case at FBI headquarters: Rita Flack, an intelligence operations specialist at the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU); Michael Maltbie, a supervisory special agent with the RFU; their unit chief Dave Frasca; and Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to FBI headquarters. Wilshire was either a consultant to Michael Rolince, head of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, or his deputy. Wilshire was also the key figure in the CIA’s withholding of information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the bureau.

These four people somehow managed to convince themselves that the Moussaoui case was a minor matter that deserved little attention and that the Minneapolis agents were, in Flack’s words, “maniacs.” Although very little is known about Wilshire’s involvement in the case, an e-mail used as evidence at the trial shows he shared this attitude; on August 24 he e-mailed his three colleagues asking for the latest on the “Minneapolis Airplane IV crowd,” although it is unclear whether this was a reference to Moussaoui and an associate or the Minneapolis field office.

This is one of the two key questions outstanding: where did this attitude come from? With hindsight, what the Minneapolis agents foresaw was not half as bad as what happened. It was not one airliner that flew into the WTC, but two, with another at the Pentagon and a fourth also aimed for Washington. Given the circumstances of the case, Minneapolis’ fears were reasonable and were shared both by a CIA detailee to the FBI, who predicted Moussaoui may crash a 747 into the White House, and at least one officer in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Given that we still lack information about the interactions between the four participants, we cannot say with whom this bad attitude originated. However, we can say that Wilshire shared and supported it.

It would take too long to summarise all the obstacles thrown up, but here are two examples: when French intelligence reported that, yes, they knew Moussaoui and, yes, he was an Islamist militant, Maltbie objected that maybe they were talking about some other guy with the same name. Therefore, Maltbie argued, the FBI should search all the telephone directories in France to see how many people called Zacarias Moussaoui actually lived there.

The second example involves a comment made by Moussaoui’s imam on a phone monitored by the FBI to the presumed accomplice arrested with him. “I heard you guys wanted to go on jihad,” said the imam. “Don’t talk about that now,” was the reply. Frasca’s response upon learning this? “The jihad comment doesn’t concern me by itself in that this word can mean many things in various [M]uslim cultures and is frequently taken out of context.”

Other roadblocks included Frasca’s ban on Minneapolis applying for a criminal warrant itself, Maltbie blocking a referral to the Justice Department’s criminal division, Flack’s inability to provide the Phoenix memo to anyone else after she read it, the withholding of the relevant documentation from attorneys asked to assess the case, the deletion of key passages from an application for an intelligence warrant, etc., etc.

When the case became public knowledge after the attacks the bureau was a laughing stock—they arrested one of the hijackers (actually more of an associate) over three weeks before the attacks but were unable to even file a warrant application to search his luggage. What’s worse, the bureau was so completely clueless that it even failed to inform its own acting director, Thomas Pickard, of the case. How much more incompetent could it get? This dynamic was made even worse when one of the Minneapolis office employees, Coleen Rowley, went public with her criticism of FBI headquarters, becoming one of Time’s people of the year for 2002.

Logically, if the information came into FBI headquarters, but didn’t get to the acting director, it must have stopped with someone. So who was that someone? The most senior official to be told about the case was Rolince, but he received scant information on it for nearly two weeks. The two people below him were his consultant/deputy Tom Wilshire and RFU chief Dave Frasca and the blame needs to be shared between them. Exactly how it should be apportioned out we don’t know—the relevant reports, by the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, 9/11 Commission, and Justice Department inspector general, are silent on who should carry the can—and the inspector general omits even to mention that not informing the bureau’s director was a failure. This is symptomatic of the reports’ approach—nobody who performed badly was held accountable.

Wilshire’s role in the deliberate withholding of information from the FBI about Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi makes his presence in the Moussaoui case alarming. However, although Wilshire certainly had a malign influence on the case, there is no smoking-gun proof of wilful malfeasance on his part. What we do know, however, is that this case was a significant stimulus for the reform of the US intelligence community. Without knowing what actually happened here and why, we have no way of judging whether those reforms were warranted and appropriate. Perhaps it would have been better to fire those who performed badly, instead of promoting them.

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Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.

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  1. Fantastic article Kevin… here’s a movie I made that covers some of this…

  2. Yes–good article! The post 9-11 obfuscation about these FBI and CIA gaffes also involved a lot of covering for each other. So it took over a year for the Senate Judiciary Committee to learn that the FBI’s National Security Law Unit Chief (Marion “Spike” Bowman) had not actually read the draft declaration of facts submitted by the Minneapolis agents but had relied on a verbal briefing by the HQ Supervisor (probably a short, dismissive briefing at that).

    One of the key problems identified by all the post 9-11 investigations was the failure to share information (in the case of the FBI, internally between field office agents and FBI Headquarters) as well as between agencies (i.e. between the FBI and CIA despite Wilshire’s cross posting). This could be easily fixed if the FISA Court was decentralized instead of being situated in Washington DC (therefore centrally and hierarchically controlled by FBIHQ). The District Judges who sit on the FISA Court are situated all over the United States and there are SKIFs all over now so logistically there’s no reason why the FISA process should not be decentralized down just as Title III Criminal Warrants are.

    The stovepiping of info that exists in hierarchical control systems with emphasis upon secrecy WAS and still IS the problem. In fact it’s probably worse. I don’t even think they changed the rules to mandate that the FBI legal counsel who determines probable cause has to read the draft declaration despite that being one of the glaring problems.

  3. jaredsparks says:

    Recommended reading:
    “The Big Wedding, 911, The Whistleblowers, and the Coverup” by Sandford Hicks

  4. In a week or so Kevin will have 9/11-CIA…Good job, Kevin!

  5. What I find MOST astonishing about this case and the almost willfull blindness of the FBI leadership to the 9/11 plot was that, by 2000, It was already well-known to BOTH the FBI and CIA of Al Qaeda’s plans to use hijacked airliners as weapons from the rolling up of the Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yusuf to seize airliners coming from overseas and crash them into buildings in the US. THAT ALONE should have raised red flags in EVERY FBI field office AND in Washington that such plots were both possible AND probable. The fact that such flags WERE raised my the Minneapolis, Miami and Phoenix field offices gives credit to the agents like Rowley that THEY, at least, were on the ball and doing their jobs. The questions that I think must be asked are,

    1. At what level and by whom were these reports discounted and ignored?

    2. Given the Bojinka plot, why wasn’t the possibility explored that a similar plot using DOMESTIC passenger jets was actually MORE feasible and the appropriate security steps taken to safeguard against such plots?

    3. In the aftermath of 9/11, why, to this day, was NO ONE within EITHER the FBI OR CIA leadership held responsible or accountable?

    People always compare 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, yet what is often forgotten is that Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short, the Navy and Army commanders in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor were BOTH court-martialed even though NEITHER had any actual fault in the attack. I also remind everyone that MORE people were held accountable after the Minot/Barksdale Loose Nukes Episode I’ve written about in these pages than were for 9/11.

  6. When you look thing over and see how things go… eventually there is some kind of sense of… that maybe it is the monsters that are in control. That is the short statement.

  7. There are many people with differing opinions in the so-called truth movement, which I don’t consider myself a “member” of. I just belong to the none-of-it- makes-any-sense movement. First of all, did the flight schools actually just take people from off the streets with no credentials at all and train them to fly giant airliners? Even truck driving schools require some prior experience involving basic skills. They were really going to let these decidedly odd people get their hands on the controls of huge jetliners? I have known several airline pilots, and every one of them had been originally trained by the Air Force or Navy.

    Further, there were systems in place to prevent hijackings, of course. Surely any jetliner that went off course and stopped communicating would be immediately intercepted by a few of the thousands of jet fighter planes stationed all across the U.S. And people with the resources to carry out this reported suicide mission would have figured that out. It has also been widely stated by many in the airline industry that jetliners are equipped with extremely secure electronic systems that allow the military to completely remove control from the pilots, and fly and land the planes by remote control. These systems have been in place for many years. In fact, forty years ago I had a model airplane that I could control and land by remote control!

    If the reported perpetrators knew that the wall between the passengers and the cockpit was made of “Samsonite” and could be breached with box cutters, they would have known that too. So why would they even attempt such a suicide mission? (Quite obviously, that wall should have been made of Kevlar or titanium — yet another ridiculous blunder.) Of course, none of this should have deterred law enforcement from dealing with known suspicious foreigners known to be engaged in blatantly dubious activities.

    I should perhaps note that the X-ray and millimeter wave imagers that have been deployed in response to these attacks are most unlikely to be safe. I used to work in both commercial X-ray and microwave engineering, and I’m pretty sure that equipment that not merely detects, but yeilds actual images from backscatter radiation must not be very sensitive. So the source of the radiation they require must be very intense. Sometimes I’m not quite sure that the people who are supposed to protect up really care about us very much.

  8. idealist707 says:

    Hi Blues,
    Your position reflects mine pretty well. The lack of defense
    jets is called the “stand down issue”, that is why or did the
    government give the military orders to stand down our prepared
    and standard defense capability?
    I don’t know if the WTC commission addressed this issue.

    Secondly, I can not understand that people buying a gun are
    checked out (in some states), whereas people learning to fly
    airliners are not. Seems unreasonable, in terms of public risk.

    As for backscatter, the detection equipment is quite sensitive,
    it’s just the fraction reflected back (backscattered) is such
    a small portion of the emitted power. Thus your conclusion
    is still correct, the people scanned are being subjected to
    a lot of xrays. Comparing it to a couple of visits to the
    dentist is both false and misleading. One, the doseage at TSA check
    is much higher for the reasons you gave, Two, even the dentist
    routinely shields yóur thyroid from radiation with a lead pad—
    at least he should do so.

  9. idealist707 says:

    To Kevin,

    My interpretation is contrary to yours.
    I don’t feel we are dealing with mistakes or
    deliberate malfeasance in performing duties.
    I think they were instead doing absolutely
    their primary duty. What was that`?
    To detect the bosses new orders without him
    giving you explicit orders. As a loyal
    member of the team you know that you will
    be exonerated and promoted if the s–t hits
    the fan. In this case, the order was “lie
    low on any reports of suspected Al Quaida
    activities. they don’t want to hear about
    more just now…..
    So the actual cause was orders from the nebulous
    In addition, like a classic story, the CIA
    liason or consultant’s real agenda was to foil
    detection of Al Quaida agents.

    What would be Georges ultimate motive? (All descends from George)
    Why, it was: don’t capture the agents, let them do their
    appointed (and arranged with bin Ladin) martyr roles,
    allowing us to take down the WTC by demolition, give us a
    scapegoat and a cause to go to war, take away civil
    rights, spy on everybody, and let our sponsors
    get richer and we get a tighter hold on Middle
    East oil—-and let the new (since June 2001) owner
    of WTC make a 4X profit on his deal.
    As Shakespeare said: “All’s well that ends well.”

    What do you say Kevin? Why look for scapegoats, in the
    host of small mice. Go for the prime suspect.
    He did not even know what to do with his face, when filmed
    listening to the school class after being informed.
    They didn’t include that in his training.

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