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Ashcroft learned { May 21 2002 }

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May 21, 2002
Ashcroft Learned of Agent's Alert Just After 9/11 but Bush Was Not Told

ASHINGTON, May 20 Attorney General John Ashcroft and the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, were told a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks that the F.B.I. had received a memorandum from its Phoenix office the previous July warning that Osama bin Laden's followers could be training at American flight schools, government officials said today.

But senior Bush administration officials said neither Mr. Ashcroft nor Mr. Mueller briefed President Bush and his national security staff until recently about the Phoenix memorandum. Nor did they tell Congressional leaders.

The disclosure is certain to magnify criticism of the F.B.I.'s performance, including its failure to act on the memorandum before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The two men have not said publicly when they learned of the July 10 memorandum, but the officials said that within days of the attacks senior law enforcement officials grasped the document's significance as a potentially important missed signal.

Today, several F.B.I. and Justice Department officials said that in the chaotic days after the attacks, discussions between Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller were hurried and that their recollection of events were somewhat blurred by the frenetic pace of activity. Some officials said they recalled high-level discussions about how the hijackers had attended American flight schools, but one Justice Department official did not recall a briefing about the memorandum.

Spokesmen for Mr. Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft would not discuss the issue today. A senior Justice Department official said, "The attorney general was not briefed in any detail or with any specificity about the document known as the Phoenix memo until about a month ago."

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, who was traveling today with the president in Miami, said, "We have nothing that indicates the president had seen or even heard about this memo prior to a few weeks ago."

Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said last Thursday that the president had not heard about the memorandum before the hijackings and had only recently learned of it. "I personally became aware of it just recently," Ms. Rice said, adding that she had asked Mr. Mueller and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, to review the matter.

The Phoenix memorandum, written by Kenneth Williams, an agent in Phoenix, was sent to F.B.I. headquarters as an electronic computer message on July 10. It was reviewed by midlevel supervisors, who headed the agency's bin Laden and Islamic extremist counterterrorism units.

But the officials said the memorandum was never sent to top F.B.I. managers, including Thomas J. Pickard, who was acting director in the summer of 2001 before Mr. Mueller took over early in September. Other senior officials were unaware of the memorandum before Sept. 11, including Michael Rolince, who managed the bureau's international terrorism unit, and Dale Watson, his superior, the officials said.

The issue of when top officials knew of the Phoenix memorandum is emerging as a main focus in Congressional inquiries getting under way. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has asked the F.B.I. to identify anyone at the agency who knew about the memorandum before the attacks.

But lawmakers also want to know when Bush administration officials learned about the memorandum after the attacks. Some lawmakers have asked whether administration officials were told about it soon after the attacks, but were slow to disclose it.

Several lawmakers, including Richard C. Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have already singled out the F.B.I. for blunt criticism after Mr. Williams's memorandum came to light several weeks ago.

The Phoenix memorandum is one of two documents under heavy scrutiny by Congressional investigators. The other is a daily intelligence report, shown to Mr. Bush on Aug. 6. The report mentions the threat of Qaeda members' carrying out hijackings in the United States. The White House has refused to produce the document, and administration officials have said that the information was too vague to act on.

Mr. Mueller has acknowledged that the bureau's failure to evaluate the Phoenix memorandum fully was an analytical failure that the F.B.I. has tried to correct.

"It is a very worthwhile process and a process we are undertaking to change what we do in response to that instance and others where perhaps we did not have the analytical capability," Mr. Mueller said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 8.

"We did not have the people who were looking at the broader picture to put the pieces in place," he said, adding that nothing in the memorandum would have enabled the F.B.I. to thwart the attacks.

The memorandum remains classified, and much of its contents are unknown. But officials have confirmed that it expressed concern that Mr. bin Laden and other groups could be using the flight schools to prepare for terror attacks. It urged F.B.I. officials to check the visas of foreigners at American aviation academies. But no action was taken before Sept. 11.

The memorandum was sent to counterterrorism offices in two cities one copy went to John O'Neill, then the top counterterrorism agent in the F.B.I.'s New York office. Mr. O'Neill retired from the F.B.I. in late August. He had just begun a job as the security chief of the World Trade Center when he was killed in the attacks.

Usually, internal investigative proposals that involve agencywide resources are reviewed by high F.B.I. officials. But in this case F.B.I. officials have said that officials who read the memorandum were distracted by other cases, a plot against American interests in France and the investigation of the attack in October 2000 on the destroyer Cole.

Two or three days after the attacks, Dale Watson, who was then assistant director for counterterrorism, brought the memorandum to the attention of Mr. Pickard, who had returned to his job as deputy director after a stint as acting director, officials said.

Mr. Pickard and several other agents then briefed Mr. Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft on its existence, the officials said.

The Phoenix agent's memorandum was not based on intelligence but on concerns and recommendations based on "conjecture and assumptions," said a senior official who has read it.

"There appeared to be a lot of Middle Eastern guys taking flying lessons in the Phoenix area," the official said. "This was just a good investigator taking a look at something. It was pure hunch."

For that reason, the official speculated that the memorandum had not set off strong alarms among other law enforcement officials who had reviewed it at the bureau.

Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency have said that they did not receive a copy of the memorandum until several weeks ago. But F.B.I. officials have said that the names of Middle Eastern men in the Phoenix area who were identified in the memorandum, were referred to the C.I.A. in the summer of 2001.

F.B.I. officials have said that the C.I.A. reported back that none of the men appeared to be connected to Al Qaeda.

Intelligence officials, however, have said that two or three of the men have recently been linked to the Qaeda network. These men remain at large, the officials said.

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