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Archive for Saturday, May 4, 2002

New flight school warning revealed

FBI was considering how to react to alert when terrorists struck

May 4, 2002

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— Last summer, the FBI in Arizona alerted Washington that several Arabs were suspiciously training at a U.S. aviation school and urged that agents nationwide contact other schools where Middle Easterners might be studying.

The FBI sent the intelligence in July 2001 to its terrorism experts for analysis and was considering a nationwide canvass of flight schools when the suicide hijackers struck, officials told The Associated Press.

The bureau had not yet alerted other federal agencies, such as those that handle pilot licenses or immigration visas, although its Phoenix office recommended sharing the information, officials concede.

"FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix's suspicions," an Arizona counterterrorism agent recommended in a July 2001 memo to FBI headquarters that was obtained by the AP.

At least one leader of the 19 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, received flight training in Arizona, but his name had not surfaced with the Arizona FBI memo, officials said.

None of the information in the Arizona memo pointed to the suicide plot that leveled the World Trade Center and killed thousands in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, officials said.

"None of the people identified by Phoenix are connected to the Sept. 11 attacks," FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood said.

"The Phoenix communication went to appropriate operational agents and analysts, but it did not lead to uncovering the impending attacks," Collingwood said.

Officials said FBI counterterrorism agents in Phoenix were suspicious about several Arab men seeking airport operations, security information and pilot training.

The Arizona agent who wrote the memo recommended the FBI compile a list of flight schools nationwide, instruct local field offices to make "appropriate liaison" with the schools and begin alerting local offices when Middle Easterners sought new visas for training at local aviation schools.

The FBI's concerns about U.S. flight schools is the latest revelation about information, much of it sketchy, that the government possessed before Sept. 11 concerning the possibility of terrorism in the skies. For example:

l The AP reported last month that Filipino authorities alerted the FBI as early as 1995 that several Middle Eastern pilots were training at American flight schools and at least one had proposed hijacking a commercial jet and crashing it into federal buildings.

l A month after the 2001 memo from Arizona to FBI headquarters, FBI agents in Minnesota arrested a French citizen of Moroccan descent, Zacarias Moussaoui, after a flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to fly a commercial jet.

Moussaoui has since emerged as the single most important defendant in the post-Sept. 11 terrorism investigation, charged with conspiring with the hijackers and Osama bin Laden to kill thousands of Americans. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

l About the same time as the Phoenix memo and Moussaoui's arrest, in the late summer, U.S. intelligence issued a warning that there was heightened risk of a terrorist attack on Americans, possibly on U.S. soil, officials said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declined comment Friday on the FBI memo. But members of Congress were critical.

"The FBI has to do a better job of connecting the dots when it comes to intelligence about terrorists," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee.

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