The ex-FBI agent, now House candidate, also was praised.
WASHINGTON - Former Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who set off a furor by accusing bureau headquarters of impeding the pre-Sept. 11, 2001, investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, drew criticism herself in a government report Monday for failing to push for a criminal warrant to search his possessions.
The issuance of a search warrant hours after hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led agents to clues about the terror plot, but it was too late to save the 2,972 victims.
Rowley also was commended in the long-awaited report by the Justice Department's inspector general.
Rowley, now running for a U.S. House seat, was praised for going public in 2002 and triggering investigations into FBI lapses before the suicide hijackings.
The report criticized FBI headquarters' officials for dismissing as "far-fetched" Minneapolis agents' oft-expressed suspicions that Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, was training for a terrorist hijacking. The supervisors failed to look at the totality of facts in the case, it said.
But it said Rowley, the Minneapolis office's chief lawyer, went too far in alleging that these bureau officials intentionally tried to derail the investigation, and it exonerated them of any misconduct.
Rowley said in an interview Monday that she regrets impugning the motives of headquarters officials and blames herself for not "picking up the phone" to press a lawyer at FBI headquarters for a warrant. But she said she and nearly everyone else involved did not understand the legal standard for obtaining a national security warrant.
Rowley 'very proud'
Rowley said she is "very proud" that she aired her complaints about headquarters in a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, without which "we would not have had the inspector general's report at all. ... I did something. I pointed to some problems and mistakes that were being sugarcoated and covered up."
The report also faulted Minneapolis FBI managers for failing to phone bureau higher-ups when Washington counterterrorism supervisors Dave Frasca and Michael Maltbie rejected the warrant requests.
It heaped praise on the Minneapolis FBI agents who investigated Moussaoui for their instinctive, tenacious, but ultimately futile 26-day scramble to obtain a warrant and prevent a terror attack. It did not identify Special Agent Harry Samit and his former Minneapolis counterterrorism supervisor, Greg Jones, by name, instead using pseudonyms for nearly all FBI personnel mentioned.
Moussaoui was arrested 3½ weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks while training to fly a 747 jumbo jet at an Eagan flight school. Release of the report's last declassified section was held up until completion of Moussaoui's recent penalty trial, in which a jury sentenced the confessed Al-Qaida conspirator to life in prison.
'The sky is falling'
The 119-page Moussaoui section provides new blow-by-blow details of the mounting tensions between the FBI's Minneapolis office and headquarters in the weeks and days before the suicide hijackings, friction sewn by prior conflicts over warrant requests. Headquarters officials told internal investigators that Minneapolis agents had built a reputation for acting as if "the sky is falling" in pressing for warrants. Minneapolis agents thought their investigations were repeatedly being stymied.
Tensions got so strained, Agent Samit told investigators, that at one point Maltbie told him: "You will not question the unit chief [Frasca] and you will not question me. We know what's going on."
It wasn't unusual to have differences over warrants before Sept. 11, the report said, because Justice Department guidelines had created confusion. In counterterrorism and intelligence cases, FBI agents were forced to make an early decision about whether to seek a criminal search warrant or a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required showing that the suspect was tied to a foreign power or terrorist group.
Under Justice Department safeguards against civil rights abuses, the FBI was directed to keep a wall between criminal and intelligence investigations.
Samit opened the inquiry as an intelligence investigation, but pushed within days to obtain a standard criminal warrant. The report faulted Rowley and FBI headquarters for deciding to seek a FISA warrant, without an "adequate analysis" of its chances of success. The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis, it said, was in the best position to know whether there was enough evidence for a criminal warrant, but it never got to review the evidence.
The report also criticized both the FBI's Minneapolis office and headquarters for failing to try for a criminal warrant after the FISA request was turned down by bureau lawyers.
The internal investigators asked James Baker, current head of the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy Review, to review the documentation in the Moussaoui case to assess whether it would support a FISA warrant. Baker said the request was not a "slam dunk," because Moussaoui's link to a Chechen rebel group whose leader had been tied to Osama bin Laden was not a clear tie to a foreign power.
"Baker's analysis confirmed our view that, contrary to Rowley's allegations, the Minneapolis FBI did not have a completely clear case for a FISA warrant," the investigators wrote. But, they concluded, headquarters' handling of the requests was "too conservative" and should have considered options, such as arguing that Moussaoui and his traveling companion, Hussein Al-Attas, were their own terror group or part of Al-Qaida.