WASHINGTON, D.C. -- FBI officials promptly told the Federal Aviation Administration last August of the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, who raised suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, but FAA security officials took no action.
They saw no reason to check scores of other flight schools for Middle Eastern men seeking flight training, said a senior FAA official, speaking for the agency.
There is no way to know whether such a nationwide canvass would have led investigators to any of several Sept. 11 suicide hijackers who had enrolled in flight schools in Florida and Western states.
Rather, the FAA's decision may be remembered as one in a series of pre-Sept. 11 instances in which federal authorities did not fully recognize and respond to faint warning signals that a terrorist network was at work. FBI officials maintain that based on what was known at the time, the bureau did well to nab Moussaoui, who faces conspiracy charges and is suspected of being the 20th hijacker.
Besides being informed by the FBI, FAA personnel also learned about Moussaoui from another channel. A program manager at the Eagan flight school who first phoned the FBI about the young Frenchman of Moroccan descent also informally shared his concerns with as many as four FAA inspectors, according to several people familiar with the matter. But there is no indication that any of them relayed the information to FAA security officials.
FBI officials also made fateful decisions. After Moussaoui's arrest, bureau lawyers in Washington repeatedly declined requests from Minneapolis agents to seek a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorizing a search of Moussaoui's laptop computer. That decision is being questioned by some FISA experts, who say it's possible a warrant would have been granted.
The special court that reviews FISA requests -- a federal panel that since 1999 has included U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minnesota -- has approved more than 12,000 Justice Department applications for covert search warrants and wiretaps and rejected only one since the act was passed in 1978, according to government reports.
Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general who handled FISA cases as a Justice Department attorney in the 1980s, said FBI officials in Washington may have had a regional bias in the Moussaoui case: "They probably assumed there's nothing going on in Minnesota."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, when authorities did search Moussaoui's computer, they found evidence that would have heightened suspicions that he was a terrorist.
Tips to FBI
The FBI was alerted to Moussaoui on Aug. 15 by two program managers at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, who called the bureau's Minneapolis office and spoke to Special Agent Dave Rapp. They were concerned about Moussaoui's odd behavior -- he lacked a pilot's license, and they said he paid nearly $10,000 for a few lessons in a Boeing 747 flight simulator as an "ego thing."
FBI officials shared with other law enforcement agencies in a Twin Cities counter-terrorism task force what they knew about Moussaoui, a law enforcement official said. They debated whether to arrest him or to try to watch his movements. Given the scarce law enforcement resources and the easy paths out of the country, it was decided to detain him for overstaying his permitted 90-day visit. Agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Moussaoui at his suburban motel on the eve of his first scheduled session in a 747 flight simulator.
Last month Moussaoui was indicted on six counts of conspiracy related to the Sept. 11 attacks. His trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 14.
But in mid-August, 3 1/2 weeks before 19 hijackers commandeered and crashed four passenger jets, FAA security officials showed only mild interest in the uncooperative foreigner sitting in a Sherburne County jail cell.
FBI officials had "multiple consultations" with the FAA about Moussaoui between his Aug. 16 arrest and Sept. 11, a senior law enforcement official said. But the FBI had received no leads suggesting that terrorists had recently received training at U.S. flight schools, the official said.
"The FBI did notify us about this," said the senior FAA official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. "But it was a notification which said, 'Here's what this guy did,' not that he was a terrorist.
"So here we have a guy acting strange who's in custody. As a result of that, we did not notify other flight schools. ... If this guy was a threat, taken to the most extreme, he was in custody, so it was not a worry."
Before Sept. 11, FBI tidbits on possible terrorism threats "couldn't always fit into a puzzle," the FAA official said. So word of the arrest of a flight student for suspicious behavior, while unusual, did not seem of extraordinary consequence.