The staff director for a joint congressional panel says the Federal Bureau of Investigation essentially ignored warnings from its field agents about the possibility that terrorists were getting pilot training at U.S. flight schools. Eleanor Hill testified before the House-Senate Intelligence Committee investigating intelligence lapses prior to last year's September 11 terrorist attacks.
Ms. Hill testified that a supervisor in the FBI field office told the agency's headquarters prior to September 11 that he wanted to prevent a suspicious student pilot named Zacarias Moussaoui from flying a plane in the World Trade Center.
She said headquarters brushed aside the concerns. "The supervisor replied that he was trying to get people at FBI headquarters 'spun up' because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui 'did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center.' The Minneapolis agent said that the headquarters agent told him 'that is not going to happen. You do not know that he is a terrorist. You do not have enough information to show that he is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft, that is it,'" she testified.
The supervisor later told congressional investigators that he did not have any reason to believe that Zacarias Moussaoui was planning an attack, but was only trying to get headquaters' attention.
Mr. Moussaoui, a French national, was arrested by FBI agents on immigration charges in August of last year. He has since been charged with conspiracy in the September 11 attacks and is scheduled to face trial in January.
Committee staff director Hill also testified that a July 2001 memo by an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona warning that Osama bin Laden might send terrorists to the United States for flight training was disregarded by headquarters. She said the failure to connect that memo with the arrest of Mr. Moussaoui a month later represented a major intelligence failure.
The United States believes Osama bin Laden is the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.
In a related development, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 90-8, to establish an independent commission to probe the September 11 attacks. The inquiry would be broader than the one undertaken by the intelligence committee.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is a co-sponsor of the measure, which is included in an amendment to the homeland security bill.
"A thorough non-partisan investigation would provide an informed basis for the current administration and the Congress to take all necessary measures to ensure that our country is prepared to meet the challenges of this age of terrorism," Mr. McCain said.
The House has passed similar legislation, and the two versions must be reconciled before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.
Mr. Bush had long opposed the idea of an independent commission to investigate the September 11 attacks, fearing that classified information could be leaked and intelligence compromised. But amid growing public support for the commission, Mr. Bush reversed his position Friday.