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Alert FBI agent gave heads-up in July on Arabs in aviation

James Risen, New York Times
Saturday, May 4, 2002

Washington -- An FBI agent in Phoenix told counterterrorism officials at the bureau's headquarters last July that he had detected an alarming pattern of Arab men with possible ties to terrorism taking aviation-related training, and he urged a nationwide review of the trend, according to FBI officials.

The agent's recommendation was not acted upon before Sept. 11, however, because bureau officials determined that hundreds of Middle Eastern men regularly attended flight schools and aviation training in the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI agent's memo took on a new urgency within the bureau as investigators hunted for possible links to the 19 hijackers. The memo also gained attention as officials began to check whether they had missed warning signs of the attacks.

A review determined that none of the seven or eight Arab men identified by the agent in Phoenix had any connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon or other terrorist activities, officials said. A few were detained on immigration violations, however, FBI officials said.

"None of the people identified by Phoenix are connected to the 9/11 attacks, " the FBI said in a statement on Friday. "The Phoenix communication went to the appropriate operational agents and analysts at headquarters, but it did not lead to uncovering the impending attacks."

"It is imperative that we learn exactly what information was contained in the FBI report, to whom it was sent and what actions were taken in response," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

"The FBI has to do a better job of connecting the dots when it comes to intelligence about terrorists," added Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

As Congress gears up for its first comprehensive investigation of the government's performance leading up to Sept. 11, the memo offers another tantalizing glimpse of what counterterrorism experts knew about the threat to the United States before the attacks. The joint House-Senate committee conducting the Sept. 11 investigation has already been briefed on the FBI memo,

officials said.

FOCUS MORE ON AIRPORT JOBS

Officials at the FBI stressed that the Phoenix agent did not predict the attacks. In fact, the agent's memo did not focus on Arabs seeking pilot training, but instead raised issues about individuals being trained in airport management. The agent wondered whether they might be getting training that could help them get jobs that would allow them to skirt airport security procedures.

But some FBI officials acknowledged that the agent's memo was as close to the mark as anyone came before Sept. 11.

"He wasn't saying, 'Hey, I know there are guys out there who are going to hijack planes and fly them into buildings,' " said one official. "But he did have the right industry."

FBI officials said the agent first became suspicious after noticing a pattern among several Arabs being monitored for possible terrorist ties, as well as others thought to be associates of individuals suspected of having those connections.

The agent noticed that several of those individuals were attending Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., a highly regarded college specializing in flight training and other aviation-related studies. The agent thought he might have stumbled onto a larger pattern of Arabs coming to the United States to get aviation training for use in future terrorist activities.

In July, he sent a memo to counterterrorism officials at FBI headquarters recommending a study of the issue. He also recommended that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern nations so that the bureau could track them more easily.

"Phoenix believes that the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country," the memo stated. "FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community and ask the community for any information that supports Phoenix's suspicions. FBIHQ should consider seeking the necessary authority to obtain visa information from the USDOS (Department of State) on individuals obtaining visas to attend these types of schools and notify the appropriate FBI field office when these individuals are scheduled to arrive in their area of responsibility."

FBI SENT MEMO TO NEW YORK

After the agent's memo arrived at headquarters, it was also sent to the bureau's New York field office, which then was taking the lead in international terrorist investigations. FBI officials identified 600 schools involved in flight or other aviation training in the United States, and determined that as many as 500 or 600 students from Middle Eastern countries attended them each year.

Most Middle East nations send pilots from their commercial airlines and their military to train in the United States. At the time, FBI officials believed a study of the Arab presence at American flight schools could only be done as a long-term project taking one to two years. No action had been taken on the issue by Sept. 11.

FBI officials said there was reluctance at the time to mount such a major review because of a concern that the bureau would be criticized for ethnic profiling of foreigners. Bureau officials were also aware of the political sensitivities of asking colleges and universities to cooperate on such a sweeping review of students without specific evidence that they were guilty of any crimes.

"You had to ask, was there valid intelligence pushing you in the direction of doing this? And the answer at the time was no," one FBI official said.

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