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Nation & World 6/10/02

Missed Chance
A wasted FBI asset?

The FBI had a chance to infiltrate an al Qaeda training camp in the months before the September 11 attacks–and possibly learn about the coming strike–but the proposal was rejected by top officials, U.S. News has learned.

A special agent in an FBI field office was told by a confidential informant that he had been invited to a commando training course at a camp operated by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization in Af- ghanistan. According to two people with knowledge of the events, the agent relayed the informant's remarks to supervisors in the field office, who passed the information to FBI headquarters in Washington, where it was referred to the Osama bin Laden unit in the bureau's Counterterrorism Division.

"Otherwise illegal." The field-office communiqué asked the Justice Department to authorize what is known as an "otherwise illegal activity," or OIA, to allow the confidential in- formant to participate in the terrorist training course without violating Ameri- can law, the two sources said. They would not say which of the FBI's 56 field offices made the request or exactly when it was made.

The bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters rejected the OIA request, the two sources said, and the confidential informant did not travel to Afghanistan or meet with al Qaeda operatives; FBI officials therefore didn't do an "asset validation" of the informant, a routine but critical exercise to determine whether information from the source was reliable. The FBI had no comment.

A principal criticism of the intelligence community after the attacks has been its inability to infiltrate terrorist groups. "Why do we have such a paucity of [human intelligence] assets?" asks Florida Republican Porter Goss, the House Intelligence Committee chairman. "We didn't take all the risks we should have taken."

Justice Department guidelines regarding the use of confidential informants allow an FBI special agent in charge or a "senior field manager" to approve OIAs in domestic criminal investigations if they meet the necessary criteria, which include a blanket prohibition on an informant's participation in any act of violence. Senior Justice Department lawyers say requests for OIA authorizations in international terrorism investigations must be approved by FBI headquarters. "That takes it completely out of the regulations [for domestic criminal investigations]," a top official said. "Anything involving international terrorism, it has to be vetted at the headquarters level." Both sets of guidelines–the domestic and the classified international rules–authorize OIAs to "prevent death, serious bodily injury, or significant damage to property," the sources said.

The individuals who described the confidential informant's alleged invitation to the al Qaeda camp said they did not know whether, had it been approved, it would have led to information that could have shed light on the planning for the September 11 attacks. "It was just another step not taken," one of the sources said. – Brian Duffy

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Playing the blame game: On the eve of a congressional inquiry into 9/11, the FBI tries to reinvent itself.

Frontman: Is the FBI boss up to the job?


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