'ALLEGED AUSTRALIAN AL-QAEDA MAN HELD BY US BLINDFOLDED FOR 8 MONTHS + A FURTHER REPORT ON FBI MATTERS'
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Australian Al-Qaeda suspect claims he's been kept blindfolded
AM - Saturday, May 25, 2002 8:14
An Australian man being held captive in a U.S military prison, claims that he's been kept blindfolded for eight months.
Mamdouh Habib is being detained as an Al-Quaeda terrorist suspect at Camp X-Ray, in Cuba.
Australian officials interviewed him last week and allowed a letter to be passed onto his family.
ALSO:- MORE FROM FBI'S COLEEN ROWLEY ON 911
Bill Miller and Dan Eggen
The FBI operates in "a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive . . . law enforcement action," whistle-blower Coleen Rowley charges in the 13-page letter that faults the FBI's leadership for hindering the investigation of a suspected terrorist prior to Sept. 11, according to excerpts of the letter obtained yesterday.
The letter from Rowley, general counsel of the FBI's Minneapolis field office, to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was described yesterday as a scathing indictment of FBI culture and its impact on the way FBI headquarters handled the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui was arrested Aug. 16 after he aroused suspicion at a Minnesota flight school. Mueller has testified that the FBI did all it could in trying to determine what Moussaoui and alleged co-conspirators were planning for Sept. 11. Rowley argued that officials at headquarters hindered the probe and top leadership has played down the Minneapolis field office's efforts to avoid embarrassment.
"The agents in Minneapolis who were closest to the action, and in the best position to gauge the situation locally, did fully appreciate the terrorist risk/danger posed by Moussaoui and the possible co-conspirators even prior to Sept. 11," Rowley wrote in her letter, which she hand-delivered this week to Mueller and some members of Congress.
The new details about Rowley's letter emerged yesterday as leaders of a joint Senate-House intelligence committee said they plan to investigate the way the Moussaoui case was handled, part of a broader probe into what agencies knew before Sept. 11.
"I would think she would be someone high up on the list of people that we would like to interview further, and potentially to call as a witness," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Graham said the committee intends to begin hearings on June 4 and continue the sessions into the fall. The initial hearings will be closed, he said, but the committee hopes to elicit public testimony whenever possible. It plans to hear from Mueller and CIA Director George J. Tenet during the last week of June.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent FBI critic, yesterday expressed outrage after he was briefed on the letter.
"Director Mueller can label this letter classified and the FBI can circle the wagons, but a coverup is not going to work," Grassley said in a statement. "This letter documents exactly what headquarters knew and when, and how mid-level officials sabotaged the Moussaoui case before the attacks."
Rowley wrote that the careers of high-ranking FBI officials have in the past been ruined by poor decisions in high-profile cases. "This in turn resulted in a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive FBI law enforcement action/decisions," she wrote.
She said this atmosphere stems from the FBI's organization as a large hierarchy with numerous layers of supervisors who don't want to risk facing criticism from Congress and the public for their decisions.
The investigation of Moussaoui, who faces a federal death penalty trial in Alexandria, has emerged as a focal point of concerns over whether the FBI mishandled clues prior to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Congressional investigators are also looking into a July 10 memo from Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams, which warned that followers of Osama bin Laden might be taking aviation training in the United States.
The memo was not acted upon or shared with FBI agents in Minneapolis or other intelligence agencies. Mueller, who took over as FBI director Sept. 4, has acknowledged that the FBI did not respond aggressively enough to Williams's request that aviation schools be canvassed.
Rowley asserted in her letter that Minneapolis field agents could have obtained a search warrant for Moussaoui's computer if headquarters had told them about the Phoenix memo. But FBI staff there resisted trying to obtain search warrants and scolded agents for seeking last-minute help from the CIA, she alleged, according to sources.
She wrote that resistance to requests from Minneapolis was so fierce that agents there joked that Osama bin Laden must have infiltrated FBI headquarters.
In one example, Rowley alleges that officials in Washington removed crucial information from an affidavit in support of a search of Moussaoui's computer, causing FBI lawyers to ultimately reject the application, according to several sources who have read the letter.
An FBI official in Washington said the incident is open to interpretation and that there was no effort to undermine the request.
Rowley maintained that even without the Phoenix memo, Minneapolis agents had enough evidence to secretly search Moussaoui's laptop by securing a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
But because FBI lawyers had nixed the idea, Rowley argued in her letter this week, the Phoenix memo would have bolstered the effort to open the computer, which was later discovered to contain detailed information about jetliners, wind patterns and crop-dusting aircraft.
"In all of their conversations and correspondence, headquarters personnel never disclosed to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had only three weeks earlier warned of al Qaeda operatives in flight schools seeking flight training for terrorist purposes," Rowley wrote, according to one official familiar with the letter.
FBI attorneys in Washington maintain that Rowley's letter is mistaken, and that the FBI did not have enough evidence to proceed prior to Sept. 11. Senior U.S. officials told The Washington Post in January that Rowley had agreed with that assessment; one official stood by that account yesterday.
As the chief division counsel for the Minneapolis office, Rowley was the agent who helped prepare warrant applications and dealt directly with headquarters staff.
Rowley's letter is very specific, according to sources who have seen it, and names those who Rowley alleged threw a "roadblock" into the Moussaoui investigation.
Classified federal documents revealed yesterday show that Moussaoui told Hussein al-Attas, the man who drove him from Oklahoma to the Minnesota flight school, that it was "acceptable to kill civilians who harm Muslims," two sources said. The information was first reported by the New York Times.
U.S. law enforcement officials have previously said that al-Attas described Moussaoui as a hotheaded Muslim radical, but that he did not believe Moussaoui was a terrorist. Al-Attas, a student from Yemen, has been held for eight months as a material witness in the Moussaoui case.
Rowley personally delivered her letter Tuesday to the offices of Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the staff of the joint House-Senate intelligence panel conducting the investigation. She also met with the staff of that committee on Tuesday, according to sources. She came to Washington this week at the invitation of the joint committee, the sources said.
Rowley, a 47-year-old mother of four who competes in triathlons, lives in Apple Valley, a suburb of St. Paul, and is a graduate of the University of Iowa law school, according to records and acquaintances. A native of northeast Iowa, Rowley came to the Minneapolis field office more than a decade ago from New York, where she had worked on organized crime and other sensitive cases, acquaintances said.
Friends and colleagues describe Rowley as sharp and serious. "She's not a crackpot or anything; she's a good agent and a sharp lawyer," one former colleague said.
Another former co-worker agreed: "She's very straightforward. She's intelligent, thoughtful and outspoken, but she's not out of control. . . . If she sees something she believes is wrong, she is not going to sweep it under the carpet."
Paul A. McCabe, the chief spokesman of the Minneapolis office, said neither Rowley nor D. Strebel Pierce, the special agent in charge, would comment about the letter.
Staff writer Steve Fainaru in New York and researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.
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