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Two FBI Whistleblowers Accuse Bureau of Ignoring Warnings Before 9/11

StoryApril 09, 2004
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We speak with FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who accused FBI headquarters in 2002 of hampering the investigation into alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui and former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds who was hired shortly after 9/11 to translate intelligence related to the attacks and says the FBI had information that an attack using airplanes was being planned before Sept. 11, 2001. Rowley reveals one of her fellow FBI agents contacted FBI HQ before Sept. 11 and said Moussaoui was the type that might try to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. [includes rush transcript]

Coleen Rowley, FBI agent. In May 2002 she wrote a caustic, 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller accusing FBI headquarters of hampering the investigation into alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. She says officials at FBI headquarters resisted seeking search warrants and admonished agents who sought help from the CIA.
- Read Coleen Rowley’s * May 2002 letter* to FBI Director Robert Mueller
Sibel Edmonds, former FBI translator who was hired shortly after Sept. 11 to translate intelligence related to the attacks. She speaks fluent Farsi and Turkish.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined on the telephone by Coleen Rowley, who wrote the 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, accusing FBI headquarters of hampering the investigation into the alleged 20th hijacker of Sept. 11. Welcome to Democracy Now! Your reaction, especially to the revelations in the testimony yesterday that the FBI was actively pursuing 70 sleeper cells, in the United States, of al Qaeda.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, let me preface anything I say. I have been instructed not to talk to the media, and that’s actually surprising since the letter that I wrote initially supposedly got whistleblower protection. But I think the FBI now is in a very precarious position because of the fact that there’s threats to split the FBI up. Therefore, the hierarchy is very sensitive to saying anything or even to allowing people to talk. So, today I’m speaking only in my personal capacity, and I’m trying to speak only from what I have said before, which is on the 13-page letter and in which in theory has whistleblower protection. But, obviously, if you read or anyone rereads that letter, which is now kind of ancient history, you will see a remarkable denial on the part of the mid-level management people at headquarters that any al Qaeda operative could exist — be existing here in the United States. Of course, the comments that were made which I’m aware of do not display that there was any urgency on the part of these people to react to news that was being generated from the field offices.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, yesterday, Dr. Condoleezza Rice said that all of the field offices knew about the potential threats. What did you understand at the time, Coleen Rowley?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, you know, historically the FBI has been investigating al Qaeda for a long time. Obviously, the first 1993 World Trade Center attacks brought that into focus. So, al Qaeda certainly was considered a threat, but what I’m talking about is any special urgency, especially during the summer of 2001 which would have made people, especially the mid-level management people, more aware of information, little pieces of information that were generated to them. And again, if you read —- reread the letter and the fact that the Phoenix Memo and the information that came in from our office and other offices simply was not acted on -—

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to interrupt for one second. On August 15, Zacarias Moussaoui was taken into custody. To refresh people’s memories — three weeks before the September 11th attacks. At that point when the alleged 20th hijacker is taken into custody, at a point when — well certainly, if information was gathered and if in fact he was a part of this, and you could get information, perhaps the September 11 attacks could have been avoided — averted, can you talk about what you understood the threat level to be, and if you understood how high the people in Washington — how seriously they were treating things at this point?

COLEEN ROWLEY: I don’t have any firsthand information about what the threat level was, and the people in Washington, other than what the comments and the responses that were given from these people to our field office agents here. Again, if you reread the testimony, even from the Joint Intelligence Committee of responses that were given, it does not show that there was any understanding of the urgency of the threat.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined on the phone by Sibel Edmonds, a former F.B.I. translator, who was hired shortly after September 11 to translate intelligence gathered over the previous attacks, and she speaks fluent Farsi, Arabic and Turkish. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Good morning. Thank you for having me back. Let me make a correction. I don’t speak Arabic. I do speak Farsi, Turkish and Azerbaijani on the side.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Okay, thank you for the correction. Your reaction as you listen to the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday in terms of your knowledge of the material that you were hired to translate.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, some good questions were asked, however, many questions were not asked, and some questions remained unanswered. I would like to point out the one correction that Ms. Rice made during this hearing. Two weeks ago, I said — I made a statement saying that Ms. Rice has a statement that "we did not have any specific information" was an outrageous lie. Ms. Rice corrected herself yesterday by saying, "I should have said, I personally was not aware rather than we." I think that’s a very important piece that not many people have picked up on and who else is left after she herself removes herself from this statement? Who is she referring to when she says we? Now it’s that "I am not" and "I was not aware" of this specific information. And so, that was not answered. And there was no question basically following up on that, and then another thing that she referred about breaking down the walls between counterterrorism, counterintelligence and criminal investigations and she’s not mentioning the walls that the administration — these people themselves create. And what has been glossed over so far under the name of diplomatic relations. And how many investigations were not pursued, despite the warnings, just due to the diplomatic relations that they are referring to. That leaves me very skeptical and I don’t know who is going to answer these questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Coleen Rowley, could you understand that planes could be used at that point? Zacarias Moussaoui is in custody. He is learning how it use a plane. You have serious questions about him, but you can’t even look at his hard drive.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Of course these were agents in my office doing the investigations, not me personally. But one of our agents actually spoke with somebody at Headquarters and suggested that this would be a type of a person who could fly a plane into the World Trade Center. At that time it was met with the remark, something like, "that ain’t going to happen." Which again just displays the lack of understanding on the part of the people at Headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: The remark by who?

COLEEN ROWLEY: By an F.B.I. supervisor.

AMY GOODMAN: In your office?

COLEEN ROWLEY: No. At Headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington?


AMY GOODMAN: What higher-up? What supervisor?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to name names, but you know, these were mid-level management people that when you make a request from a field office, you have to have their okay and approval to even take it a step further. And these people, I don’t think they were fully aware of the urgency and the threat that summer.

AMY GOODMAN: When did this happen?

COLEEN ROWLEY: This happened in August — the first request was made around August 22nd.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mel Goodman, to get back you to, the former C.I.A. and State Department analyst, as you listened to the testimony yesterday, of course, Security Advisor, National Security Advisor, Rice several times referred to the August 6 Presidential Briefing as basically a historical document, but what you know of the information that was in there, what we have been able to glean from months of discussion around it, without the actual paper being released yet, what is your sense of whether that was a historial document or not?

MEL GOODMAN: Well, it was clearly a review document, but it had current emphasis and current interest. The title of the piece, as you said earlier, was "bin Laden determined to strike inside the United States". This in itself should have attracted a good deal of attention. And then it went into F.B.I. reporting which was very sensitive at the time. Noting that there were increased indicators of hijackings that could take place in the United States, again inside the United States. And that there were increased indicators of infiltration from Canada, of al Qaeda terrorists, with explosives. Now, the last time I looked, Canada was on the United States’ border. So, I don’t know how Condi Rice cannot see the sensitivity of such reporting. And let me add one thing about the job of the National Security Advisor. The National Security Advisor was created to do two things above all else: one, to make sure that all relevant information and options got in front of the President, which she clearly didn’t do with regard to al Qaeda cells operating in the United States. And two, to make sure that if the President wants something done, that it’s indeed carried out. That’s the vetting job that she has. She said several times during the testimony that the assumption was, there was an F.B.I. director and he carried out the jobs given to the F.B.I., so on and so forth. But we know now that there was a lot that wasn’t done at the F.B.I. We know that the Transportation Secretary Mineta did not even know about the increased urgency. We know that the FAA didn’t get reporting, and there was no oversight responsibility by the National Security Advisor. So, on that level, she wasn’t doing her job.

AMY GOODMAN: Coleen Rowley, what was the reaction in your office on the morning of September 11 when the planes hit the World Trade Centers and then when the plane hit the Pentagon?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Unfortunately, within really probably just seconds or minutes of seeing the news, we realized that this connected with the matter in Minneapolis and began then to seek the criminal way of getting a search warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there an understanding that these — this was a terrorist attack?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Yes. Very quickly from the first footage, I think there was a quick understanding this was not only a terrorist attack, but probably — al Qaeda was responsible for it. Can I add something, just about the nature of prevention of terrorism. I think there’s a misunderstanding that you have to have a "silver bullet" to prevent things like this, and just as a series of mistakes can lead to a tragedy, and it’s not just one thing, it can be a multitude of things, it’s also a multitude of things that can lead to prevention, and in many cases a tragedy might be diminished simply because of luck, a little bit of luck along with other things. If we’re to have this attitude that we have to have a "silver bullet" to prevent things, we will really be in sorry shape in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just add, Coleen Rowley was named "Time" Person of the Year in 2002 for speaking out as a whistleblower in the F.B.I.

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