The Terrible Missed Chance

Matt Moyer / AP (left); Alessandra Petlin for Newsweek

Special Agent Harry Samit of the FBI's Minneapolis field office knew he was looking into the eyes of a terrorist. It was early afternoon on Friday, Aug. 17, 2001. Across from him sat Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French-born student arrested the day before for overstaying his visa. Moussaoui had paid more than $8,000 in cash that summer to sit in a cockpit simulator in a flight school in the suburbs of Minneapolis and learn—in a matter of days—the basics of how to fly a 747-400. Samit, a former intelligence officer at the Navy's celebrated Top Gun flight school, felt sure the man across the desk from him was a Muslim extremist who was part of a plot to hijack a commercial jetliner filled with passengers. "The trick," Samit wrote, in a soon-to-be-released excerpt of a book he's written about the case, "was getting Moussaoui to admit this and reveal details and associates to allow us to stop the plot."

Surely, the bureau brass in Washington would share his concern, Samit thought. He was wrong.

That same day, halfway across the country in the fluorescent-lit hallways of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters building in Washington, counterterrorism supervisors were treating Samit's first reports about Moussaoui with skepticism, even contempt. Michael Maltbie, a D.C. counterterrorism specialist, insisted repeatedly in the days after the arrest that there was no clear link between Moussaoui and Al Qaeda—the link needed for a warrant. Maltbie thought Moussaoui was a "dirty bird," he later told investigators, but favored deporting him to France.

Believing a hijacking might be imminent, Samit appealed to his boss in Minneapolis, Special Agent Greg Jones. Jones picked up the phone on Aug. 27 and called Maltbie at FBI HQ.

Moussaoui, he said, might be part of a plot "to get control of an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center or something like that."

Maltbie scoffed. "You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft," Maltbie replied, according to FBI documents. "That is it." (Maltbie declined requests for an interview.)

At least Maltbie was paying attention. Michael Rolince, who ran the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section, was arguably the bureau's most important go-between with the White House on domestic terrorist threats in the summer of 2001. He tells Newsweek he spent "less than 20 seconds" being briefed on the Moussaoui case that August. His office was inundated with terrorism probes, he said; since Moussaoui was in custody already, he posed no immediate threat. "Did it rise to the level of something that I would take upstairs?" Rolince asks. "The answer is no."

At CIA headquarters, alarm bells were ringing loudly. CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on Moussaoui within days of the arrest, receiving a paper with the eye-catching headline "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." But the FBI's acting director that summer and the bureau's most senior counterterrorism official were left in the dark.

The broad outlines of the Moussaoui case are well established. But new disclosures about Samit's story suggest that FBI agents in Minneapolis were much closer to unraveling the 9/11 plot than previously known. A Newsweek investigation shows that the officials directly involved in the case were denied access to a key internal memo—prepared for outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh—that could have allowed the Minneapolis field office to connect the dots and possibly preempt the attacks. Their efforts were thwarted by a group of arrogant, slow-moving supervisors at FBI headquarters.

At the Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., recruiters were intrigued by several emails in 2001 from a prospective student who identified himself only by a pilot's mock call sign—"Zuluzulu Tangoman."

"I was originally told he was a French businessman who had this ego thing—that he wanted to tell friends that he could take off and land a 747," flight instructor Tim Nelson says now, recounting his initial impression of Moussaoui. "So I'm expecting a Rolex and Guccis. Instead, he's wearing this ratty old T-shirt and a baseball cap." Nelson asked the school's managers and was told that this new student was "weird" in many ways, including his method of payment. Moussaoui handed over cash—$8,600, paid out with a stack of $100 bills—for 12 hours in a 747-400 simulator and an extra two hours in a classroom. He was absurdly unprepared. "The hairs on the back of my neck stood up," Nelson remembered. Nelson thought his suspicions were confirmed when he saw Moussaoui walk up to a pair of Nelson's students, Syrian pilots in training for their country's national airline, "and begin babbling in Arabic."

Nelson says he went to the school's managers and urged them to call the FBI. Their response: keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job, the flight instructor says. At 8:15 on Wednesday morning, Aug. 15, Nelson called the FBI's Minneapolis office from his family cellphone. (The flight school declined to comment.) By 10 a.m., the FBI probe was in Samit's hands.

This courtroom drawing shows FBI Agent Harry Samit testifying during the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui on March 20, 2006 in Alexandria, Virginia. Art Lien / AFP-Getty Images

The Minneapolis agent began writing up a formal request that FBI headquarters in Washington obtain an emergency search warrant to go through Moussaoui's laptop and other belongings. Samit sent out urgent messages to the U.S. embassies in Paris and London, asking for information on Moussaoui. And he sent a separate note to Maltbie at HQ in Washington, urging him to notify the Secret Service about the case, given Moussaoui's expressed request to an instructor to learn to fly a jumbo jet from London to New York. "It's imperative that the USSS be apprised of this threat potential," Samit wrote. "If he seizes an aircraft flying from Heathrow to New York City, it will have the fuel on board to reach D.C." (Samit has said that, to his knowledge, Maltbie never notified the Secret Service.)

Samit and his colleagues felt they had to be aggressive—especially after the FBI legal attaché in Paris reported back on Aug. 22 that French spy agencies had evidence showing Moussaoui was a recruiter for Ibn Omar al-Khattab, a Muslim extremist and Chechen guerrilla leader long allied with Osama bin Laden. (A companion of Moussaoui's, picked up at the time of his arrest, told the FBI that Moussaoui followed a "prophet"—Khattab.) But Maltbie, known to colleagues as hypercautious and exceedingly low-key, said he saw no evidence that Moussaoui was connected to a foreign government or well-known terrorist group that would meet the definition of a "foreign power" under U.S. intelligence laws—the standard required to trigger a warrant.

Desperate to prove the needed link, Samit reached a CIA counterterrorism expert who said he had no doubt that the Chechens and Al Qaeda worked together. "Khattab was a close buddy with bin Laden from their earlier fighting days," the CIA official wrote.

And the FBI's top brass had seen the link, too. In an April 2001 memo prep-ared for Freeh, then–assistant director Dale Watson warned about "significant and urgent" intelligence to suggest "serious operational planning" for terrorism attacks by "Sunni extremists with links to Ibn al Khattab, an extremist leader in Chechnya, and to Usama Bin Laden." The memo's headline: "Bin Laden/Ibn Khattab Threat Reporting."

David Frasca, Maltbie's direct superior, says that he was startled that he had never seen the Freeh memo, since it suggested just the sorts of links Maltbie was denying existed to the Minneapolis field office.

"[Maltbie] and I didn't know anything about this memo," says Frasca, now retired, in his first on-the-record interview with any news organization about the Moussaoui case. He also says the memo was never mentioned to him in the internal investigations that followed 9/11. "I find that very curious." He defends Maltbie, who has been singled out for criticism in the investigations: "Mike is a very hardworking, conscientious guy."

Copies of the Freeh memo were directed to eight senior officials at the FBI, including Michael Rolince, who oversaw the work of Frasca and Maltbie, among many others at HQ. Rolince said he had no recollection of ever seeing the document. (He also tells Newsweek he never saw another memo, directed to his staff by the FBI's Phoenix office, calling attention to the unusual number of young Arab men tied to Muslim extremist groups who—like Moussaoui—were seeking pilot training. The Phoenix memo recommended a nationwide investigation of flight schools.) "In the Moussaoui case, everything dies at Rolince's desk," said Edward MacMahon, the D.C. lawyer who represented Moussaoui at trial.

There is no clear reference to the Freeh memo in the 9/11 commission's report, nor in several other government reports about pre-9/11 intelligence blunders. An FBI spokeswoman said she had "no reason to believe" it had been withheld from investigators.

At 8:34 on the morning of 9/11, Maltbie sent a memo to the Minneapolis office with final details for Moussaoui's deportation. Twelve minutes later, the first of the four hijacked planes hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Maltbie immediately called Minneapolis and was put on the line with agent Coleen Rowley. She recalls telling Maltbie that Moussaoui was obviously linked to the terrorist attack and that the FBI needed to move immediately to get a judge to approve a search warrant for his belongings.

"It's probably all just a coincidence," Maltbie replied, ordering her to make no move for a warrant until she heard back from him."Coincidence?" Rowley tells Newsweek she answered. "In light of what just happened in New York, it would just have to be the hugest coincidence."

It was only after a second plane hit the World Trade Center, a third went into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania that FBI headquarters relented. A federal judge approved a search warrant that day. Moussaoui's belongings were moved to the FBI's Minneapolis field office and opened. Inside, FBI agents found evidence to suggest an advanced Qaeda hijacking plot, including a phone number scrawled in Moussaoui's notebook that was later traced to Al Qaeda logistician Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Bin al-Shibh was the source of the money transferred to Moussaoui in Oklahoma for his flight training; he was also the paymaster for the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to conspiring in the 9/11 plot and was sentenced to life in prison. Samit remains in the bureau's Minneapolis office, having survived an effort by one of his bosses to force him off terrorism cases. He is still barred by the FBI from talking with reporters, although the bureau gave him permission to print an excerpt of his unpublished book—stripped of any criticism of HQ—in a Minnesota legal journal, the William Mitchell Law Review.

No one at FBI headquarters was disciplined for pre-9/11 bungling. Samit's nemesis, Maltbie, was promoted after 9/11 and is now a supervisor in the FBI's Cleveland field office. Frasca, Maltbie's superior, has told friends he is convinced his career stalled as a result of the Moussaoui case, but he spent four years in Europe for the FBI before retiring.

For his part, Rolince, the international terrorism operations chief, who was also promoted after 9/11, rejects the idea that more aggressive action in the Moussaoui case could have stopped the attacks. "I haven't heard of a single person who can articulate the logic of how you would get from Moussaoui to any of those other 19 hijackers," he insists. It is a judgment that many others at the FBI would argue with, especially in Minneapolis.