FBI Under Scrutiny for Ignored Warning Memo

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III were told a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks that the FBI had received a memorandum from its Phoenix office the previous July that Osama bin Laden's followers could be training at U.S. flight schools, government officials said Monday.

But senior U.S. government officials said Monday that neither Ashcroft nor Mueller briefed U.S. President George W. Bush and his national security staff until recently about the Phoenix memorandum. Nor did they tell congressional leaders.

The disclosure is certain to magnify criticism of the FBI's performance, including its failure to act on the memo before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Neither Mueller nor Ashcroft have said publicly when they learned of the July 10 memorandum, but officials said that within days of the attacks senior law enforcement officials grasped the document's significance as a potentially important missed signal.

Spokesmen for Mueller and Ashcroft would not discuss the issue Monday. A senior Justice Department official said: "The attorney general was not briefed in any detail or with any specificity about the document known as the Phoenix memo until about a month ago."

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary who was traveling Monday with the president in Miami, said, "We have nothing that indicates the president had seen or even heard about this memo prior to a few weeks ago."

The Phoenix memo, written by Kenneth Williams, an FBI agent in Phoenix, was sent to FBI headquarters as an electronic computer message July 10.

It was reviewed by mid-level supervisors, who headed the agency's bin Laden and Islamic extremist counterterrorism units.

But the officials said the memo was never sent to top FBI managers, such as Thomas Pickard, who was acting director in summer 2001 before Mueller took over early last September.

The issue of when top officials knew of the Phoenix memorandums is emerging as a main focus in congressional inquiries getting under way. Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat-Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has asked the FBI to identify anyone at the agency who knew about the memo before the attacks.

But lawmakers also want to know when Bush administration officials first learned about the memo after the attacks. Some lawmakers have asked whether administration officials

were told about the memorandum soon after the attacks, but were slow to disclose it.

The Phoenix memorandum is one of two documents that are under heavy scrutiny by congressional investigators. The other is a daily intelligence report, shown to Bush on Aug. 6.

The report mentions the threat of al-Qaida members' carrying out hijackings in the United States. The White House has refused to produce the document, and administration officials have said that the information was too vague to act on.

Mueller has acknowledged that the bureau's failure to evaluate the Phoenix memorandum fully was an analytical failure that the FBI has tried to correct.