WASHINGTON – Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday there could have been more missed clues before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and suggested for the first time that investigators might have uncovered the plot if they had been more diligent about pursuing leads.
"The jury is still out on all of it," Mueller said, during a wide-ranging, two-hour interview at Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters. "Looking at it right now, I can't say for sure it would not have, that there wasn't a possibility that we could have come across some lead that would have led us to the hijackers."
Mueller noted two documents Wednesday that he said might have tipped authorities to terrorist plans for suicide hijackings, including efforts by an unidentified Middle Eastern country, where U.S. sales are restricted, to buy a commercial flight simulator.
Mueller's remarks came amid his announcement about a broad reorganization of the nation's premier law enforcement agency responding, at least partly, to criticisms about the FBI after the attacks. The director is moving hundreds of agents — mostly from drug investigations — to focus on terrorism and prevent future attacks. The FBI's top new marching orders will focus on terrorists, spies and hackers, in that order.
Mueller's candid statement represented the first time any senior official in the Bush administration has allowed that counterterrorism investigators might have detected and averted the Sept. 11 hijackings if they had recognized clues they were collecting. That question is the focus of an ongoing congressional inquiry, and is almost certain to come up next week during Judiciary Committee hearings on the FBI's plans.
"Putting all the pieces together, who is to say?" Mueller said, though he also noted that those pieces amount to "snippets in a veritable river of information." Attorney General John Ashcroft said the time had come to change the "structure, culture and mission" of the agency.
President George W. Bush has bristled over suggestions that the government knew enough to avert the attacks. "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people," Bush said earlier this month.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, praised the reorganization, saying "the FBI is now in a position to implement fully operational changes that will substantially improve the FBI's ability to investigate and prevent terrorism."
The FBI disclosed two other clues Wednesday that it said might be relevant to the investigation into the September hijackings. A Middle Eastern country where U.S. shipments are restricted sought unsuccessfully before Sept. 11 to buy a commercial flight simulator, and an FBI pilot in 1998 expressed concerns to a supervisor in Oklahoma City about a number of Arab men seeking flight training, he said.
The FBI would not identify the country that sought to buy the simulator except to say it was not one publicly connected to the September attacks. It said the information was given to the FBI by another U.S. agency that it would not identify.
The unidentified pilot told his supervisor "that he has observed large numbers of Middle Eastern males receiving flight training at Oklahoma airports in recent months," according to a copy of the memo. The pilot added that "this is a recent phenomenon and may be related to planned terrorist activity." He also "speculates that light planes would be an ideal means of spreading chemical or biological agents."
The FBI memo, dated May 18, 1998, was marked "routine" and never was forwarded to FBI headquarters.
Asked whether investigators might discover more clues that were already in their possession hinting at suicide hijackings, Mueller said: "There may be others out there."
The FBI director also expressed regret about FBI headquarters mishandling a memorandum from its Phoenix office expressing concern about a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training at one U.S. flight school.
Also, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was expected on Thursday to announce the lifting of some restrictions on FBI agents. The changes will make it easier for agents to begin and pursue terrorism investigations without approval from FBI headquarters.
The change also lift restrictions on the FBI's use of the Internet and public libraries to give agents more freedom to investigate terrorism even when they are not pursuing a particular case.