WASHINGTON – Moving on two fronts, Congress interviewed FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley on Wednesday about the events leading up to Sept. 11, and prepared for her public testimony before a Democratic-controlled Senate committee.
The House and Senate intelligence committees met for a second day of closed-door hearings, without calling any witnesses, while several staff members from their joint inquiry went to FBI headquarters to question Rowley.
The focus was the FBI agent's explosive May 21 letter alleging that FBI headquarters last summer blocked an aggressive investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker now indicted for conspiracy in the terrorist attacks.
Rowley will give public testimony Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is doing its own review of events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Also testifying will be Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, who is investigating another pre-Sept. 11 clue, the so-called Phoenix memo in which the FBI in Arizona alerted Washington headquarters that several Arabs were suspiciously training at a U.S. aviation school to fly commercial jetliners. Last July's memo, which was never passed up the FBI's chain of command in Washington, urged that agents nationwide contact other aviation schools.
The IG "conducted a preliminary inquiry in the fall of 2001 into the handling of the Phoenix" memo, Fine said in prepared testimony for Thursday's hearing. Democrats plan to press Fine on when he knew about the memo. Paul Martin, spokesman for the IG, said seven interviews on the Phoenix memo were conducted with FBI headquarters officials in November and December. In his prepared testimony, Fine said the IG then referred the matter to the congressional intelligence committees. The IG recently revived its review at the request of FBI Director Robert Mueller.
The Washington headquarters agent to whom the Phoenix memo was addressed, David Frasca, told judiciary committee staffers Tuesday that he didn't see the document until after Sept. 11, when shown it by the IG's office.
As for Rowley, "I want her to tell me, as best she can, what is wrong at headquarters that so many important things like the Moussaoui investigation get stonewalled there?" Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the committee, said on CNN.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, urged questioning of FBI headquarters' personnel, too.
"I think for us it's more relevant to talk to those people that she's making the allegations against," Reyes said. "Up to now, these are just allegations."
The Bush White House favors the inquiry by the joint intelligence committees, but the judiciary committee's chairman said he will press forward because of the committee's constitutional obligation to ensure the FBI is adequately protecting Americans.
"We have the ultimate responsibility to report on whether there were mistakes made," and to correct them so they don't happen again, said committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not answer directly when asked whether Bush adamantly opposes other commissions or congressional panels beyond the joint intelligence committee.
"There is an appropriate forum, and it is the intelligence committees, and they are doing their work," said Fleischer.
Before Sept. 11, FBI headquarters rejected field agents' requests to seek a search warrant for Moussaoui's computer. A search done after the attacks found information on jetliners and crop-dusters. The government grounded crop-dusting planes temporarily because of what it found.
In light of the handling of the Moussaoui matter last summer, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., proposed Wednesday making it easier for the federal government to eavesdrop on potential terrorists. They said that if the FBI had been able to listen in on Moussaoui, it might have prevented the attacks. Kyl is on both the Senate intelligence committee and the judiciary panel.
The FBI became suspicious of Moussaoui because of his interest in learning to fly commercial jetliners.
After Wednesday's closed-door hearing by the joint inquiry, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., said Rowley would be called as a witness in connection with the proposed reorganization of the FBI.
The bureau plans to move a number of key decision-making powers away from headquarters to the field offices and wants to hire some 900 new agents by September, mostly specialists in computers, foreign languages and sciences. Hundreds of agents will be reassigned to counterterrorism.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Mueller said the FBI has placed a substantial number of people who may have ties to Al Qaeda under 24-hour surveillance throughout the country, a mission that has "really pushed" the bureau.
"Our biggest problem is we have people we think are terrorists. They are supporters of Al Qaeda," he said. "They may have been sworn jihad [holy war], they may be here in the United States legitimately and they have committed no crime."
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, will examine the FBI's reorganization plan, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., announced. Wolf chairs the Commerce-Justice appropriations subcommittee.
Regarding Rowley, Graham said, "Our focus is going to be on ... what she knows about the relationship between the field office in Minnesota and the central office in Washington. I think she would have some significant commentary."