Warning on 9/11 never reached proper FBI agent

A retired FBI terrorism section chief testified Tuesday that he wasn’t told before the Sept. 11 attacks of a Minneapolis agent’s insistent warnings that jailed suspect Zacarias Moussaoui was planning a hijacking.

Mike Rolince’s testimony showed that, despite Special Agent Harry Samit’s some 70 communications with Washington, the young agent’s suspicions never made it to the upper reaches of the FBI in the weeks before the attacks.

On Monday, Samit acknowledged telling internal Justice Department investigators that the “criminal negligence” of FBI headquarters supervisors who reported to Rolince blocked the pre-Sept. 11 investigation of Moussaoui, now a confessed al Qaeda conspirator.

“Agent Samit’s suppositions, hunches and suspicions were one thing,” Rolince told the jury. “What we actually knew was another.”

Prosecutors called Rolince to testify so he could describe how a massive deployment of agents might have foiled the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history if Moussaoui had only admitted upon his arrest that he was part of a suicide hijacking plot.

But under cross-examination, Rolince found himself explaining how little he knew about the Moussaoui investigation and that he never briefed Attorney General John Ashcroft about it because the case “was not of sufficient progress.”

Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to a six-count conspiracy indictment charging that he joined the Sept. 11 hijackers in a plot to commandeer and crash U.S. jetliners. He denied knowing specifics of the Sept. 11 plot.

Prosecutors are trying to persuade a jury to sentence him to death on three capital counts, contending that when he lied to federal agents after his arrest in Minnesota 25 days before the attacks, his actions allowed the suicide hijackers to go forward. Rolince, wearing a tie with a U.S. flag motif, described an atmosphere of extraordinary tension in the summer of 2001 as U.S. national security officials received a stream of intelligence reports warning of an impending attack.

But he said most of the intelligence leads related to foreign countries. If Moussaoui has revealed a suicide hijacking plot, he said, it would have provided “specificity and actionability” because it described the subjects, targets, methods and that other conspirators were in the country.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema stopped prosecutors from asking him what “would have happened” if Moussaoui had cooperated, limiting Rolince to describing how the bureau could have made use of up to 11,300 agents to trace financial, phone and travel records in a hunt for the hijackers.

Rolince said he learned about Moussaoui in two quick hallway conversations with Dave Frasca, chief of the bureau’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit. The first, which he said lasted about “20 seconds” while he walked between offices, came shortly after Moussaoui was arrested while training to fly a 747 jumbo jet at an Eagan, Minn., flight school.

He said Frasca told him Moussaoui’s answers “did not add up,” that there was “an ongoing debate” as to whether there was enough evidence to support a warrant and he “should expect a call from Minneapolis.” Rolince told the Sept. 11 Commission that the call never came.

Later, when Samit’s strenuous efforts failed to win support for a warrant, the FBI came up with a plan to deport Moussaoui to France, where French authorities said they had legal authority to search his belongings. Rolince said Minneapolis agents wanted authority to travel with Moussaoui, and he gave Frasca the OK.

Questioned by defense lawyer Edward MacMahon, Rolince at one point dismissed it as an immigration case. He acknowledged that the FBI had 70 “full-field” al Qaeda related investigations under way at the time, but contended that only a tiny percentage of the threats being received dealt with possible hijackings.

He said he didn’t see Samit’s lengthy Aug. 18 request for a national security warrant before Sept. 11, but acknowledged learning that then-CIA director George Tenet was briefed about Moussaoui taking flight lessons on Aug. 23. Rolince said it was logical the CIA was getting involved because help from allies’ intelligence services was being sought.