FBI warned of terror threat before 9-11

NEW YORK, Reuters

A secret FBI report warned the agency director in the months before Sept. 11 of a significant terror threat from the Middle East and said the bureau did not have the resources to combat it, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

Quoting senior government officials, the Times said that a secret internal assessment, �the Director�s Report on Terrorism? found that nearly every major FBI field office lacked the staff needed to evaluate and deal with the threat posed by al-Qaida, which Washington now blames for the hijacking attacks that killed more than 3,000 people last year.

But spending increases called for in the document were rejected by the Justice Department. On Sept. 10, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was not given a copy of the classified report, rejected an FBI request for an additional US$58 million for counter-terrorism.

The report did not specifically assess the FBI�s ability to infiltrate al-Qaida in the United States but did rate FBI field offices in terms of how well they could counter a terrorist threat in their regions, the paper said.

Those which fell short were coded red, and most major FBI field offices were listed as red, the newspaper said.

The U.S. government had information that al-Qaida was dangerous, but it came from intercepted phone calls and other communications between Islamist militants in the United States, and those overseas. Investigations in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa also gave some insights into the organization.

But the FBI was able to do little to follow up on that information, the Times reported.

With little insight into al-Qaida, the FBI did not know how to assess a request by the Phoenix field office to look into a large number of Middle Eastern students taking classes at flight schools.

And the FBI headquarters in Washington rejected a request from a Minneapolis office to seek a warrant to search the computer and other belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested before the attacks and is being prosecuted in connection with them.

The top secret report was written by Dale Watson, now the FBI�s top counterterrorism official, the Times said. He was building on work done in 1998 by Robert Bryant, then the deputy director, who wanted to reorient the bureau to put more emphasis on counterintelligence, the newspaper said.

�In the late ?0s, the world had changed, and Bryant was trying to change the direction of the FBI,?an official familiar with the plan told the Times.

�So they began to look at their vulnerabilities. They had the capacity to go after a bank robber, but in the late ?0s, they needed the capacity to get better information collection in order to deal with problems like counterintelligence and terrorism, and Bryant saw that we don�t have that capacity,?the official said. �Watson was trying to apply that standard to counterterrorism. They were trying to get this issue right.?