FBI Director plans new terrorism fighting team in Washington

Wednesday, May 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ FBI Director Robert Mueller is seeking to address some of the flaws exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks by creating a new terrorism-fighting team in Washington that will oversee all U.S. terrorism investigations worldwide, officials say.

Mueller is informing the agents who supervise each field office across the country this week of the plan designed to centralize terrorism fighting and ensure all intelligence is evaluated thoroughly and urgently and compared against other information gathered by the government, officials said Tuesday.

The officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the plan is part of a broader reorganization Mueller started last fall to reshape his agency in the aftermath of the new terrorism threat and the Robert Hanssen spy case.

The aim, they said, is to change a terrorism fighting structure inside the FBI that often stretched thin the expertise of the New York field office, which handled the high profile cases of the 1990s involving the bombings of the World Trade Center and U.S. embassies in Africa.

The new plan would create an expert team in Washington that would direct all terrorism investigations, centralize the evaluation of intelligence and threats and ensure that leads aren't lost inside the government bureaucracy, the officials said.

The bureau has been moving in that direction for months under the work of Assistant Director Dale Watson, who has led the bureau's counterterrorism and intelligence operations from Washington.

The reorganization comes as the FBI faces tough scrutiny from Congress about how much it knew prior to Sept. 11 about the threat of a terrorist strike.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July from its Arizona office warning there were a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training at at least one U.S. flight school and which urged a check of all flight schools to identify more possible Middle Eastern students.

Officials on Tuesday confirmed that a section of that classified memo shared with Congress in recent days also makes a passing reference to Osama bin Laden, speculating that al-Qaida and other such groups could organize such flight training. The officials said, however, that the memo offered no evidence bin Laden was behind the students that raised the concern.

The FBI also has faced tough questioning about whether it failed to act aggressively enough after arresting Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, in August after he raised concerns by seeking flight training at a Minnesota flight school.

Moussaoui has emerged as the lone defendant charged in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide hijackers to attack Americans.

Mueller repeatedly has said he wished the FBI had acted more aggressively in addressing the Arizona and Minnesota leads but said nothing the FBI possessed before Sept. 11 pointed to the multiple-airliner hijacking plot.

He also told senators in an appearance before Congress last week that the FBI was remaking itself to address the past flaws and to ensure all information about possible terrorist threats is addressed quickly and thoroughly. He asked senators for patience and support in the effort.

``Terrorists have shown they are willing to go to great lengths to destroy America. We must be willing to go to even greater lengths to stop them. Our worldwide network must be more powerful. Our financial commitment must be stronger. Our techniques, training and technology must be more sophisticated. And our sense of urgency and intensity must be greater,'' the director told senators.

Officials said the reorganization plan creating a super-terrorism fighting team in Washington is designed to meet those goals.