The Phoenix FBI Agent

Kenneth Williams, human Rorschach test.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Who is Kenneth Williams? The FBI agent, who authored the now-famous “Phoenix memo” and who testified behind closed doors before three congressional committees this week, remains the Soviet Union of the post-9/11 recriminations scandal: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. We know startlingly little about the man. Because of that paucity of information, Williams has become a human Rorschach test—observers impute their own meanings to him, and what a person says about him says as much about the speaker as it does about Williams.

Here’s the inkblot: A former San Diego cop, Williams has worked for the FBI for roughly a decade. He’s in his early 40s. He coaches Little League. As an agent, he’s well-regarded by his colleagues, at least the ones who have spoken to the press. One former supervisor gave the Los Angeles Times this Spinal Tap assessment of Williams: “On a scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 10. Maybe an 11.” Another former colleague was similarly, if slightly less, effusive in his praise, noting, “Of all the people I knew and worked with in the Phoenix office, I’d put him in the top three or four.” And one colleague told Newsweek, “He thinks of everything in terms of Bin Laden.” For his part, Williams has remained scrupulously silent since his memo was unearthed by the Associated Press on May 3. His lone quote to the media was politely apologetic: When a Time reporter tracked him to his North Phoenix, Ariz., home, Williams told him, “I’m really sorry, but I would get into trouble if I talked to you.” After Sept. 11, he became the lead agent for the FBI’s post-9/11 investigation in Arizona. According to testimony he gave at a February trial, he’s been working 16- to 18-hour days since the terrorist attacks.

That’s it. That’s the grand total of what we know about the alleged Cassandra of Sept. 11. Plus his memo, of course. But it is similarly mysterious. The members of Congress on the intelligence committees who have read it aren’t saying much, even anonymously. Based on press reports, it’s short, either three or five pages long. Written July 10, 2001, it named no Sept. 11 hijackers, but it theorized that followers of Osama Bin Laden were trying to infiltrate the U.S. civil aviation system. Williams specifically named eight apparent Islamic radicals who were attending flight schools in Arizona. He wanted the FBI to canvas the nation’s flight schools for possible Islamic radicals, but he did not request that any arrests be made, and he marked his memo “routine,” not “urgent.” He was concerned about prospective flight students, not just current ones. At least two of the men Williams mentioned are currently under FBI surveillance, and another who has left the country is now believed to have been an al-Qaida member. (One paragraph of the otherwise classified memo has been released; you can read it at The Smoking Gun.)

Neither Williams—who testified in private before a congressional committee—nor FBI Director Robert Mueller believes that Williams’ proposed action, by itself, would have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. But the discovery of the memo, coupled with other pre-9/11 warnings about al-Qaida hijackers, has given the lie to the Bush administration’s claim that absolutely no one could have foreseen the possibility that terrorists would use planes as missiles. Before this week, pointing fingers at the Bush administration was the province of evidenceless conspiracy nuts like Cynthia McKinney. Now the taboo has been violated by a loyal Organization Man, and in an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of way, people are gleefully speaking out when they previously would have kept silent.

Not that anyone can agree on the significance of the memo, other than the emerging Washington consensus that an independent commission of wise men should investigate the intelligence failures that led to Sept. 11. Among the reactions that say as much about the accuser as the accused: William Safire, a columnist obsessed with internecine bureaucratic battles, unsurprisingly sees the memo as evidence of a turf war: CIA Director George Tenet didn’t want to ask the FBI for help when he prepared a presidential briefing on al-Qaida threats to the United States before Sept. 11. Safire is a conservative, so being able to pin the blame on Tenet, a Clinton appointee, is something of a bonus. Reliable Bush critic Maureen Dowd, by contrast, says the memo is evidence of a failure of vision at the highest levels of the administration: The Bushies’ pre-9/11 obsession with missile defense blinded them to the more urgent threat of Bin Laden. In addition to conveniently bashing missile defense, this theory fits snugly with Dowd’s belief that Bush is too stupid to have foreseen the terrorist attacks. Others take the opposite McKinney view: that Bush is an evil genius who covered up evidence of the oncoming attacks so that his family could profit from the resulting war. And Sen. Joe Lieberman repeats something he knows from his congressional Enron investigation: The late discovery of Williams’ memo shows that this administration is overly, and perniciously, obsessed with secrecy.

Even those who have read the memo can’t quite agree on its meaning. Sen. Bob Graham, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, says optimistically that the memo shows that if someone had examined all the relevant evidence, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been stopped. Sen. Richard Shelby, the committee’s ranking Republican, says pessimistically that it shows that the FBI is inept. FBI Director Mueller trumps Shelby’s pessimism, saying that despite the efforts of his best agents, terrorism can’t always be stopped.

All these statements (except the McKinney theory) are no doubt true, even the seemingly contradictory ones. The FBI’s failures are certainly worrisome (especially if they haven’t been fixed), and Kenneth Williams and his memo are emblematic of those failures. But Kenneth Williams and his ignored memo also carry a comforting message: that al-Qaida is not impenetrable, that their plans can be thwarted. The president can’t know everything, and he can’t read every intelligence report or turn the government upside-down on every agent’s hunch. But through the efforts of ordinary agents like Kenneth Williams, terrorism can be stopped. At least, that’s one way to read the inkblot.