Whopper of the Week: Robert Mueller

He knew more than he said about 9/11.

“There were no warning signs that I’m aware of that would indicate this type of operation in the country.”

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, at a Sept. 17 Justice Department news briefing about the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The July 10 [FBI field] report from Phoenix was a five-page electronic communication to headquarters outlining links between a group of suspected Middle Eastern terrorists and the Embry-RiddleAeronauticalUniversity in Prescott, Ariz. The agent, whose name has not been divulged, suggested that the FBI should canvass U.S. flight schools for information on other Middle Eastern students. He speculated that bin Laden might be attempting to train operatives to infiltrate the aviation industry.

“FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has acknowledged that the bureau should have responded more aggressively to that report. But the FBI did not share it within the interagency Counterterrorism Security Group, which had a ‘threat subgroup’ meeting three times a week. According to sources, the Phoenix report reached no further than FBI headquarters and the New York field office.

” ‘Even today I get dozens of reports a day from the CIA and none from the FBI,’ said a government counterterrorism official. ‘When an FBI SAC [special agent in charge] sends in a message, it never leaves the bureau. In fact, they can still get in trouble if they show it to you.’ “

Barton Gellman, “Before Sept. 11, Unshared Clues and Unshaped Policy,” in the May 17 Washington Post.

“[T]he F.B.I. had arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in Minneapolis after a flight school there reported that he had wanted to train on a 747 flight simulator, even though he had little experience as a pilot.

“On Aug. 13 … Mr. Moussaoui, a French citizen, was arrested in Minnesota after officials at a flight school there contacted the F.B.I. about their suspicions about his behavior.

“He was arrested on immigration charges, and in one F.B.I. interview, an agent accused Mr. Moussaoui of being a terrorist. Mr. Moussaoui denied it, saying only that he wanted to learn to fly.”

David Johnston and James Risen, “Foreboding Increased, but No Single Agency Had All the Clues,” in the May 17 New York Times.

“On July 5 of last year, a month and a day before President Bush first heard that al Qaeda might plan a hijacking, the White House summoned officials of a dozen federal agencies to the Situation Room.

“‘Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon,’ the government’s top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, told the assembled group, according to two of those present. The group included the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the Coast Guard, FBI, Secret Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“Clarke directed every counterterrorist office to cancel vacations, defer nonvital travel, put off scheduled exercises and place domestic rapid-response teams on much shorter alert. For six weeks last summer, at home and overseas, the U.S. government was at its highest possible state of readiness—and anxiety—against imminent terrorist attack.”

Gellman’s May 17 Washington Post story.

Discussion. During the past couple of days, there’s been a lot of talk about how advance information that might have helped prevent the Sept. 11 attackswas diffused throughout too many government agencies. Concurrently, there’s been an energetic—and, Chatterbox thinks, overblown—effort to pin blame on President Bush himself for not putting all the clues together. Chatterbox hereby serves up a much more plausible scapegoat: FBI Director Robert Mueller. In July and August 2001, Mueller’s agency, which has principal responsibility for preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, knew that al-Qaida was planning a big attack; that there was some evidence Middle Eastern terrorists were infiltrating U.S. flight schools; that Zacarias Moussaoui, then attending flight school in Minnesota, had been arrested on immigration charges and was suspected of being a terrorist; and that President Bush had been warned of an al-Qaida plot to hijack airlines. The fact that Mueller later lied about receiving all these clues is mere icing on the cake.

[Correction, May 20: Several readers pointed out something Chatterbox had forgotten when he wrote this item—namely, that Mueller was sworn in as FBI director a mere week before Sept. 11. (Mueller was confirmed in early August, but then took a month off to have and recover from major surgery.) That does more or less eliminate any personal responsibility Mueller would bear for the FBI’s bungling in July and August (though Chatterbox should point out that from January to May 2001, Mueller was acting deputy director of the Justice Department, which, at least in theory, oversees the FBI). The foregoing does not, however, absolve Mueller from Chatterbox’s charge that he lied about whether the FBI received “warning signs” prior to 9/11. It did, and Mueller would surely have been told about these “warning signs” in the days following this catastrophe. Chatterbox can’t bear to contemplate the alternative.]

[Update, May 21: David Johnston and Don Van Natta Jr., report   in today’s New York Times that Mueller was indeed told about these “warning signs” within days of the Sept. 11 attacks.]

Got a whopper? Send it to To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.

Whopper Archive:
May 9, 2002: Karl Rove
May 3, 2002: Gen. Richard Myers
April 25, 2002: Donald Rumsfeld
April 18, 2002: George W. Bush  
April 11, 2002: The Rev. Robert J. Banks, archdiocese of Boston
April 5, 2002: George W. Bush  
Mar. 29, 2002: Major League Baseball
Mar. 21, 2002: Billy Graham
Mar. 14, 2002: INS commissioner James W. Ziglar
Mar. 8, 2002: Robert Zoellick and the U.S. steel industry
Feb. 28, 2002: Al Sharpton
Feb. 22, 2002: Olympic skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne
Feb. 14, 2002: Kenneth Lay
Feb. 8, 2002: Enron spokeswoman Peggy Mahoney
Jan. 31, 2002: Monsanto
Jan. 24, 2002: Linda Chavez
Jan. 17, 2002: George W. Bush
Jan. 10, 2002: Simon & Schuster
Jan. 4, 2002: The Associated Press

(Click  here  to access the Whopper Archive for 2001.)