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Senators question 'Phoenix memo' author

Williams leaves the Capitol after meeting with senators Tuesday.
Williams leaves the Capitol after meeting with senators Tuesday.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The author of an FBI memo raising questions about Arab students in U.S. flight schools met with Senate Judiciary Committee members Tuesday in a closed session senators said included hard questions for his boss.

The so-called "Phoenix memo," written July 10, 2001, by FBI agent Kenneth Williams, cited supporters of Osama bin Laden "attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona." While the memo has not been released, Fortune magazine reporter Richard Behar, who spoke with CNN, viewed a copy.

The memo apparently never reached the highest levels of the FBI, the CIA or the Justice Department until after September 11.

It states that law enforcement officials began examining questions about Arab students attending U.S. flight schools in April 2000, almost 17 months before the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is under renewed scrutiny amid questions over whether the government missed clues that might have alerted authorities to impending attacks on New York and Washington.

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Escorted by FBI Director Robert Mueller, Williams appeared before a closed-door session of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The session lasted more than two hours. Afterward, lawmakers praised Williams as a thorough agent, but they said they were unsatisfied with how the memo fell through the cracks.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said that to this day, Mueller still doesn't have a full explanation about what happened once Williams passed the memo up the chain of command.

"There aren't very many specific answers, and I think it's fair to say a lot of people high up in the FBI still don't know," Grassley said. "No one seems to know the process."

Of Williams, he said, "He's a very thorough person, he does a good job and we're lucky to have somebody like that in the FBI."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said he too was unsatisfied with the answers from Mueller.

"There was no explanation as to why the memo did not go to other places. Nobody knows at this stage, and that is something that has to be pursued," Specter said.

Specter referred to Williams as "a good soldier" who doesn't "show any signs of feeling like he was let down" by his superiors for failing to follow up on his lead.

"I believe he thought he was investigating a matter of significance and that he prepared memorandum to be submitted to an appropriate authorities above his pay grade for appropriate responses," Specter said. "After he submitted the memo, it was out of his hands."

Williams is to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. His memorandum states that the investigation began in April 2000, describing a bin Laden "effort to send students to U.S. to attend civil aviation universities and colleges."

The document, which was sent to about a dozen people, also talks about a decree issued by an Islamic spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed Fostok, in London.

The computer-generated memo was at least three pages long. It cites several students by name and Embry-Riddle University, an aeronautical school with campuses in Prescott, Arizona, and Daytona Beach, Florida.

None of the names in the memo have been identified by the FBI as any of the September 11 hijackers.

Grassley, who has previously called for releasing the memo, said he is no longer sure it should be made public. Specter said he was not prepared to say whether the memo should be released to the public.

Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared before the ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees Tuesday. Ashcroft and Mueller both learned of the Phoenix memo in the days after September 11, but did not brief legislators about the memo's existence.

"It is vital the Judiciary Committee get this information in a timely fashion," Specter said.




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