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The man behind the hot memo

The man behind the hot memo

By James Poniewozik Reported by David Schwartz, Michael Duffy, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf

When FBI agent Kenneth Williams wrote a memo last July warning that Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers might be training in American flight schools, no one listened. Now his memo is the hottest thing in Washington. On Saturday Arlen Specter, a veteran Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called FBI director Robert Mueller and urged him to turn over the memo. When Mueller refused, Specter snapped, "Congress gave you a 10-year term and expects a response from you," according to a reliable account. "The people are entitled to an explanation." Specter then called committee chairman Patrick Leahy at his farm in Vermont, and the two men agreed to summon Mueller--and the memo--to Capitol Hill this week and, if he refuses, hit him with a Senate subpoena. If the White House tries to fight the move, says a G.O.P. source, "as many as 20 Republican senators" would vote to enforce the subpoena.


The FBI does not want to release the document, two Administration sources say, because it details a "live" investigation of at least two men believed to be tied to radical Islamic groups who are still at large in the U.S. The fight has raised the pressure on Mueller, who since taking his job just one week before Sept. 11 has been caught between Congress and his constituencies at the FBI and the Justice Department.

The one person who isn't talking about Williams' memo is the man who wrote it. "I'm really sorry," Williams, 42, told a TIME reporter who approached him outside his North Phoenix, Ariz., home Saturday, "but I would get in trouble if I talked to you." He is a mild and graying man, but a transcript of his testimony from a terror-related trial in February provides a glimpse of his fierce work habits. After Sept. 11 proved him right, he didn't blow the whistle on the disturbing breakdown in the chain of intelligence that followed his memo. He didn't quit. He didn't write a book. Instead, he went back to the office and bore down harder than ever.

On Valentine's Day 2002, Williams took the stand against Faisal Al Salmi, a Saudi Arabian pilot accused of lying about his connections to Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. Williams testified that he had been working 16- to 18-hour days as the case agent on the FBI's post-Sept. 11 investigation in Arizona. He usually arrived at the office by 5 a.m., and he didn't take a day off until Thanksgiving. The most senior member of a joint terrorism task force, Williams was in charge of "a couple of thousand leads," some of which pointed to Al Salmi. Together with his partner George Piro, a fluent Arabic speaker, Williams conducted much of a 10-hour interrogation of the pilot. Al Salmi defiantly said there was nothing Williams or the government could do to him. "I told him that I believed that he was lying," Williams said, "and that we would be meeting with the United States Attorney's office concerning this matter." A jury concurred, and Al Salmi was sentenced to six months in prison.

Williams' former colleague Ronald Myers, a 31-year FBI veteran, praised his work to the Los Angeles Times. "He is one of the sharpest agents I have ever met," Myers said. "Anyone in FBI management who wouldn't take what Ken Williams said seriously is a fool." Since the trial, Williams has continued working quietly. "It's been my past experience," Williams told the court, "that the smallest bit of information that comes in could later turn out to be the most important piece of the investigation." That's a lesson Williams' bosses learned too late.




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