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Agent Williams wrote the memo on July 5, detailing his suspicions about some Arabs he had been watching, who he thought were Islamic radicals. Several of the men had enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Williams posited that bin Laden's followers might be trying to infiltrate the civil-aviation system as pilots, security guards or other personnel, and he recommended a national program to track suspicious flight-school students. The memo was sent to the counterterrorism division at FBI headquarters in Washington and to two field offices, including the counterterrorism section in New York, which has had long experience in al-Qaeda investigations.
That experience counted for nothing. In all three offices, the memo was pretty much ignored, disappearing into the black hole of bureaucratic hell that is the FBI. That was the second key mistake. Sources tell TIME that the memo was never forwarded--not even to the level of Mike Rolince, chief of the international-terrorism section. "The thing fell into the laps of people who were grossly overtaxed," says a senior FBI official. The G-men claim to have been swamped by tips about coming al-Qaeda operations. But Williams was onto something. The flight students he was tracking were supporters of radical Islamic groups. Some of them, sources say, are believed to be connected to Hamas and Hizballah, terrorist organizations based in the Middle East, while at least one other--who has left the U.S.--had links to al-Qaeda. Another pair mentioned in the memo, neither of whom attended flight school, are the ones under FBI surveillance--which, sources say, is the reason Mueller won't make the memo public.
However fevered the analysis of the Williams memo is now, it didn't get much attention when it was written. Last July, FBI headquarters wasn't concentrating on an attack within the U.S. "Nobody was looking domestically," says a recently retired FBI official. "We didn't think they had the people to mount an operation here."
That was the third huge mistake--and a somewhat baffling conclusion to draw, given the evidence at hand. In spring of 2001, Ahmed Ressam, the "millennium bomber," was on trial in Los Angeles, charged with being part of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other locations at the end of 1999. In her press conference last week, Rice conceded that in 2001 the FBI "was involved in a number of investigations of potential al-Qaeda personnel operating in the United States."