Mueller: 'Perhaps we would have gotten lucky'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Backing away from previous strong assertions that the September 11 attacks could not have been thwarted, FBI Director Robert Mueller now doesn't rule out that "tidbits of information" could have led authorities to the hijackers.
Mueller made the acknowledgment during a question-and-answer session Wednesday with reporters, following a news conference at which he outlined a massive overhaul of the nation's top law enforcement agency to focus on preventing terrorism. (Full story)
"Putting all the pieces together over a period of time, who is to say?" he said.
Pressed further, the director said, "I can't say for sure that there wasn't a possibility that we would have come across some leads that would have led us to the hijackers."
Mueller insisted there was no single piece of information before September 11 that could have prevented the attacks.
Thursday, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America", Mueller said he still doesn't believe the attacks could have been prevented. But his comments were not absolute.
"As I said before, it's not totally impossible that perhaps we would have gotten lucky, but the main point is we have to do better job in the future," Mueller said
"I don't think we blew anything," Mueller added, but he acknowledged, "There were signals out there we should have picked up on."
There were "little tidbits of information that related to either flight schools, or the like, that come from some years back."
In the immediate days following the attacks, top government officials said there were no hints of what was to come on September 11. Later, the FBI amended its public comments to say that even if there were some disparate clues, there was no way the attacks could have been prevented.
But that stance was undermined by a devastating memo from an FBI whistleblower who says the agency's headquarters stymied efforts by the Minneapolis field office to learn more about suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. Moussaoui was arrested on an immigration charge about three weeks before the deadly hijackings and had aroused suspicion at a Minnesota flight school.
FBI headquarters rebuffed the Minneapolis agents' request for a warrant to search Moussaoui's computer and investigate him further. Moussaoui has since been charged as a conspirator in the September 11 attacks.
The FBI agent who wrote the memo to Mueller, Coleen Rowley, challenged Mueller's earlier comments that nothing could have undermined the plot.
"The truth is, as with most predictions into the future, no one will ever know what impact, if any, the FBI's following up on those requests, would have had," Rowley wrote. (Read the memo on Time.com)
Her letter followed disclosures that an FBI agent in Phoenix had written a memo last July, one in which he questioned whether Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot involving a large number of Arab men taking aviation lessons in the United States.
On Wednesday, the FBI revealed other potential warnings that apparently did not set off any alarm bells at FBI headquarters. (Full story)
In one case, the FBI's chief pilot in Oklahoma City observed that Middle Eastern men were taking flight training in the state, which the pilot speculated "may be related to planned terrorist activity," according to an FBI memo dated May 18, 1998 -- more than three years before the attacks.
The agent described the training as "a recent phenomenon." He also speculated "that light planes would be an ideal means of spreading chemical or biological agents," the memo said.
The memo was titled "Weapons of Mass Destruction," but its importance was labeled "routine."
In addition to that memo, another federal agency had been provided a document that said operatives for another government had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase a flight simulator in the United States.
The nation involved was identified only as a Middle Eastern country. Another FBI official said it was a "restricted country."
Although the attempted purchase appeared to have no obvious connection to terrorism, the official said the FBI is attempting to get the necessary clearances to release documents related to the simulator, as well as information related to the Oklahoma City memo.
"Right now, if it has anything to do with aviation, we want to release it," the official said.
CNN Justice Producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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