This is one of the strangest stories I've ever told. Last week, as I've previously noted, Mueller appeared before Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time since his confirmation hearing last summer.
The stated purpose of the hearing was to explain his plans for phase two of his reorganization. But because the story had broken about the Phoenix memo, much of his testimony necessarily revolved around that issue. Senators of course also raised the Moussaoui issue, as I have done above.
About an hour and a half into the hearing, Mueller was being questioned by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Here's part of that exchange:
Sen. Durbin: "Do you believe, as you testify today, that the FBI ignored a clear warning about the pending events of Sept. 11 by not responding properly to this memorandum?
Mr. Mueller: "Yes, I would disagree with that statement. I think the recommendations of the agent are something that we should have more aggressively pursued. I do not believe that it gave the signpost of that which would happen on Sept. 11.
"Of the warnings that we had — the stopping of Moussaoui, the arrest of Moussaoui, brought the bureau, and particularly the agent in Minneapolis, to the belief that this individual is the type of individual that could and might be the type of individual to take a plane and hijack it. And in fact, if I'm not mistaken, in one of the notes, the agent in Minneapolis mentioned the possibility of Moussaoui being that type of person that could fly something into the World Trade Center."
According to a senior FBI official, "No, he's not mistaken." The agent really did say that in his notes; the director really did testify to that effect, in an open hearing, in front of a couple dozen reporters, including the best and brightest on the Justice beat.
And not one single solitary reporter who was there that day wrote one syllable about the director saying one of his agents had speculated that Moussaoui wanted to fly something into the World Trade Center!
The only reporter who noticed it was the Newsweek guy ,who didn't even attend the hearing, and who only caught it by reading the transcript. I have not yet gone back to review the tape, to see if by chance it might show that every reporter in the room had been simultaneously hit by a thunderbolt, or fallen into a coma.
It was around 3:30, so maybe all of our biorhythms were equally low. Subsequently, of course, several of us have managed to rouse ourselves and return to the transcript and write authoritatively about that which we had failed earlier to notice. But fundamentally — this cannot be explained by any rational means.
Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for 16 years for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Saturday.