Phoenix FBI agent warned of potential terrorists using US flight schools prior to 9/11

The warning, known as the 'Phoenix memo', was put out before 9/11 but was not acted upon and prompted a massive internal investigation.
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 8:38 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 11, 2023 at 8:41 PM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - As we remember and honor the lives lost on 9/11, there’s a moment in history that some may have forgotten or not known about - the infamous ‘Phoenix Memo’ from the FBI.

The memo was from a Phoenix agent warning FBI headquarters that potential terrorists were training at flight schools in the United States. The warning was put out before 9/11 but was not acted upon and prompted a massive internal investigation.

Dealing with the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history was devastating, even more so when information became available that the FBI was made aware of a potential threat before it happened. “Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people’” said former President George W. Bush.

The federal government became scrutinized when former Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams’ ‘Phoenix memo’ became public with alarming details.

Williams wrote the now well-known ‘Phoenix memo’ in July of 2001, which warned that potential terrorists were attending American flight schools, including Hani Hanjour, who trained in flight school in the Valley. While the ‘Phoenix memo’ did not include Hanjour by name, Congress found one of the men named in Williams’ memo was directly connected to him.

Hani Hanjour trained at multiple Arizona flight schools and studied at the University of Arizona. He became the hijacker pilot who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on 9/11, killing all 64 people on board and 125 people in the Pentagon.

In the memo, Williams warned that Osama bin Laden was sending students to U.S. flight schools to train them for potential terrorist activity.

Williams testified in front of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee panel from behind a wall. He said a lack of resources hampered his efforts to get headquarters to act on his intel. “I saw a decreased amount of analytical material that came out of headquarters that could assist somebody like myself in Arizona,” Williams said before Congress.

Criticism was swift. “It went to Washington, and nothing was done about it,” said then-U.S. Senator Richard Shelby. “The FBI in Washington was either asleep, inept or both.”

But, the committee investigating the event found the memo speculative yet acknowledged several problems with how it was handled and analyzed and made changes. “We brought counter-terrorism together with counterintelligence so that our national security programs would be more integrated and accountable,” said then FBI director Robert Mueller.

If the ‘Phoenix memo’ had been acted upon, could 9/11 have been stopped? At the very least, it may have sent up a red flag. “No one can say whether the FBI would have developed an investigative interest in Hanjour had they opened an investigation on the individual mentioned in the Phoenix EC prior to September 11,” said Eleanor Hill, the staff director of the 9/11 committee in Congress at the time.

The FBI publicly acknowledged this was a significant intelligence failure, which hindered the chances of the FBI being able to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks.

Former agent Ken Williams still lives in Arizona. Arizona’s Family tried to reach out to him today for an interview but did not hear back.

See a spelling or grammatical error in our story? Please click here to report it.

Do you have a photo or video of a breaking news story? Send it to us here with a brief description.