updated 9/7/2004 6:39:23 PM ET 2004-09-07T22:39:23

The top FBI official in Detroit has insisted his agents likely thwarted a terrorist attack by arresting four men in 2001 even though the Justice Department has withdrawn terrorism charges against them.

“You should be proud of the excellent investigative work conducted by the JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) in Detroit, and everyone should recognize that their efforts may have prevented another attack,” Special Agent in Charge Daniel Roberts wrote last week in an e-mail to his entire office.

The e-mail was obtained by The Associated Press.

Roberts sent his memo the same day the Justice Department asked a federal judge to dismiss convictions on terrorism counts against Karim Koubriti and other men accused of operating a terror cell in Detroit. The government sought a retrial on lesser fraud charges.

The Justice Department said prosecutors withheld evidence from defense lawyers that might have resulted in a different verdict if the jury had seen it. The judge agreed to the department’s request, unraveling the Bush administration’s lone major terror prosecution since Sept. 11.

Agents’ testimony questioned
Justice’s court filing questioned the accuracy of trial testimony by FBI agents. Roberts on the other hand said the agents “acted aggressively and worked very hard on this case in an effort to prevent a terrorist attack.”

FBI officials said Roberts was referring to evidence from Turkish authorities that Osama bin Laden called off an attack on a Turkish air base used by U.S. forces because security was heightened. Security was raised after sketches of the air base were found in the Detroit men’s apartment in September 2001.

Roberts described Justice’s turnabout as “strictly a legal decision” necessitated by prosecutors’ failure to turn over certain documents to defense lawyers during trial.

A lawyer for one defendant expressed surprise Tuesday at the FBI e-mail. “It shocks me that anyone who has seen the government’s memo on this case would still think these men are terrorists,” said James Gerometta, a public defender who represented Koubriti.

Roberts, transferred earlier this year from FBI headquarters to take over a Detroit office stung by controversy, said the prosecutor who decided to drop the charges, Craig Morford, would visit the Detroit FBI to explain his thinking.

‘To prevent the loss of life’
In the interim, Roberts reminded agents that convictions weren’t the only way to measure success against terrorists.

“The FBI’s new terrorism mission requires that we work as hard as possible to prevent another terrorist attack,” Roberts wrote. “If we happen to obtain a prosecution in addition to preventing an attack, then that’s just icing on the proverbial cake.

“The most important goal is to prevent the loss of life through our aggressive involvement in terrorism cases, and I believe we accomplished that in the Koubriti case,” he wrote.

Robert’s e-mail is the latest sign of discord between legal managers in Washington and agents and prosecutors on the front line of anti-terrorism efforts.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department deported Nabil al-Marabh, No. 27 on the FBI’s list of most-wanted al-Qaida operatives, to Syria earlier this year although prosecutors in Detroit, Chicago and other cities had built criminal cases against him. The Detroit prosecutors had wanted to make him part of this case.

Deportation questioned
Several lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley and Democrat Patrick Leahy, have questioned the deportation as well as the leak of an informant’s name that compromised an FBI counterterrorism asset.

The Justice filing quotes former prosecutor Keith Corbett as saying he would never have proceeded with the case if he had known about the evidence that wasn’t turned over to defense lawyers.

But the filing doesn’t mention that Corbett also complained in writing that Washington headquarters hampered the case and failed to provide resources for a major prosecution. Justice’s terrorism unit “provided no help of any kind in this prosecution,” Corbett complained in one memo.

The case also exposed how officials in different cities reacted differently when faced with the same evidence.

Memos obtained by AP revealed that when U.S. officials learned in 2002 that a tape found in an al-Qaida hideout in Madrid showed Las Vegas casinos and the Golden Gate bridge, California officials issued a public warning but Las Vegas officials did not.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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