The FBI fires back
5/20/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Revelations that shook the nation's capital last week provided dispirited Democratic partisans with ammunition for bashing George W. Bush. All that really was exposed, however, is a failed government system of analyzing intelligence that transcends party politics and shortcomings of the current administration. It also revealed the FBI's lack of gratitude.
After Sept. 11 when the massive intelligence failure could be laid at the door of the FBI, the White House refrained from criticism of the nation's most respected law enforcement agency at a time of national crisis. The Bureau has rewarded that kindness by leaking documents that congressional investigators were seeking. That shifted the target from the FBI to the Oval Office.
Sen. Richard Shelby, Republican vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is determined to expose FBI failures. But President Bush cannot escape from the line of fire, with Democrats suddenly perceiving a weakness.
The nature of the intelligence failure became clear shortly after Sept. 11. Reports of an Arab learning to fly but not to land had foundered in the FBI's analytical morass, which was unable to connect it with an unspecified terrorist warning. Zacarias Moussaoui was held merely as a violator of immigration laws. I wrote last Sept. 26 that elements of the plan to employ hijacked airliners as weapons were known to the FBI as early as 1995, thanks to information from the Philippine police.
The now-famous memo from the FBI's Phoenix bureau last year, reporting on more Middle Eastern men in flight training, added more evidentiary bits that nobody put together. Sen. Bob Graham, the Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman, has graciously commented that the president's role is not one of intelligence analyst or case officer. However, the Phoenix memo never got beyond the middle levels of the FBI, much less all the way to the Oval Office.
Sophisticated local police officers have long complained that the FBI is notoriously poor at analysis. When Robert Mueller took over as FBI director Sept. 4, the Bureau's computer system was so obsolete that he asked the CIA for help.
However, dating from J. Edgar Hoover's era, the Bureau has been a vicious fighter inside the Washington jungle. In contrast, the Bushes are loath to attack the establishment, and the president was not about to point fingers at the FBI after Sept. 11.
There is little doubt that the FBI leaked the material placing the president in the cross hairs. "They're now leaking information that came out of the (Senate Intelligence Committee) investigation," Sen. Shelby told me last weekend on CNN. This is information that the Committee demanded from the FBI but never received.
That puts Bush on the defensive. He must explain how the FBI memos never came close to him. He has to tell how the unspecified warning of airliner hijacking given the White House last August was essentially the same information provided Congress.
In a sense, Bush and his team have themselves to blame. Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli immediately after Sept. 11 called for a "Pearl Harbor-type" investigation by a citizens' commission. The White House stifled this baby in its crib, citing protests from the FBI and CIA that they had no time to cope with an investigative commission. Actually, the attitude fits this administration's passion for secrecy.
Had Torricelli prevailed, a broad-based investigation launched months ago might have revealed in orderly fashion what is being leaked piecemeal -- fueling conspiracy theories and aiding irresponsible Democratic members of Congress.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia now claims she has been vindicated for accusing the Bush administration of not warning "the innocent people of New York, who were needlessly murdered" in order to benefit the Carlyle Group and other defense-oriented companies. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York charged that the president would bear a "large amount of responsibility for the tragedy that occurred" if the airlines were not warned of hijacking (in fact, they were warned).
Democratic leaders are subtler, wringing their hands and saying they simply want answers from the president. Will the president now turn on the FBI in self-defense? He may have to abandon his lofty perch and battle in the jungle with Richard Shelby.