As the 9-11 commission shines its too-often-partisan beam on our intelligence agencies, most Americans will come to the view, if they haven't already, that the FBI completely dropped the ball in the month before the terrorist attacks.
This is all the more puzzling because of the now-famous "PDB" of Aug. 6, 2001, which stated clearly that the FBI had launched 70 full-field investigations against Al Qaeda. Yet in two absolutely crucial cases, the bureau failed utterly to act on the abundant evidence that would have conceivably stopped the 9-11 bombings.
This first failure occurred in Phoenix in mid-August of 2001. FBI agent Kevin Williams had been compiling a case to support his suspicion that there was something wrong in a local flight school. William's unnamed suspect, who was detained by the INS but whose computer was never searched, turns out to be a close associate of Hani Hanjour, the terrorist who crashed a plane into the Pentagon. Williams forwarded a memo to senior investigator Eleanor Hill detailing his suspicions. Hill disregarded his memo, a search warrant was never issued, and the suspect was released without his computer ever being searched. Less than one month later, Hanjour did his dirty work. Had the FBI taken William's memo seriously, the 9-11 attack conceivably could have been prevented.
The second case is that of the now infamous Zacarias Moussaoui and Minneapolis FBI agent Colleen Rowley. Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001, after his flight-school managers tipped-off the FBI. The bureau's D.C. office ignored the Minneapolis office's report, the investigation never really got off the ground, and items seized from Moussaoui's living quarters were never fully examined. What's more, the Washington office of the FBI openly refused to grant a request to search Moussaoui's computer. The investigation strangled in red tape. After 9-11, in a now famous memo, Rowley accused the FBI of putting up a "roadblock."
Internal problems like these are exactly what National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was talking about in her testimony before the commission last week. She mentioned "bureaucratic" and "structural and legal impediments" that got in the way of preventing the attacks. The G-men of the FBI, so good at pursuing American criminals of all stripes, seem here to have been poorly equipped to prosecute domestic counter-terror measures. This is the nub of the problem. The government and the American people should concentrate on it, rather than on political jihads against Rice or her boss, President Bush.
As former Sen. Slade Gorton put it on Fox News Sunday, "It seems to me the FBI has more questions to answer than Condoleezza Rice or Dick Clarke or anyone else we've had testify before us so far." This is good advice: The inquiry should focus on the intelligence-sharing and administrative failures of the FBI.
But at least some of the blame goes to Janet Reno. In July 1995, Reno and her deputy, Jamie Gorelick ,wrote and put into effect a list of procedures governing the FBI's ability to share information with other agencies in their investigations of potential terrorism suspects. These procedures were called "The Wall" within the bureau. Undoubtedly, they were implemented to please politically correct ACLU-type liberal groups worried more about the rights of terrorists than the safety of the United States.
In essence, Reno and Gorelick set up a central office, the OIPR, overseeing information-sharing in the course of such terrorist investigations. The OIPR had to grant permission -- not a sure thing -- before information could be passed between agencies. The rules also demanded that one of the OIPR's own employees supervise all such informational exchanges. No wonder the FBI didn't work more quickly with the INS in Phoenix. No wonder the Washington office was so reluctant to grant Rowley permission to search Moussaoui's computer.
This bureaucratic obstruction went so far that Marion "Spike" Bowman, a D.C. FBI functionary largely responsible for blocking the Minneapolis office's request, was given a citation and a raise a year later for "exceptional performance." Rewarding this kind of incompetence is hardly the way to ensure that terrorists never get another chance to hit us at home.
In her testimony, Rice tried to impose a sense of optimism regarding possible solutions for improved domestic counterintelligence. She cited the Patriot Act, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Department of Homeland Security. Yet the question remains whether the FBI can morph into an effective terrorist-hunting operation, or whether we must now borrow Britain's MI5 model of a separate domestic intelligence-gathering agency.
President Bush is open to the suggestion, and the 9-11 commission may recommend it. Instead of partisan bickering and political finger-pointing, creating a new terrorist-hunting and intelligence-gathering agency for the homefront may be the best next step in protecting America.