Who’s to blame?

Posted: Aug 01, 2003 12:00 AM

 It’s one of our more endearing, and frustrating, traits. Whenever something goes wrong, Americans look for someone to blame.

 One example is the new congressional report on intelligence actions and the Sept. 11 attacks. Lawmakers had some harsh words for the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency. They say these groups didn’t collect nearly enough information ahead of the attacks. According to the report, “this gap in intelligence coverage is unacceptable, given the magnitude and immediacy of the potential risk to national security.”

 That’s true, but it lacks context. As NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden put it, before Sept. 11, “we, like everyone else at the table, were stretched thin. The war against terrorism was our number one priority. We had about five number one priorities.”

 The congressional report admits that none of the agencies had enough people. And the people they did have were overworked. That’s one reason why some intelligence about the Sept. 11 terrorists was collected, but not correctly evaluated. Hiring more people would have required more money, or at least an order to shift people from other cases to the war on terrorism. Neither of those things happened.

 Another problem was restrictions on intelligence gathering. Ironically, those restrictions usually came from Congress.

 For example, as FBI Director Robert Mueller testified on July 23, before Sept. 11, “a metaphorical ‘wall’ was erected between intelligence and law enforcement.” This meant that intelligence agents couldn’t share what they learned with criminal investigators. The law was designed to protect civil liberties, but was an obvious roadblock to an effective investigation of a suspected terrorist.
This “wall” was finally dismantled when Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001. But the FBI can hardly be blamed for playing by the very rules Congress had designed for it in the years leading up to Sept. 11.

 Those rules, unfortunately, also included strict limits on the FBI’s ability to observe activities in public places, including houses of worship. Even if the bureau had someone under surveillance, the agents involved had to break it off if he went into a church or mosque. In other words, someone planning terrorist acts would have known he could do it safely as long as he did it in a house of worship.

 This isn’t a call to begin monitoring all religious services. But it does make sense to allow federal agents to observe suspects wherever they go. As Mueller said, new guidelines “allow us to go where the public can go.” If this had been our policy before Sept. 11, maybe we could have prevented the attacks.

 Finally, political correctness compromised our pre-Sept. 11 war on terror. The congressional report cited an Aug. 6, 2001 intelligence report given to President Bush. The report warned that “members of al Qaeda, including some U.S. citizens, had resided in or traveled to the United States for years and that the group apparently maintained a support structure here.” It also “cited uncorroborated information obtained and disseminated in 1998 that bin Laden wanted to hijack airplanes to gain the release of U.S.-held extremists.”

 Some have taken that to mean that Bush could have prevented Sept. 11, if he had taken more aggressive action in August 2001. But what could he, realistically, have done?
Imagine if he had issued an executive order demanding extra scrutiny of Arab-looking men at airports. This seems a logical step, as the intelligence report had pointed out that al Qaeda operatives were living among us and that hijackings were at least possible.

 But Bush surely would have been accused of racial profiling, and his order would have been overturned. In fact, he would have faced opposition from within his own cabinet. On Sept. 16, 2001 -- after the attacks -- Attorney General John Ashcroft still insisted, “I’m against using race as a profiling component” in screening airline passengers.

 Even today, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration admits the decision to search individuals at airport security checkpoints is made by computer, not by humans. Do we have better airport security today than we did on Sept. 10, 2001? Yes. But is that security as good as it could be? No. And political correctness is one reason.

In its report, Congress correctly points out many problems with our pre-Sept.11 intelligence gathering. But lawmakers should realize that they themselves caused many of those problems by handcuffing our intelligence services. Sadly, there’s plenty of blame to go around.