WASHINGTON -- The monumental challenge facing Tom Ridge in battling terrorism on the home front is emphasized by a slowly emerging scandal. The FBI had advance indications of plans to hijack U.S. airliners and use them as weapons, but neither acted on them nor distributed the intelligence to local police agencies.
From the moment of the Sept. 11 attacks, high-ranking federal officials insisted that the terrorists' method of operation surprised them. Many stick to that story. Actually, elements of the hijacking plan were known to the FBI as early as 1995 and, if coupled with current information, might have uncovered the plot.
This looks less like an intelligence failure than a law enforcement fiasco. While the CIA missed the conspiracy's overseas roots, the FBI did not share or interpret available information. Can former Pennsylvania Gov. Ridge, operating from a White House office, get this most famous and haughty of American police agencies to share what it knows with local officers in the interest of the public's safety? A critical question about the new kind of war declared by President Bush is whether he conveys undisputed authority for Ridge to change the FBI's ways.
The shape of what happened Sept. 11 dates back to 1995, when chemicals intended to destroy U.S. commercial flights in mid-air exploded in a Manila apartment used by convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef (now serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). Chief Superintendent Avelino Razon of the Philippine police revealed shortly after the attacks that the terrorist cell discovered in 1995 had drawn up plans for using suicide pilots.
On Sept. 19, CNN's Eileen O'Connor reported that the Philippine police in 1995 had learned of the plan to turn passenger airliners into flying bombs. The targets she listed: the Pentagon, CIA headquarters outside Washington, the TransAmerica building in San Francisco, the Sears tower in Chicago and New York's World Trade Center. More details were revealed last Sunday in The Washington Post.
This background would have been critical had it been connected on Aug. 13 with a flight school in Eagan, Minn., telling the FBI of peculiar behavior by one of its students, Zacarias Moussaoui. He wanted to take 747 simulator training but only to learn how to steer, not to land or take off. Moussaoui was arrested for lack of a valid visa and held for deportation. But no connection was made with the 1995 revelations.
Indeed, senior government officials are still in denial. Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey, at her New York JFK Airport press conference Monday, said: "No one could imagine someone being willing to commit suicide, being willing to use an airplane as a lethal weapon." The FBI could, but apparently never alerted the FAA.
A week after the attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller said: "The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to receive training at flight schools here is news, quite obviously. If we had understood that to be the case, ... perhaps one could have averted this." But the FBI could have linked the Philippine revelations with information about Moussaoui.
"It's the same old FBI," said a law enforcement expert who did not want his name used, complaining that the bureau always has kept state and local police in the dark. That view was expressed this week in Charleston, S.C., during a private conference of police officials.
They see protection of citizens a responsibility more of 650,000 state and local officers than of the 11,500 FBI agents. "This is not a federal problem," Johnny Mack Brown of Greenville, S.C., former head of the National Sheriffs' Association, told me. "This is an American law enforcement problem. The FBI certainly has to get this information to the local authorities."
That defines Tom Ridge's daunting mission. Some senators, though they like and respect Ridge, would have preferred New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a tough former federal prosecutor not awed by the bureau. But anybody, working as terrorism czar from the White House with no line authority, might suffer the fate of ineffective federal drug czars. The president must make sure his fellow former governor can open to the nation's police vital intelligence hoarded by the FBI.