Sept. 11 inquiry: lapses, memos, and deadlock

Amid this week's revelations of missed cues, the Senate wrangles over Homeland Security, OKs new investigation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An FBI agent in Phoenix expected that the man with the bin Laden poster in his apartment might be uneasy when questioned for the first time. He was not. He answered questions about why he was taking aviation-security courses at a local university. He even offered his opinion that the US government and military were legitimate targets of Islam.

But the interview worried the special agent, who connected some dots on his own – and testified to Congress about it this week. After 15 months of work, he'd sent an electronic memo to FBI headquarters on July 10, 2001, laying out his suspicions about a number of Middle Eastern men attending flight schools, and urging the bureau to take a closer look. It did not.

"I felt out on an island," the Phoenix agent told a joint congressional panel on Tuesday. He said that disclosing his name would endanger his family. But the suspect, it turns out, may have helped choose and train pilots for the Sept. 11 hijackings.

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It's one of many accounts of miscues and missed opportunities emerging from a fast-paced congressional investigation into what went wrong on and before Sept. 11. With only three months before its mandate expires, the joint House/Senate select intelligence committee is eager to get out as much of the story as possible.

But it's not clear that the warnings are being heard on the Senate floor, where members are locked in a fierce partisan fight over the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.

A spotlight on what went wrong

The GOP-controlled House passed the president's version of the bill after two days of debate, but the Senate hit partisan roadblocks that have held it up for more than three weeks. Republicans say it's a fight over arcane work rules, such as whether intelligence agents can only be posted in areas that offer dry cleaning. Democrats say that basic rights, such as the right to bargain collectively and join unions, are at stake.

What's missing in this debate, some analysts say, is careful examination of what went wrong and how to correct it.

"Very little of the homeland-security reorganization deals with the core problems you're hearing about in the investigation," says Paul Light, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

On one level, that's because the probe of what went wrong is still under way. Congress is poised to create an independent panel, formed of non-government citizens and including relatives of Sept. 11 victims, which would investigate broadly. It could end up delving into not just the intelligence-agency performance in the months leading up to Sept. 11, but also matters of immigration policy, diplomacy, and airport security that may relate to homeland security.

Also, some analysts say crucial reforms need to be spearheaded within the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, not by Congress.

The agencies are struggling to fix percieved cultural roadblocks such as territoriality and communication vacuums.

"Across agencies, particularly in the FBI, that's a problem of bureaucratic culture and self preservation that doesn't go away with the creation of a department, especially one that doesn't even include the FBI," Mr. Light adds.

Warnings sent – and dismissed

Testifying behind an opaque screen, FBI agents from Arizona, Minneapolis, and bureau headquarters in Washington tried to explain to lawmakers how two timely warnings landed in the same office about the same time – and went nowhere.

One was the Phoenix memo. The other concerns the FBI's failure to approve a full-scale investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected 20th hijacker, after he was arrested a month before the 9/11 attacks.

"No one will ever know whether a greater focus on the connection between these events would have led to the unraveling of the Sept. 11 plot," says Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint inquiry. But it might have "generated a higher state of alert" and "prompted more aggressive investigation and intelligence gathering regarding the information our government did possess prior to Sept. 11," she added.

In retrospect, a series of oversights

The chain of glitches covers everything from inadequate funding and conflicting priorities to e-mail systems that only forward messages to the first name on a list. In Phoenix, the FBI agent reports that other priorities, such as the war on drugs, took precedence over counterterrorism.

"I may need surveillance support on a suspected terrorist, and would request that – and find that it had been diverted to the southern border in order to cover a load of cocaine or marijuana coming across the border," he said. While there was an automated system for casework, hundreds of documents daily often sat by the computer, because staff were busy answering phones or escorting visitors.

The agent's memo on flight schools was assigned to a supervisor to read 20 days after it arrived at FBI headquarters in Washington. On Aug. 7, it was forwarded to an analyst in Portland, Ore., with a note: "Let me know if anything strikes you." Nothing did, and the lead was closed.

When asked why he did not follow up on his own memo, the agent said, "I was in the middle of investigations myself." And he'd sent it via "routine" delivery, meaning recipients had 90 days to answer. "There was no direct threat information in there; it was too speculative," he explained.

Now, an independent commission

For families of victims of the attacks, too many such questions remain. Also testifying before the joint panel on Sept. 18, victims' spokesmen called for an independent commission to conduct a deeper investigation into why the US failed to deter the attacks. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 90 to 8 to create such a commission.

"Honestly, the investigation should be removed from the political process to instill public faith in it," said Kristen Brietweiser, co-chair of the September 11th Advocates, as she lobbied individual senators before Tuesday's vote.

"We've been through so many terrorist reports with nothing to show for it," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania.

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