Sept. 11 inquiry: lapses, memos, and deadlock
Amid this week's revelations of missed cues, the Senate wrangles over Homeland Security, OKs new investigation.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.