WASHINGTON — One of the country's top counterterrorism officials still remembers vividly the moment he lost it. It wasn't in the first few anxiety-fraught hours after the 9/11 attacks, while he and his colleagues focused incessantly on who was behind the heinous acts and whether more were in the works.
It was when he finally made his way home, almost two days later, as the sun peeped over the horizon. Before falling into bed, he checked his e-mail. What popped up was a short line from a former co-worker that said simply: "IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT."
Tears spilled down his cheeks. He still tears up recalling it today. The personal sense of responsibility for those attacks was - and remains - overwhelming.
His response offers a rare look into the emotional world of the FBI's counterterrorism clique - a group of largely faceless bureaucrats charged with helping to protect the US in the most intense shadow war on terrorism the nation has ever known.
It is a world that combines public policy and human burden to an unusual degree. While it is true that no one agency or group is entirely responsible for safeguarding a nation from attack, the 70 or so analysts who now make up the FBI's counterterrorism unit lie as close to the brainstem of the terror war as any.
They are the ones, for instance, who recommended that the US raise the threat level from yellow (elevated) to orange (high) just before Christmas. They are the ones responsible for making the call to cancel the Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles over the holidays because of safety concerns.
They know that an overlooked piece of information here, or the failure to recommend some precautionary measure there, can result in thousands of deaths - as some now suggest happened in the case of the 9/11 attacks.
"My biggest fear is that we will have another attack, and I will come in afterward and find something on my desk that I didn't look at," says one member of the unit. "That responsibility gnaws at you."
Recently, three analysts representing different facets of the FBI's operations sat down to discuss their roles - their challenges, fears, successes, and failures. They requested anonymity because they are routinely sent on undercover assignments.
The counterterrorism unit itself, of which only one of the three is a member, has grown from a small group of 18 analysts before 9/11 to 70 today, and the bureau intends to add 30 more. Yet for all the expanding cubicles and secret cables, the pressures of the job can be intensely personal and lonely: The agents can't discuss cases with anyone on the outside - including their spouses.
From the interviews, it is clear that the job attracts people with a strong sense of mission and idealism. Agent No. 1, as we'll call him, came to the bureau about a year ago because of the 9/11 attacks. Young and hip, with slicked-back hair and a traditional dark suit, he had worked for six years as a legal aid attorney on the West Coast.
But he never felt what he did made much of a difference. Now, he says, rarely a day goes by that he doesn't feel he's done "something worthwhile." The agent is responsible for assessing terror threats emanating from Europe. His job is to gauge the credibility of each tip and try to corroborate it. He's also always on the lookout for links between terror suspects in Europe and ones in the US.
For instance, Agent No. 1 would have been scanning the manifests for the Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles that were cancelled over Christmas. He would be trying to determine if anyone was on those flights who shouldn't be, or who was "suspicious," and whether they had connections to people here. As much as anything, he and his colleagues wrestle with finding that right balance between prudence and panic. They don't want to harangue the public about a possible attack, but they are steadfast in their determination to prevent another 9/11.
The work is demanding. The agents put in long hours, wear pagers 24/7, and aren't able to discuss what they do with anyone outside their own clique.
In addition, they are often sent on assignments on short notice. Agent No. 1, for example, recently felt a "buzz on his hip." When he checked in with headquarters, he was told to report to Baghdad within three days. His assignment: to determine if any of the terror groups attacking US soldiers and allies had connections with cells in the US.
Agent No. 2, a small blonde who looks like a high school teacher, runs counterintelligence operations. In addition to trying to insert moles in other country's governments, she is responsible for ferreting out double agents.
For example, she helped bust Robert Hanssen - one of the FBI's own who was arrested nearly three years ago for providing classified information, as well as the identities of American spies, to Russia for 15 years. It was "heartbreaking, heartwrenching," she says. "I was clearly distressed, but I couldn't discuss it with my husband and son."
Agent No. 2 says you learn to lean on your colleagues, because they're the only ones you can speak to about cases. "I've done a complete 180," concurs Agent No. 1. "I could talk about what I did at legal aid freely, and nobody wanted to listen. Now, everybody wants to hear about what I do, and I can't talk."
Agent No. 2 was also deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks. Besides the anxiety over the event itself, her assignment changed drastically. Some 80 percent of her department was reassigned to work on counterterrorism. "My entire program was closed down," she says.
The bureau began to ramp up quickly. Agents No. 1 and No. 3 were brought in as a result of the new hiring campaign.
Agent No. 3, a genial man in a pullover sweater and corduroys, works in the criminal division. He, too, joined the FBI because of 9/11. "I was on my way to the Pentagon when the plane struck," he says. "Seven from my former agency, including a close friend of mine, were killed.... I didn't make a difference as a military-capabilities analyst - that's the reason I am here. I wanted the challenge and to make a difference."
Agent No. 3 is also an example of the FBI's closer coordination with other US agencies. He had worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency for 17 years. Before that, he worked in Air Force intelligence for seven years. Now he's helping cement links between the bureau, DIA, and other government agencies that work on counterterrorism.
They do have their successes, their "eureka moments," as Agent No. 2 calls them. Some are known publicly, such as the successful spy prosecutions - the Hanssen and Aldrich Aimes (a CIA spy who went to work for the other side) cases, as well as the post-9/11 prosecutions of the terrorist cell members in Portland, Ore., and Lackawanna, N.Y.
But most successes, they say, can't be discussed openly. That bothers the agents, especially given the level of public criticism they have received since 9/11.
Few government agencies are now under such scrutiny. At least 16 congressional committees are asking the agents to look back, assess their mistakes, and fix them. In addition, the independent 9/11 commission will be holding additional hearings in January. Its leader, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, says he expects information presented at the hearings will show 9/11 could have been prevented.
For these analysts, however, the "greatest" challenge is the caseload level. While working the 9/11 investigation, they were also probing the anthrax attacks, the shoebomber, the Danny Pearl case, and the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Moreover, there's been an explosion in the amount of information they need to monitor - from open sources, academics, jihadists on websites, and some 100,000 names on a watchlist. "It's difficult to read it all and winnow the chaff from the wheat," the section chief says.