FBI and 9/11: The picture fills in
Commission pieces together crucial moves and mistakes - with a look ahead to reforms.
WASHINGTON — Seldom, if ever, has so much detail about sensitive national security decisionmaking been made public so soon after the events took place. The persistence of the Sept. 11 commission has already begun to produce an extraordinary national narrative of the months prior to the worst terror attacks in US history.
Its details may well result in government changes soon - the FBI and CIA face further reforms, for instance.
But a search for root causes in a politically charged atmosphere might slide too easily into a search for scapegoats, say some analysts. Already the panel's hearings have produced a round of Washington finger-pointing in which everyone from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on down has said they believed that other parts of the national security bureaucracy had counterterrorism matters in hand.
"By focusing on individual agencies we're losing the big picture," says Juliette Kayyem, homeland security and law enforcement specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
This doesn't mean that the parts of the government charged with protecting the US did not make crucial mistakes. Commission staff reports released Tuesday contained a number of examples of pre-9/11 hints that something large was afoot - bits of intelligence that are almost heartbreaking to read today.
In the spring of 2001, "the level of reporting on terrorist threats and planned attacks began to increase dramatically," notes a commission report. Top officials received intelligence reports with such headlines as "Bin Laden's network's plans advancing."
By late May, there were reports of hostage plots against Americans to try to force the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was serving a life sentence for his role in plots to blow up New York City sites in 1993.
"The reporting noted that the operatives may opt to hijack an aircraft or storm a US embassy," says the report.
At the end of May, 2001, the CIA's counterterror chief, Cofer Black, told Ms. Rice that on a scale of one to 10, the threat level was seven - but was going to get worse. Yet at the time, the FBI may still have been hobbled in its ability to fight terrorist within US borders.
"The FBI attempted several reform efforts aimed at strengthening its ability to prevent such attacks, but these reform efforts failed to effect change organization-wide," concludes a commission study.
President Bush has said that prior to Sept. 11 he was "comforted" by the knowledge that the FBI was running down leads about terrorism. But revelations since then have led him to say it may be time to make changes in how the FBI, the CIA, and other US intelligence agencies work.
Speaking to reporters at his Texas ranch on Monday, Mr. Bush did not lay out any specific reform plans. He said he was looking forward to receiving any proposals about the matter from 9/11 panel commissioners.
But on Tuesday Louis Freeh, FBI director from 1993 to 2001, rejected this implicit criticism of his tenure and the agency he once led. He said that the FBI did all it could to counter terrorism, despite constraints on resources and the fact that the terror threat was simply not a national issue at the time.
It's easy to forget today that terrorism as an issue was virtually absent from the 2000 presidential campaign, said Mr. Freeh, even though Al Qaeda operatives had attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000.
"We need to keep in perspective what the reality was before 9/11," Freeh told the 9/11 commission in his public testimony.
Everyone also seems to be able to find plenty of fault with others. Freeh asserted, for instance, that the FBI had a "very effective" counterterrorism program in place before 9/11 given "the resources that we had." He noted that the commission's own report found that inadequate resources and legal restrictions were key ingredients in the agency's failings. That seemed a reference to Congress, which approves funding, and former Attorney General Janet Reno, who issued guidelines meant to strengthen civil liberties protections by keeping the fruits of intelligence separate from criminal prosecution.
But Ms. Reno was quoted in the report as saying that while the FBI never seemed to have sufficient resources, "Director Freeh seemed unwilling to shift resources to terrorism from other areas such as violent crime." More broadly, Reno said the FBI faced huge challenges in learning how to use all the information it collected on intelligence and criminal matters. "The FBI didn't know what it had. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," she said.
To remedy matters, one idea current in Washington policy circles is to establish a US version of Britain's MI5 - a domestic intelligence counterpart to the CIA.
It may be true that the FBI did not put all the pieces of the puzzle together prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. But charging another agency with that task might be risky, given that there is little leeway for a new bureaucracy to get up to speed on the matter, say some analysts.
Furthermore, given the FBI's law enforcement mission, it would still be a key part of any antiterror action.
On the other hand, it might also be risky to push the FBI too far toward becoming only an antiterror agency. To do so would be to ignore the vast range of other crimes that FBI agents would probably still have to handle.
"Terrorism isn't the only threat, and we need the investigative skills of the FBI," says William Rosenau, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Washington.
To some analysts, the bottom line is this: Despite all the faults and errors that occurred prior to Sept. 11 in all the agencies of government, there is one place that is supposed to check them and set priorities for the nation as a whole, and its address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"The White House did not rise to the occasion," says Ms. Kayyem.
• Associated Press material was used in this report.