The FBI that failed on 9/11 is the creation and captive of its spectacular and controversial past. Its original mission the investigation and prosecution of only the most serious crimes against the United States was forsaken almost from the beginning. This abandonment of purpose has been accompanied by a long history of political pressure, both from within and without. This sorry and scandal-ridden path culminated in a twenty-five-year run-up to 9/11 in which predictable and preventable lapses became hopelessly entrenched.
In Broken, Richard Gid Powers, one of the country's leading historians of national security and law enforcement, offers a definitive and provocative study of the Bureau from its origins to the present. Combing through the archives, and interviewing more than 100 past and current agents, he unearths stories behind some of the most famous cases and characters in our history. Powers, who attended new-agent training classes at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, was granted access to restricted FBI facilities. His research included visits to the scenes of controversial FBI cases across the country, including Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Indian reservation at Pine Ridge.
Powers did not set out to write a muckraking attack, and he gives the Bureau its due for many triumphs. Nonetheless, his story features an astonishing range of political abuses, misdirected investigations, skewed priorities, and sheer intelligence failures.
From the Bureau's outrageous participation in the anticommunist Palmer Raids and their successors, to its abuses of civil liberties during the Cold War, to its flagrant acts of domestic political interference during the civil rights era, it has often seemed to be consumed by feuds with such opponents as Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, and Bill Clinton. With the discovery of turncoat spies within its own ranks, and with the severe intelligence failures of 9/11, the Bureau has finally proven itself incapable of spotting the true enemies of our country within our borders.
Richard Powers's account is a searing indictment of failure, yet it is also strong evidence that the Bureau could be returned to its original mission of detecting the most serious crimes against the United States: terrorism, political corruption, corporate crime, and organized crime. Readers must decide for themselves whether America should mend it or end it.
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BrokenThe Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI
By Richard Gid Powers
Free PressCopyright © 2004 Richard Gid Powers
All right reserved.
One: A Shadow of Itself
This is the history of an American tragedy. The story of how as great an American institution as the FBI could become so traumatized by its past that it failed its duty to the nation it was sworn to protect.
The morning of September 11, 2001. I was in my car on the Gowanus Expressway along the Brooklyn waterfront. Just before nine o'clock, sirens. Traffic slowing. Fire trucks sped toward Manhattan. Over the car radio, word that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
When the planes hit, this history of the Bureau was well under way. I knew that the FBI was, by law and presidential directives, the country's lead agency against terrorism. For years the FBI had been "rendering" terrorists from overseas back to the United States to stand trial for attacks against the United States. Where the Marines would once have landed, Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton had ordered the FBI to investigate embassy bombings, barracks explosions, and assaults on American warships. Under Clinton, law enforcement had emerged as the country's preferred weapon against terror. The architects of this doctrine may never have meant for law enforcement actually to replace military action or diplomacy, but during the 1990s FBI law enforcement had effectively taken their place. Then came 9/11. The dream of bringing terror under the rule of law through arrests, prosecutions, and punishment suddenly seemed the tragic and failed relic of an impossibly idealistic era.
I had recently interviewed the FBI's top official on counterterrorism, Neil Gallagher, assistant director in charge of the National Security Division. When I asked him what the Bureau was doing about terrorism, he took me to their high-tech Strategic Intelligence and Operations Center, where government leaders could stay in touch with a terrorist attack site by means of banks of computers and monitors. He briefed me on the Bureau doctrine of joint operations command and joint information facilities, used to coordinate the efforts of first responders. The FBI's planning for a terrorist attack focused on establishing order at the "crime scene" to preserve evidence and organize it for the eventual trial. The Bureau's famed Hostage Rescue Team -- the guys who slither down ropes from black helicopters-had been embedded in a "Critical Incident Response Group" who were to take charge at violent crime scenes. The team rehearsed "close quarters battle" against the "Tangos" (aviation lingo for the letter T, meaning terrorists) in mazelike shooting ranges at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, preparing themselves to fight barricaded terrorists. In field drills and "tabletop" exercises at headquarters the Bureau had practiced restoring order as a panicked population tried to flee an urban center (one scenario was a biological attack on Wall Street) while emergency personnel -- police, fire department, military personnel, government leaders -- made their way through the crowds. The Bureau had spent the better part of a decade studying how to shape the chaos of a terrorist attack into investigative order for an eventual trial. The focus was on response, not prevention. FBI Director Louis Freeh liked to reassure critics disturbed by memories of the Hoover era that his FBI was and always would be reactive, never proactive.
The first few hours after the 9/11 attack would make that planning seem irrelevant, almost bizarrely misguided. As for preserving evidence, getting ready for a trial, everyone in the world had seen the crime, and the terrorists were all dead along with their victims. There would be no trial. There was no evidence in any real sense, only the recovery of what remained of the victims for burial. And although the FBI succeeded in identifying the nineteen hijackers with startling speed, that was cold comfort.
The question we were asking was not who had done it, and whether they could have been convicted. It was why the FBI (and the CIA) hadn't kept it from happening. But when I had asked the FBI's National Security Division what they were doing to stop terrorist attacks, they had replied, again and again, with the mantra "We aren't violating anybody's civil liberties."
That hadn't impressed me then. It was going to impress other people even less after 9/11.
Pearl Harbor, the only intelligence disaster in American history comparable to 9/11, ushered in years of finger-pointing, with Democrats and Republicans each trying to assign the other guilt for the intelligence failure, and for over half a century conspiracy buffs have promoted the idea that only colossal incompetence or treason could explain how clues to Japanese intentions were ignored by FDR, the Navy...or the FBI. But all responsible historical examinations of Pearl Harbor found that those few meaningful "signals" pointing to an attack were drowned out before December 7, 1941, by the meaningless "noise" of conflicting messages.
I had no doubt that after 9/11, too, all manner of "signals" would surface that supposedly should have tipped off the FBI and other agencies about the impending attack, had those signals been interpreted correctly. I expected that this time, too, careful investigation and sober reflection would reveal that those meaningful signals were distinguishable only in hindsight from the static of meaningless noise. There would be no smoking guns. There would be no really damning answer to the question, What did the Bureau know and when did it know it?
I was wrong.
This time there were more than a few signals lost in the static. This time there actually would be, in a figurative sense at least, smoking guns, and the full picture of how the FBI had mishandled the pre-9/11 investigation would be so devastating as to raise the question of whether the FBI would -- or should -- be allowed to continue in its role as the nation's primary defender against the threat of terrorist attack.
The FBI -- and the CIA and many other intelligence agencies -- had come tantalizingly close to cracking the 9/11 conspiracy during the summer of 2001. No one can say for sure that even if the Bureau had pursued all its leads vigorously and effectively, it could have spared the country the 9/11 attack. But the fact is that the FBI did not pursue those leads -- and it had good leads -- vigorously or effectively. The 9/11 failures of the Bureau were the result of decisions so wrongheaded as to seem almost incredible to anyone hearing about them for the first time -- decisions, however, that were not only predictable but almost inevitable, when viewed against the turbulent history of the FBI.
By 9:30 A.M. on September 11, when the president told the country it was under terrorist attack, Bush, his top advisers, and key officials in the FBI knew exactly who was responsible. Like a persistent and unshakable stalker, Osama bin Laden had been following America, in his thoughts at least, long before America or the FBI had any thought of him. Sometime around 1989 bin Laden assembled his top lieutenants and told them he was founding a new organization that would be "focused on jihad" both in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. Driving the American military out of the Arabian peninsula was (and still is) his primary objective. Soon after that, the United States began to come under ever more frequent terrorist attacks at home and abroad. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 has not been directly linked to bin Laden, but Ramzi Yousef, who planned the 1993 attack, and several of the other bombers had trained in Afghanistan at al Qaeda camps. Ramzi Yousef himself is the nephew of al Qaeda's Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (Mukhtar, or "the brain"), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (and currently in U.S. custody -- somewhere). Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, probably provided the financing for Yousef's failed plot in 1995 to blow up twelve American airliners flying Pacific routes. When Yousef was arrested in 1995 by the FBI's Brad Garrett, he was staying at a bin Laden guesthouse in Pakistan.
Preventing an attack like 9/11 should have been the Bureau's most pressing objective after its earlier investigations of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. The FBI had been collecting information on bin Laden since its investigation of the October 1993 attack in Somalia that killed eighteen U.S. Marines and became the movie Black Hawk Down. The Bureau concluded that bin Laden's organization was behind the attack, and this led to a June 1998 sealed indictment against him for a "conspiracy to attack defense installations of the United States." On June 7, 1999, bin Laden was put on the Bureau's Ten Most Wanted fugitives list. The Bureau (along with other intelligence agencies) collected enough evidence that bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for the 1998 attacks on the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam for an unsealed indictment of bin Laden on November 4, 1999, for conspiring to "murder United States nationals anywhere in the world, including in the United States."
The FBI foiled the "Millennium" plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on January 1, 2000, when it picked up an al Qaeda operative carrying explosives near the Canadian border. The FBI had more proof that bin Laden planned and financed the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, evidence gathered by an army of FBI agents sent to the crime scene. On the morning of September 11, the FBI was investigating no fewer than three major al Qaeda attacks abroad: the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, to say nothing of the Iranian-inspired Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1995, which had become something of a personal obsession for Louis Freeh, who was working that case like a street agent.
The CIA had also been warning about the danger bin Laden and al Qaeda posed to American lives and interests. On January 8, 1996, the CIA set up a bin Laden unit within its Counterterrorism Center, and in 1998 the agency declared that bin Laden and al Qaeda were the most dangerous current threats to the United States. That year the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, told his agency that it was "at war" with al Qaeda, and that "I want no resources or people spared, in this effort, either inside CIA or the [intelligence] community." Tenet testified to Congress on June 24, 1999, that bin Laden was planning attacks within the United States. On February 21, 2001, the CIA's annual worldwide threat analysis reported that "UBL [the CIA and FBI use the spelling "Usama" for bin Laden's name, hence "UBL"] and his associates remain most immediate and serious threat. UBL's commitment of striking against the U.S. undiminished...strong indications planning new operations...capable of mounting multiple attacks with little or no warning."
For two years the intelligence community -- the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department intelligence agencies -- had been receiving reports that bin Laden was planning to strike targets within the United States at an unspecified time and an unspecified place. Soon after bin Laden's February 23, 1998, fatwa calling for attacks on American military and civilian targets everywhere in the world, he began hinting that the war would be brought home to America. As early as August 1998, intelligence agents told the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration that a group with ties to al Qaeda was talking about flying an explosives-laden plane into the World Trade Center. Throughout 1998 and 1999 the intelligence community had reports on other al Qaeda plans to utilize aircraft in attacks within the United States. One report, not shared with the FBI, had bin Laden thinking about using commercial pilots in a "spectacular and traumatic" attack on the country.
During the spring and summer of 2001 the intelligence community was getting more signals than ever that there might be an al Qaeda attack on American interests, though these were unspecific as to time, place, or method. On June 25, 2001, the intelligence community warned government leaders of an upcoming "spectacular" strike. On June 30 senior government officials were told that bin Laden's organization was telling its followers to expect an imminent attack on the U.S. with dramatic consequences. At the beginning of July a memo circulated to senior government officials warning that,
based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming months. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning!
Meanwhile, George Tenet was all over town warning of an imminent attack, though he could not say where or when. But the FBI was telling the law enforcement community that it had no credible information of an imminent attack within the United States.
A week after that July 2 warning, FBI agent Kenneth Williams of the Phoenix field office sent Washington headquarters an "electronic communication" that pointed directly to the unfolding 9/11 conspiracy.
Williams had been watching several Middle Eastern men in his area for more than a year. He had noticed that several of them were taking flight instruction at a Prescott, Arizona, branch of the well-known Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
When Williams interviewed the Middle Eastern students, they made it clear that they hated the United States. One of them had a poster of bin Laden in his room. Another, who was taking expensive aviation training although he was from a poor Middle Eastern country and had not studied aviation before his arrival in the United States, was in touch with Abu Zubayda, chief of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Several of the other students had also been involved with al Qaeda. All this led Williams to suspect a coordinated campaign by Muslim extremists to use civil aviation to attack the United States.
While conducting physical surveillance of his primary subject, Williams learned that he was using a vehicle registered to another Middle Eastern individual who had been detained in 1999 when he and a friend tried to enter the cockpit of a commercial airliner. They claimed they had mistaken the cockpit for the bathroom and "accused the Bureau of racism" for questioning them. They were released for lack of evidence and the case was closed. In November 2000, the owner of the car was placed on the State Department's watch list on the basis of a report that he may have gotten training in explosives and car bombs in Afghanistan. In August 2001 he was denied reentry into the United States.
In his July 10 memo, Williams also told headquarters he thought al Qaeda had an active presence in Arizona. Several members of bin Laden's organization had lived in or traveled to Phoenix recently. One of them was Wadih el-Hage, a bin Laden lieutenant, who was later convicted for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. Williams believed it was el-Hage who had established the bin Laden network in Arizona (and Williams believed it was still in place when he testified before Congress in 2002).
Williams's communication named ten individuals, all subjects of FBI investigations. They were Sunni Muslims from Kenya, Pakistan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Saudi Arabia. Some were in flight training, others studying aeronautical engineering and international aviation security.
Williams concluded with a list of recommendations for the Bureau:
- Headquarters should accumulate a list of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country;
- FBI offices should establish liaison with these schools;
- Headquarters should discuss the theories in the EC [electronic communication] with the Intelligence Community; and
- Headquarters should consider seeking authority to obtain visa information on persons seeking to attend flight schools.
Along with his memo to Washington headquarters, Williams also forwarded the names of eight of the suspected al Qaeda sympathizers to the CIA.
Williams had outlined a plan of action for the Bureau to follow that, had it been implemented across the country, would have had a very good chance of uncovering several, maybe all, of the strands of the plot. He had given headquarters something else just as good. One of the people he named was in contact with hijacker Hani Hanjour. The Bureau now believes that the individual in Williams's memo took flight training with Hanjour beginning in 1997 and may have belonged to the same mosque. The FBI also learned after September 11, 2001, that another of the individuals mentioned in Williams's memo as connected to the al Qaeda network was arrested in 2002 in Pakistan, where he was meeting with prominent al Qaeda figures.
A month after Williams's electronic communication, headquarters got another clue just as good as Williams's, maybe even better. Tipped off by alert flight instructors at Pan American International Flight School near Minneapolis, FBI agents from that field office had arrested a student pilot named Zacarias Moussaoui.
Moussaoui had begun flight lessons at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, on February 26. His reason for transferring to the Minnesota flight school was suspicious in itself. With only fifty hours' flying experience and as yet no license, Moussaoui had shown little interest in the Cessna 152s and 172s that were the standard training aircraft at Airman and most flight schools.
Pan American, unlike the flight school at Norman, catered primarily to advanced pilots working for the airlines. Moussaoui wanted time on Pan American's Boeing 747 flight simulator, used primarily by newly hired airline pilots, who would have had the highest rating awarded by the FAA -- an Air Transport Pilot license -- and more than a thousand hours of flight time, or by veteran airline pilots refreshing their skills. For a pilot at Moussaoui's level of training to ask to use that particular simulator was so strange that it immediately raised the suspicions of his instructors. They also thought it odd that Moussaoui had paid $6,800 in cash in advance for the simulator training, when most student pilots working toward a career as professional pilots lived hand-to-mouth, supporting themselves by giving lessons to beginning student pilots. And, despite his interest in advanced flying, when Moussaoui started his simulator training he was unable to grasp the most elementary lessons on aircraft systems, yet showed a strange curiosity in how the plane's doors operated and how the control panel was arranged. He also asked to fly a simulated flight from London's Heathrow to JFK.
Two days after Moussaoui began his classes on August 13, a suspicious flight instructor called the FBI's Minneapolis field office. When the agents arrived to take a look at Moussaoui, they thought there was something peculiar and even threatening about him. They thought he might be a potential terrorist and so opened a case file on him.
The agents soon learned, from immigration agents working on a Joint Terrorism Task Force with the Bureau in Minneapolis, that Moussaoui's visa had expired on May 22, 2001, meaning he was subject to detention and deportation. The Minneapolis office asked headquarters for advice. A supervisory agent in the Counterterrorism Division in Washington suggested that Minneapolis put Moussaoui under surveillance.
The lead case agent later said:
The decision on whether or not we were going to put Mr. Moussaoui under surveillance rested with me. And I made the decision that he was going to be arrested because we had a violation. The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] was participating as a member, a full member of our joint terrorism task force. My background in the criminal arena suggests that when a violation occurs and you can stop further or potential criminal activity, you act on that. So that is exactly what I instructed the agents to do. If we had the possibility of arresting him, we were going to arrest him. If we needed to surveil him, we certainly could have instituted a surveillance plan....It was not appropriate to do [so] in this case.
I didn't want him to get any additional time on a flight simulator that would allow him to have the knowledge that we could no longer take back from him to operate an aircraft. This provided us the opportunity to freeze the situation as it was going on right there, prevent him from gaining the knowledge that he could use at some point in the future. And, if ultimately we determined all we could do, after interviewing him and doing some other investigative steps, if all we could do was deport him, then we would be sensitized to the fact that he was interested in doing something else and he could be put in the Tip-off System. He would be put in -- the appropriate notifications could have been made if he attempted to reenter the United States. But our focus was on preventing him getting the knowledge that he would have needed....
On August 16, FBI agents accompanied by INS officers confronted Moussaoui at his residence and determined that he did not have a valid passport. When they asked him if they could search his belongings and his laptop computer, he refused.
The agents suspected that the laptop might contain vital leads, so they asked the Minneapolis office's legal counsel (FBI Agent Coleen Rowley) to find out if they could legally search the computer without Moussaoui's consent. She told them they would need a search warrant. They had three options: to get a criminal search warrant, to ask for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) search warrant, or, failing that, to turn him over to the French, who had agreed to search the computer and report back to the FBI. There was not much time, because the INS does not customarily hold foreigners in Moussaoui's situation for more than twenty-four hours, though in this case they were willing to stretch that to a week or so.
At this point another Middle Eastern individual attempted to post bond for Moussaoui's roommate. The roommate's friend, it later developed, had been the subject of a full-field FBI international terrorism investigation at the Oklahoma City field office. He was, in fact, in charge of overseas operations and recruiting for the Palestinian al-Fatah and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was also a close associate of the imam at the Islamic center that hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar attended. And this imam was an associate of another imam in San Diego who, it turned out, was the hijackers' spiritual adviser.
By this time the Minneapolis agents were frantic to get a look at Moussaoui's computer, and were pleading with headquarters to get them a FISA warrant to examine it. A FISA warrant could be obtained only from a special panel of judges in Washington, and could be granted even if there was no probable cause for supposing that a crime had been committed, if the purpose of the warrant was an intelligence investigation of individuals working for a foreign power or group. In response to the request from Minneapolis, the supervisor of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit in the Counterterrorism Division at headquarters criticized the lead agent in Minneapolis for getting people "spun up" over Moussaoui. The Minneapolis agent replied -- in these exact words -- that he was trying to get people at FBI Headquarters "spun up" because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui "did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center." The headquarters agent responded, "[T]hat's not going to happen. We don't know he's a terrorist. You don't have enough to show he is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft -- that is it."
Shortly thereafter, French intelligence told the Minneapolis office (through the FBI's legal attache, or "Legat," in Paris) that Moussaoui was affiliated with a Chechen radical Islamic group in turn tied to Osama bin Laden. The Minneapolis agents now believed that Moussaoui was in some way involved with al Qaeda, and so they felt they had to get into his computer. They redoubled their efforts to get headquarters to approve a FISA warrant.
Moussaoui was not simply involved with al Qaeda -- he was, as he would later admit, a full-fledged member. One theory is that Moussaoui was supposed to be the pilot of a fifth plane, targeting the White House. An alternative and more likely conjecture is that Moussaoui was intended as a substitute for hijacker pilot Mohammed Atta's roommate in Hamburg, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was, however, refused entry into the United States. Al-Shibh himself was supposed to learn how to fly in the United States so that he could take the controls of the plane eventually flown by Hani Hanjour, whose piloting skills were so negligible as to raise doubts among his superiors about whether he could hit his target. Unfortunately, Hanjour turned out to know how to fly well enough to fly his plane into the Pentagon.
If the Bureau had mounted a full-scale investigation of Moussaoui, they would have learned what they quickly did after 9-11. After he graduated from South Bank University in England with a master's degree in international business, he joined the same mosque as Richard Reid, later arrested for trying to set off a shoe bomb on a transatlantic flight. In April 1998 Moussaoui traveled to the Khalden terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, where he became close friends with Flight 175 hijacker Hamza Alghamdi. He may also have fought for al Qaeda in Chechnya. In 1999 French intelligence discovered Moussaoui's name in an address book of a Muslim fighter killed in Bosnia. Moussaoui moved to Malaysia by September 2000, where Yazid Sufaat, who was present at a Kuala Lumpur meeting with two of the 9-11 hijackers in January 2000, furnished him with false business credentials from a legitimate firm called Infocus Tech.
That same year Moussaoui began writing to one of the same flight schools (Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma) that hijacker pilots Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi visited in July 2000. Moussaoui arrived in Norman on February 23, 2001, and began lessons. In May, like almost all the hijackers, he prepared for the physical aspects of the takeovers by working out in a gym in Norman.
The Phoenix and Minneapolis offices had actually given the FBI leads better than it had in any of the classic cases of its history.
While the Bureau was deciding what to do with this information, the 9-11 plotters were making final preparations for their attacks on Washington and New York. Most of them had arrived in the United States between spring 2000 and summer 2001, although one of the hijack pilots, Hanjour, had been in and out of the United States since 1991.
Atta, al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah, along with Hanjour who would eventually be the four hijacker pilots, entered the United States in May or June 2000. All three were fast learners. Atta and al-Shehhi did especially well and got their commercial pilot licenses on December 21, 2000. They then left the country in January: Atta to Spain, Germany, and an unknown third country, and al-Shehhi to Morocco. They presumably reported to al Qaeda on their progress.
While he was getting his pilot's license at flight school, Mohammed Atta, who would be assigned to lead the plot, acted in a reckless, almost ostentatious, manner. He was so antagonistic toward other fliers that his nickname at his Florida flight school was "the little terrorist." He flew to small airports in Georgia, rudely demanding information about what could have been interpreted as terrorist targets -- chemical factories and hydroelectric dams. Throughout July and August 2001, Atta and several other Middle Eastern men visited a crop-dusting firm in Florida, where they insistently questioned the owner about crop-dusting operations and demanded that he let them sit in the plane. Atta got a traffic ticket for reckless driving and driving without a license, and failed to appear for his hearing.
The full complement of hijackers was finally assembled in the United States by July 2001, the so-called muscle or strong-arm men arriving in April, May, and June. Atta, al-Shehhi, and Jarrah each took command of a four- or five-member team. Nawaf al-Hazmi seems to have been in command of Hanjour's team. Most were working out in gyms to prepare for physical combat.
Elementary intelligence tradecraft would dictate that an operation like the 9-11 plot be highly compartmentalized, so if one hijacker were arrested, he could not reveal the entire plan. The 9-11 hijackers either didn't know this or didn't care. Al-Shehhi gave Atta's address when asked for a residence on returning to the U.S. from his frequent trips abroad. Other hijackers gave the motel rooms where they were all staying as addresses when applying for driver's licenses. Groups of hijackers made use of the same sources (known to the authorities) to get false affidavits of address for their driver's license applications.
Alone or in groups, sometimes all four together, the pilots began to take flights on the same routes as the planes they would hijack, always sitting in first class close to the cabin doors to observe security procedures. Actor James Woods spotted four Middle Eastern men acting suspiciously on a Boston-San Francisco flight, and two of them later proved to have been the hijackers. The four pilots seem to have gotten together frequently, several times in Las Vegas to discuss plans, the last time on August 13 to go over the final details. Any investigation that therefore led the Bureau to one of the hijackers might have led to them all.
There was still more activity that would have looked suspicious if the FBI had been looking. The key to stopping the plot would have been to put together the Phoenix and the Minneapolis leads, that is, to look at Moussaoui's activities in the light of Ken Williams's theory that there might be a widespread plan by al Qaeda involving commercial or civil aviation, and to investigate the names on Williams's list.
With all these leads, and with the government buzzing with warnings that a big attack might be coming, what went wrong? Why wasn't the FBI, with the new Counterterrorism Division that Director Louis Freeh had set up a year earlier to track terrorists, its new Investigative Services Division (devoted to nothing but analysis of intelligence gathered from across division lines), and its dozens of counterterrorism task forces, all over these leads?
In a phrase that would come up repeatedly in the post-mortems, the reason was "an excess of caution." Kenneth Williams's electronic communication to headquarters was routed to the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) and the Usama bin Laden Unit of the Counterterrorism Division. The memo was first scanned by an intelligence operations specialist in the RFU, who focused particularly on Williams's request for visa information on Middle Eastern students seeking flight instruction. According to congressional investigation, the ensuing "discussion centered on the legality of the proposal and whether it raised profiling issues." Since one of the suspects named in Williams's memo had previously been in the Northwest, the memo was also forwarded to the Portland FBI office, but without any request for action -- for informational purposes only.
With that, the counterterrorism specialists at FBI Headquarters decided to close the investigation. One of them later said that she had intended to take another look at the memo when she had time, but she never did get the time -- at least not before September 11. She and another specialist both claimed that they had briefly considered turning the memo over to an analytic unit at headquarters but decided against it. The memo died. The only interest it had stirred at headquarters was concern that Phoenix might be asking the Bureau to do something that might appear to unfriendly observers to be racial profiling.
Later, after 9-11, the head of the International Terrorism Operations Section at FBI Headquarters said that since the memo mentioned planes, it should have been shared with the FAA. It mentioned intelligence, so it should have gone to the CIA. The mention of visas should have routed it to the State Department. The FAA official in charge of intelligence felt that if he had gotten the memo it would have sparked action there, because whenever the agency gets word of a potential threat to aviation, it immediately opens a top-priority case file.
The Phoenix memo was sent to two counterterrorism agents in the New York field office, since New York was the office of origin for Osama bin Laden cases. These agents said they paid little attention to it because they had long known that al Qaeda sent pilots to the U.S. for training. Since nothing had been done about this in the past, it needed no attention now.
If headquarters' treatment of Williams's Phoenix memo was incomprehensibly obtuse, its handling of the Minneapolis field office's arrest of Moussaoui was so perverse as to arouse suspicions in Minnesota (only half whimsical) that the Counterterrorism Division in Washington was infiltrated by al Qaeda moles.
Minneapolis had wanted to get legal authority to search Moussaoui's computer hard drive, and so it sent its request to the same Radical Fundamentalism Unit that had waved off Williams's electronic communication. The unit first refused to let the Minneapolis office apply to the local U.S. attorney for a criminal warrant, claiming it might prejudice any later application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. The FBI lawyers were afraid that the FISA court would reject the application if it could not pass a so-called "smell test" showing it was not tainted by any possible interest in an eventual criminal investigation. Minneapolis understood this to mean that headquarters would consider only a FISA request, and so proceeded on that basis.
But then the Radical Fundamentalist Unit took what appear to have been deliberate steps to sabotage Minneapolis's application for the FISA warrant, to ensure that no FISA warrant would be granted -- for that matter, to make sure the application would never even be seen by the FISA court.
When Minneapolis asked what it would need to get a FISA warrant, headquarters said they woum Unit that had waved off Williams's electronic communication. The unit first refused to let the Minneapolis office apply to the local U.S. attorney for a criminal warrant, claiming it might prejudice any later application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. The FBI lawyers were afraid that the FISA court would reject the application if it could not pass a so-called "smell test" showing it was not tainted by any possible interest in an eventual criminal investigation. Minneapolis understood this to mean that headquarters would consider only a FISA request, and so proceeded on that basis.
But then the Radical Fundamentalist Unit took what appear to have been deliberate steps to sabotage Minneapolis's application for the FISA warrant, to ensure that no FISA warrant would be granted -- for that matter, to make sure the application would never even be seen by the FISA court.
When Minneapolis asked what it would need to get a FISA warrant, headquarters said they would have to connect Moussaoui to a "recognized foreign power" that appeared on a list of recognized terrorist organizations for which the FISA court had previously granted warrants. This sent Minneapolis on several weeks of a wild-goose chase to see if a Chechen group linked to Moussaoui qualified. Headquarters consistently told Minneapolis that it did not, and that they would have to somehow connect the Chechen group to al Qaeda, which was on the list.
Headquarters then scolded Minneapolis for notifying the CIA's Counterterrorism Center about Moussaoui's arrest. This had gotten the CIA alarmed enough to begin referring to Moussaoui and Hussein al-Attas (Moussaoui's fellow flight student and roommate) as "suspect 747 airline attackers" and "suspect airline suicide attacker[s]" who might be "involved in a larger plot to target airlines traveling from Europe to the U.S." Minneapolis was ordered not to contact anyone except through headquarters.
All this time, the Minneapolis agents should have been developing leads based on an examination of Moussaoui's belongings -- and interrogating him after confronting him with their findings. Instead, the agents had to try to accomplish what was for them -- in Minnesota -- almost impossible: establishing a link between Moussaoui's Chechen group and al Qaeda. In fact, the supervisor advising Minneapolis was totally mistaken, as were the FBI attorneys he consulted: The Chechen group certainly did qualify as a "recognized" foreign power for purposes of FISA.
Minneapolis finally submitted a FISA application to headquarters that linked Moussaoui's Chechen group to al Qaeda. But before passing the request on to the FBI's deputy general counsel for his approval, the supervisor removed the laboriously acquired information about the links between the Chechen group and al Qaeda, which he had previously insisted upon. Without the information about the Chechen groups, the FBI lawyer consulted by the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (again mistakenly) ruled that there was insufficient evidence that Moussaoui was connected to a foreign power, and so he refused to forward the application to the FISA court.
At their wits' end, the Minneapolis agents now prepared to deport Moussaoui to France, where the French authorities had promised to examine the computer and to inform the FBI of its contents. The deportation was scheduled for September 14, but, of course, events intervened.
Had the Minneapolis agents been able to pursue their Moussaoui leads before 9-11 (as they hastened to do after the September 11 attacks), they would have quickly discovered a highly interesting connection between Moussaoui and bin Laden's personal pilot, who had trained at the Norman, Oklahoma, flight school where Moussaoui had started his training, and who had begun cooperating with the Bureau after the East African embassy bombings. They would also have learned that Moussaoui was receiving large sums of money, perhaps for the hijack team he would lead.
If headquarters had ordered an investigation of the names in Williams's electronic communication, the Bureau would have been led to the imam who was the hijackers' spiritual leader in San Diego, and to the imam of the mosque where al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar worshipped. On August 27, 2001, the FBI got a tip from the CIA that two of the hijackers, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, recent additions to the terrorist watch list, were now in the country. Their names and addresses could have been found on their VISA credit card records -- which both had used, in their own names, to buy tickets on the hijack planes. That same day, most of the hijackers bought electronic one-way tickets on the planes they were going to take over. After 9-11, in fact, the Bureau was able to discover their addresses from their VISA records in just a few hours. And al-Hazmi, who had earlier been living in San Diego with al-Mihdhar, had had many contacts with a longtime FBI informant in that city, though these contacts were not revealed to the Bureau until after 9-11.
If al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had been put on a watch list by the CIA earlier, as the CIA's own rules had dictated, the FBI could have asked their informant if he could find out anything about them. This was characterized later by the congressional Joint Inquiry into 9-11 as missing an opportunity "to task a uniquely well positioned informant" to collect information about the hijackers and their plans, and to follow leads that might have led them to Hanjour, who would flunk out of flight school again just before the hijacking.
Hanjour, who must have been in a state of panic about his flying abilities, tried to check out a rental plane near Bowie, Maryland, but after going up with three different instructors, not one of them would fly with him again -- even though he had a pilot's license and six hundred hours' flight time. If the Bureau had put Hanjour under surveillance as a result of the Phoenix leads, his unusual requests for primary training despite his experience might have aroused further suspicion.
But instead of moving against the plotters as 9-11 approached, and even while the rest of the intelligence community escalated its warnings of an impending al Qaeda attack, the FBI again reported that it had no evidence that there was a threat within the United States. It even asserted that "[w]hile international terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. soil, these acts represent anomalies in their traditional targeting, which focuses on U.S. interests overseas." On July 26, 2001, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, Terry Turchie, told the House Subcommittee on National Security, "FBI investigation and analysis indicates that the threat of terrorism in the United States is low."
As I was driving across the Verrazano Bridge watching the towers burn, Minneapolis special agent and chief division counsel Coleen M. Rowley also was getting first word of the 9-11 attack. She immediately contacted that same supervisory special agent (SSA) at the RFU who had been stalling Minneapolis on the Moussaoui warrants. She told him that in light of the attacks, which were still under way, Minneapolis should immediately get a criminal warrant to search Moussaoui's laptop and belongings. It would have to be the "hugest coincidence," she said, if Moussaoui were not involved with the 9-11 attackers. "The SSA stated something to the effect that I had used the right term, 'coincidence' and that this was probably all just a coincidence and we were to do nothing in Minneapolis until we got their Headquarter's permission because we might 'screw up' something else going on elsewhere in the country."
Minneapolis was still being ignored a few days after the 9-11 attacks, when FBI Director Robert Mueller put out a statement that the FBI had had no advance warning, but if it had, the FBI might have been able to take some action to prevent it. The Minneapolis office was amazed: Had no one told Mueller about Moussaoui? (Minnesota still had not been told about the Phoenix electronic communication.) Coleen Rowley and other Minneapolis agents tried to warn Mueller that his statement was far from accurate. They were worried that Mueller's statement, in Rowley's words, "could easily come back to haunt the FBI" when news of the Moussaoui case inevitably surfaced when he was indicted, if not sooner.
Minneapolis was again ignored. Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director James T. Caruso went before Congress and repeated that the FBI had had no good leads before September 11, had done everything it could, and would accept no blame for the 9-11 attacks. Rowley and the other Minneapolis agents finally faced, she said, "the sad realization that the remarks indicated someone had decided to circle the wagons at FBIHQ in an apparent effort to protect the FBI from embarrassment."
Minneapolis's frustration with headquarters' treatment of the Moussaoui case might have faded away unnoticed outside that office, except that eight months later, Rowley was summoned to Washington to testify before the Senate and House Joint Inquiry. To prepare for her testimony, Rowley wrote a thirteen-page memo that constituted a nearly unprecedented revolt by an FBI agent against the high command. Since Rowley was her family's sole breadwinner and expected to retire in less than three years, she added a few sentences at the end requesting protection under the federal whistle-blower law.
Rowley didn't pull any punches. She accused Director Mueller and the top officials of the Bureau of attempting to "shade/skew" the facts concerning the FBI's mishandling of the case.
Although I agree that it's very doubtful that the full scope of the tragedy could have been prevented, it's at least possible that we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to September 11th, just as Moussaoui was discovered, after making contact with his flight instructors.
With ill-concealed sarcasm, she observed that although "your conclusion otherwise has to be very reassuring for some in the FBI to hear being repeated so often (as if saying it's so may make it so), I think your statements demonstrate a rush to judgment to protect the FBI at all costs."
She told Mueller she had been infuriated to learn that the supervisory special agent in the Counterterrorism Division who had blocked Minneapolis's attempts to investigate Moussaoui had actually been promoted after 9-11. Nobody "ought to be burned at the stake," but she noted that a "lowly field office agent" who "committed such errors of judgment" would have been severely disciplined.
She accused the headquarters agent who had blocked the Moussaoui investigation of trying to avoid "what he may have perceived as an unnecessary career risk." She noted that the SSA who "seemed to have been consistently, almost deliberately thwarting the Minneapolis FBI agents' efforts" had not only been retained in his position but was given an important role during the 9-11 crisis. "During the early aftermath of September 11th, when I happened to be recounting the pre-September 11th events concerning the Moussaoui investigation to other FBI personnel in other divisions or in FBIHQ, almost everyone's first question was 'Why? -- Why would an FBI agent(s) deliberately sabotage a case?' "
The fact is that key FBIHQ personnel...continued to, almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis's by-now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant, long after the French intelligence service provided its information and probable cause became clear. In all of their conversations and correspondence, HQ personnel never disclosed to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had, only approximately three weeks earlier, warned of Al Qaeda operatives in flight schools seeking flight training for terrorist purposes!
Mueller's newly-announced plans for a headquarters "Super Squad" to handle terrorism cases, she said, "simply fly in the face of an honest appraisal of the FBI's pre-September 11 failures." In fact, she wrote, "I'm hard pressed to think of any case which has been solved by FBIHQ personnel and I can name several that have been screwed up! Decision-making is inherently more effective and timely when decentralized instead of concentrated." The Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Paris offices
reacted remarkably exhibiting keen perception and prioritization skills regarding the terrorist threats they uncovered or were made aware of pre-September 11. The same cannot be said for the FBI Headquarters bureaucracy and you want to expand that?! Should we put the counterterrorism unit chief and SSA who previously handled the Moussaoui matter in charge of the new "Super Squad"?
Rowley offered her own theory about why headquarters' performance in the 9-11 cases had been so miserable, why, in fact, it had been so perverse that some agents had wondered if the Counterterrorism Division was deliberately sabotaging the investigation. She pointed to the past decade when high-ranking FBI officials whose decisions "in hindsight, turned out to be mistaken or just turned out badly (i.e., Ruby Ridge, Waco, etc.) have seen their careers plummet and end." As a result, "in most cases avoidance of all 'unnecessary' actions/decisions by FBIHQ managers (and maybe to some extent field managers as well) has, in recent years, been seen as the safest FBI career choice." In the pre-9-11 FBI a
climate of fear...has chilled aggressive FBI law enforcement action/decisions. In a large hierarchal bureaucracy such as the FBI, with the requirements for numerous superiors' approvals/oversight, the premium on career-enhancement, and interjecting a chilling factor brought on by recent extreme public and congressional criticism/oversight, and I think you will see at least the makings of the most likely explanation.
Headquarters' policy of "writing up" agents for intelligence oversight board "errors," that is, for having begun intelligence investigation that later proved not to have been fully justified (although such an error can be discovered only after performing the investigation, a true catch-22), had come to have a "chilling effect upon all levels of FBI agents assigned to intelligence cases." This prevented "aggressive investigations of terrorists."
But this was all that could be expected from an FBI management filled with "short-term careerists who, like the SSA in question, must only serve an 18 months-just-time-to-get-your-ticket-punched minimum (And no wonder why FBIHQ is mired in mediocrity!)."
Rowley's memo to Mueller was released to the press, which hailed her as a hero. She was named one of Time magazine's "People of the Year," along with the female whistle-blowers in the Enron and WorldCom corporate accounting scandals. Within the Bureau, however, it was a different story. She was informed that high-level FBI officials in Washington were considering filing criminal charges against her. Retired agents were particularly brutal. Charles George, then president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said that she was no better than convicted spy Robert Hanssen. In the society newsletter he called her action "unthinkable"; "instead of going to the Russians, she went to Congress." Some other retired agents sent her copies of the Elbert Hubbard essay on loyalty that J. Edgar Hoover used to keep posted in all Bureau offices: "If you work for a man, in heaven's name work for him; speak well of him and stand by the institution he represents. Remember -- an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness...If you must growl, condemn, and eternally find fault, why -- resign your position and when you are on the outside, damn to your heart's content."
Throughout the year 2002, a House and Senate Joint Inquiry Committee had been looking into the run-up to 9-11. It was this Joint Inquiry that had solicited Rowley's testimony and so had prompted her letter to Mueller. In December 2002 the Joint Inquiry issued its classified report to Congress.
The Joint Inquiry examined the FBI's handling of the Phoenix electronic communication and the Moussaoui case, and in both cases found the Bureau's performance wanting. The Joint Inquiry argued that a vigorous FBI investigation of its leads might have uncovered at least part of the plot. The Joint Inquiry Summary (JIS) charged that the intelligence community, the FBI included,
missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11th plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and, finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack.
The Joint Inquiry's critique of the FBI was devastating. But since the Joint Inquiry's official report had to reflect a consensus between members of the two houses of Congress and, of course, the two political parties, it was restrained in comparison with the findings of individual members of the inquiry.
Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and so a member of the Joint Inquiry, attached his personal addendum to the report ("Additional Views") stating that the inquiry did not go far enough in assessing the institutional and individual blame for 9-11. Shelby argued that the FBI had so discredited itself by its pre-9-11 performance that it could no longer be trusted with the nation's security. He called for abolishing the Bureau as it now stood, taking away its responsibility for collecting and analyzing domestic intelligence about foreign terrorist or espionage threats and handing it over to a new agency.
Shelby rested his case for taking intelligence-gathering away from the FBI on five specific failures by the Bureau:
- that the FBI had acquiesced in permitting FISA to serve as a wall of "no coordination" between criminal and intelligence investigations so that, at a moment in American history of unique peril, it had left the country with no one at the barricades to guard against terrorist attacks;
- that it had, to suit its own institutional interests, created rules where they did not exist that allowed it to refuse to share the results of criminal investigations, specifically grand jury investigations, with the rest of the intelligence community;
- that "the tyranny of the case file" rendered the FBI incapable of the synthesis of disparate information necessary to understand and prevent terrorist threats;
- that as an institution it had developed a positive resistance to engaging in real analysis of intelligence;
- and that the FBI had proven incapable of keeping abreast of developments in modern information technology, leaving it with an obsolete computer infrastructure that agents have had to avoid to accomplish their jobs.
A great deal of "the blame for the dysfunctional nature of pre-September 11" coordination between law enforcement and the intelligence community, Shelby claimed,
can be traced to a series of misconceptions and mythologies that grew up in connection with the implementation of domestic intelligence surveillance (and physical searches) under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Rigid and restrictive readings of FISA in the early and mid-1990s acquired with time the apparent legitimacy of long-presumed acceptance, and created a sterile and ultimately fallacious conventional wisdom that effectively -- but unnecessarily -- prevented meaningful LEA/IC [law enforcement agency/intelligence community] coordination.
The result of "this organizational allergy even to the most common-sense forms of counterterrorist cooperation [that] became infamous after September 11 [was that] a 'Wall' had been built between intelligence and law enforcement." The "wall" meant that no information could be shared between agents conducting intelligence investigations of terrorists and other agents trying to build a legal case against them. It was to maintain the integrity of the "wall" that headquarters had placed so many barriers in the way of the Minneapolis agents trying to investigate Moussaoui.
The FBI might have claimed it was an innocent victim of rules promulgated by the courts and by "timorous" lawyers within the Justice Department, except that these rules made effective intelligence operations so patently impossible that the Bureau's lawyers should have pressed vigorously for their modification or abolition. And, in fact, they would have had the literal language of FISA and its legislative history on their side had they attempted to demolish the "Wall, as the post-9-11 decision by the FISA appeals court made clear
Excerpted from Broken by Richard Gid Powers Copyright © 2004 by Richard Gid Powers. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ONE A Shadow of Itself
TWO A New Force (1902-1908)
THREE The First Decade (1909-1918)
FOUR Red Webs and Normalcy (1919-1933)
FIVE Hollywood (1933-1945)
SIX The Cold War FBI (1945-1961)
SEVEN A Secret Society (1961-1972)
EIGHT A Haunted Bureau (1972-1978)
NINE Exorcising the Ghosts (1978-1993)
TEN Louis Freeh's FBI (1993-September 11, 2001)
Afterword: End or Mend?