Blame Game

This week the FBI and CIA come under the microscope of the 9/11 commission.


“I think the question is why over all of these years did we not address the structural problems that were there with the F.B.I., with the C.I.A., the homeland departments being scattered among many different departments? And why, given all of the opportunities that we’d had to do it, had we not done it?”

So said Condoleeza Rice in her testimony before the 9/11 commission last week. In this, and in several other statements during her appearance in front of the panel, she was at pains to deflect blame for intelligence failures to “structural problems” within and between the F.B.I. and C.I.A. Indeed, this week the commission will turn it’s attention to determining just what roles the C.I.A. and F.B.I. played — and didn’t play — in recognizing and prioritizing the threat of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The commission may well wonder whether the F.B.I. and C.I.A., two agencies with a history of a communication problems, simply missed glaring evidence that an attack on the U.S. was coming, or whether high-ups in the Bush administration, like Rice, failed to act on the gravity of the warnings by the agencies.

According to Bush, the F.B.I. was investigating known links to Osama bin Laden in the United States, with 70 active cases reported that summer.

The reports of terrorist activity in the years prior to 9/11 are described as disparate, and were often shrugged off. They include the following: an FBI agent in Phoenix warned in July that he suspected extremists might be training at American flight schools and urged a nationwide inquiry; the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui (the “20th hijacker”) in Minneapolis after arousing suspicions at a flight training school; interrogations in Seattle of Ahmed Ressam, the “millenium bomber” who had planned to detonate a bomb at LAX 1999; the detection, in New York City, of “recent surveillance of federal buildings”; and, in Yemen, an investigation into the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole brought the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. close to two of the 19 eventual hijackers.

Ultimately, the leads went nowhere. As the New York Times writes on Monday:

“But investigations were stymied by miscommunication, dead ends, bureaucratic and legal obstacles and unclear priorities, officials say”

“The leads ultimately went nowhere. Supervisors deemed the Phoenix memorandum too speculative. A Minneapolis agent said headquarters had blocked her office from conducting a more aggressive investigation into Mr. Moussaoui, now charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 plot. Miscommunication between the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. prevented investigators from discovering that the two hijackers linked to the Cole bombing were living in San Diego. Men suspected of casing New York buildings were found to be Yemeni tourists, and the United Arab Emirates report also appears to have been unconnected to the Sept. 11 plot, White House officials said.”

On the C.I.A.’s end, President Bush was given a briefing on Aug. 6, 2001 of what the C.I.A .had pieced together over four years on the danger of an attack by Al Qaeda. The memo, with the frightening title of “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,” was one of 40 to mention the threat of Al Qaeda leading up to 9/11. But arguably, it was the most complete.

Bush said that he “was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into” by the FBI and the CIA that summer; he argues that the information he did get, especially in the memo, was vague and didn’t call for particular action:

“I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America — at a time and a place, an attack. Of course we knew that America was hated by Osama bin Laden. That was obvious. The question was, who was going to attack us, when and where and with what?”

Officials from both the C.I.A. and F.B.I. will be under the 9/11 commission’s spotlight this week. Their previous disputes will most likely be downplayed (dating back to 1945, when J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, butted heads with William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy service), and both will likely claim that they are cooperating more than ever.

The commission has already delved into the possibility that there was a failure somewhere along the line (in both agencies) in prioritizing threats. Former Democratic senator and commission member Bob Kerrey points to Intelink, a network used by both the C.I.A. and F.B.I .for sharing classified intelligence, as not doing it’s job. He argues that the system would have been a valuable way for F.B.I. agents, concerned about possible al Qaeda attempts to infiltrate U.S. flight schools, to coordinate with C.I.A. evidence.

“I don’t need a catastrophic event to know that the CIA and the FBI don’t do a very good job of communicating,” said Kerrey. But if the information was put out on Intelink, “the game’s over,” he said. “It ends. This conspiracy would have been rolled up.”

Intelink has become a monstrous and cumbersome database with more than 2.4 million web pages. Some in the intelligence community to liken conducting searches on the network to “shooting craps”.

It would be false to argue that F.B.I. and C.I.A. officers don’t work together, they often do, on counterintelligence and counterterrorism cases. But there is a an ideological chasm over whether terrorist attacks are law enforcement matters for the F.B.I., or matters more of the military variety, to be dealt with by the C.I.A. For the Bush administration, the C.I.A. that has won precedence over the FBI. This split could well end in a lack of coordination between the two organizations.

For instance, the F.B.I. spent months investigating the October 2000 bombing of the American destroyer Cole in Yemen. Yet, in 2002, a significant figure in the Cole bombing was not dealt the bureau’s legal process, but was killed by a C.I.A. operated missile. Another case involved one of the Sept. 11 masterminds, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom the FBI spent years tracking. He is now in C.I.A. custody in an undisclosed location somewhere overseas. Some F.B.I. officials express frustration over their inability to pursue cases against such important figures.

James Risen, New York Times national security writer, in the Week in Review:

“Since Sept. 11, Republicans have criticized the Clinton administration for having been too willing to treat terrorist attacks as law-enforcement matters – criminal cases to be investigated by the bureau and then tried in federal courts.

The Bush administration has dismissed that approach. After Sept. 11, the president mandated that terrorism was a national security issue, and that terrorists should be dealt with as mortal enemies, either to be killed or captured and stashed away, far from the reach of lawyers.

The Bush policy means that counterterrorism is primarily the job of the intelligence community and the military, while law-enforcement officials are often forced to take an awkward back seat.”

“As a result, two and a half years after Sept. 11, the bureau is still the lead agency on domestic terrorism, while the C.I.A. still has the lead overseas. And they still don’t completely understand each other.”

Louis Freeh, FBI director from 1993 to 2001, who will testify in front of the commission today (Tuesday), defends the FBI in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, subscribers only. (For non subscribers, recap in the LA Times.) It should be noted that at the time of the attacks, the bureau was undergoing a change in leadership. Freeh left in June 2001, and it was consumed with internal problems like the arrest of an agent, Robert P. Hanssen, on espionage charges and the disappearance of documents in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Freeh writes that:

“The fact that terrorism and the war being waged by al Qaeda was not even an issue in the 2000 presidential campaign strongly suggests that the political will to declare and fight this war didn’t exist before Sept. 11.”

He says that the FBI was vigilant in detecting a threat from al Qaeda, but there was only so much the agency could do within budgetary constraints:

“Moreover, FBI investigation has significantly contributed to the identification of al Qaeda’s leadership, organization, methods, training, finances, geographical reach and intent. Through the pursuit of leads, the FBI’s investigation of bin Laden and al Qaeda can be credited with having “jump-started” investigations in other parts of the world, Europe in particular.

“We knew [funding] wasn’t enough. For Fiscal Years 2000, 2001 and 2002 the FBI asked for 1,895 special agents, analysts and linguists to enhance our CT program. We got 76 people for those three critical years. FY 2000 was typical: 864 CT positions at a cost of $380.8 million requested — five people funded for $7.4 million

The point is: The FBI was intensely focused on its CT needs but antebellum politics was not yet there. By contrast, after Sept. 11, the FBI’s FY 2002 Emergency Supplemental CT budget was increased overnight by 823 positions for $745 million. The al Qaeda threat was the same on Sept. 10 and Sept. 12. Nothing focuses a government quicker than a war.”

Only the threat of war, he argues, would have the power to amp up an issue (such as the threat of al Qaeda) to the point where sufficient attention and funds could head it off.