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The attorney general can't seem to connect the dots

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

Attorney General John Ashcroft continues to argue that Washington was caught off-guard by the Sept. 11 attacks largely because the FBI was handcuffed by restrictions on its snooping powers. But now we know that the real problem was the FBI's institutional mind-set and its failure to act on the information its field agents had sent to Washington prior to the terrorist attacks.

In a statement remarkable by Washington standards -- and extraordinary by the FBI's -- FBI director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged last week for the first time that the attacks might have been preventable if officials in his agency's Washington headquarters had responded to the pieces of information that were available.

"I cannot say for sure that there wasn't a possibility we could have come across some lead that would have led us to the hijackers," he said. Mueller also said that while there were no specific warnings of what the hijackers had in mind, "that doesn't mean that there weren't red flags out there, that there weren't dots that should have been connected to the extent possible."

It's not just that the FBI failed to connect some critical dots; it ignored them. Consider two dots that should have flagged the attention of FBI officials in Washington:

Agent Kenneth Williams in the FBI's Phoenix office picked up some suspicious activity in his area. He detected a pattern of Arab men signing up at flight schools in Arizona -- men who, Williams recently told a Senate committee, were expressing strong anti-American views. He thought his superiors in Washington should be alerted. In a July 2001 memo to FBI headquarters, the agent warned that Osama bin Laden could be training terrorists in U.S. flight schools and suggested that the agency might want to canvass other flight schools around the country. His memo never made it beyond two mid-level unit chiefs.

FBI agents in Minneapolis had an even worse experience with headquarters. They were on to Zacarias Moussaoui months before the 9-11 attacks. Moussaoui was interested in learning to fly jumbo jets, which aroused the curiosity of the agents. They picked him up on immigration violations and asked their Washington superiors for a search and surveillance warrant on Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker. They didn't get it. In an angry letter to Mueller recently, Coleen Rowley, general counsel in the FBI's Minneapolis field office, accused one supervisory agent in FBI headquarters of altering the warrant application to the point that the FBI general counsel in Washington would not even submit it to a judge. After 9-11, Rowley said, FBI officials in Washington used that same information to obtain the search warrant. Moussaoui has since been indicted as an al-Qaida operative and is the only person charged so far in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The attorney general apparently still hasn't been able to connect these dots. The day after Mueller announced that he was reorganizing the FBI to focus on the threat of terrorism, Ashcroft decided the FBI needed even more power to gather domestic intelligence -- the same powers the FBI abused in the turbulent '60s. So he changed rules that had been in place for a quarter of a century to give the FBI greater latitude to monitor Internet sites, libraries and political and religious organizations without first having to offer evidence of suspected terrorist activity. Ashcroft said the old restrictions gave terrorists a "competitive advantage."

This time, Ashcroft didn't need Congress' approval to change the rules. It's a good thing, for many lawmakers have come to regret the way they rolled over last fall when Ashcroft was on Capital Hill pressing for swift passage of the "Patriot Act," legislation that substantially expanded the eavesdropping powers of the FBI. Some aspects of the bill made sense, such as bringing federal surveillance laws in synch with modern communications technology. But in some areas, the administration overreached. You will recall the attorney general was a testy witness, with little patience for serious debate. He all but questioned the patriotism of anyone who expressed concern about the tradeoff between security and civil liberties. He suggested critics -- chasing "phantoms of lost liberties" -- were providing "ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends."

What Congress didn't know at the time was that the Phoenix memo had reached Ashcroft and Mueller a few days after the attacks, but neither bothered to share its content with President Bush, much less congressional leaders. Had Congress known about the memo at the time, we might have had a different debate. Lawmakers might have realized that the problem was not a handcuffed FBI but a bungling FBI and might not have been so compliant in giving the administration most of what it was asking for.

Shouldn't Congress -- and the American people -- demand some answers from J. Edgar Ashcroft?

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