The Fall Guy
Sorry, J. Edgar, but someone has to take a fall for this and that someone is you.
That seems to be the message. The 9/11 blame game has shifted from the White House to the House that Hoover Built -- the FBI. The top G-man, Robert Mueller III, held a long press conference to announce a dramatic reorganization, in which he acknowledged that the FBI -- which he took over a week before the attacks -- had not effectively handled relevant leads and that it was possible the Bureau might have been able to thwart all or part of Osama bin Laden's Sept. 11 plot had it performed better.
It was a refreshing concession. No spin. Not that Mueller and the Bureau had not tried earlier to cover their backsides. Soon after the attacks, Mueller, who has a reputation in Washington as a stand-up fellow, had said the Bureau received no indication anything of this sort was coming. Then the leaks came.
An FBI agent had been investigating foreign nationals with ties to bin Laden who were attending flight school in Phoenix, and headquarters neglected his recommendations for a wider inquiry. And headquarters hobbled a separate FBI investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, who had aroused suspicions at a Minnesota aviation school and who later was charged for participating in the 9/11 conspiracy.
Moreover, FBI HQ had not bothered to make a connection between what the agent had found in Phoenix and what other agents had learned in Minnesota. Next, one of the Minnesota agents, Coleen Rowley, wrote a long and passionate letter to Mueller -- which was leaked -- in which she denounced headquarters' mishandling of the Moussaoui matter and claimed a forceful investigation of Moussaoui might have averted some of the tragedy.
In the face of the mounting evidence and Rowley's cri de coeur, Mueller was no longer able to assert that if mistakes were made they had not been decisive errors. So Mueller did what any strategic crisis management consultant would advise: take the hit (that is, confess) and, at the same time, present a let's-get-past-the-recriminations plan for change.
It may work -- though some members of Congress are still aiming to give the FBI a tough time. But what's interesting is that you don't see the CIA or the Defense Department making similar mea culpas. And those guys screwed up as bad as the flatfoots of the FBI.
Take the spies. No one should rap them for not having penetrated al Qaeda's leadership. That may have been too tough a task for anyone. The sin of the CIA -- and other intelligence agencies -- is that it failed to pick up on several signs al Qaeda was interested in a 9/11-like assault.
In recent months, the list of hints has grown. In 1995, a Philippine terrorist linked to al Qaeda told authorities in the Philippines that he and his comrades had considered a plan involving the simultaneous hijacking of airliners and flying a plane into CIA headquarters. That information was shared with the United States.
That same year, Algerian terrorists connected to bin Laden's network hijacked a plane and hoped to pilot it into the Eiffel Tower. (French commandos killed them at a refueling stop.) Non-governmental terrorism experts briefed the Federal Aviation Administration in 1998 about the prospects of terrorist slamming planes into nuclear power plants, the White House, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and other targets. A 1999 report prepared for the National Intelligence Council noted al Qaeda could try to mount such a strike. In July 2001, the Italian government informed Washington it had reports suggesting bin Laden might use airliners to attack George W. Bush and other world leaders at the G-8 meeting in Genoa.
None of this means an analyst in Langley ought to have been able to declare, "Eureka -- watch out for four hijacked airliners on the morning of Sept. 11." But all of this should have caused the CIA to add the prospect of this type of attack to its information-collection requirements. There is no indication that was done. The Agency was as asleep at the switch as the FBI.
Here's an unfair what-if. In recent days, news reports have revealed that in the summer of 2000, the Italian police intercepted conversations involving two suspected al Qaeda members. One, Mahmoud es-Sayed Abdelkader, told the other he was "studying airplanes" and "God willing, I hope that I can bring you a window or piece of airplane the next time we meet." In the rhetorical ways of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, he also commented, "There are big clouds in the sky, there in that country the fire has been lit, and awaits only the wind." In a January 2001 conversation with a Tunisian who would later be convicted of terrorism, Sayed referred to false passports to be used for a plan involving the United States as "very, very secret."
These chats may have had nothing to do with 9/11. (Though we probably should hope they were discussing 9/11 and not some other plan.) But suppose they were references to a nascent 9/11 conspiracy. If the CIA had been on the look-out for al Qaeda plots involving airliners, then pursuing the information produced by these intercepts might have yielded intelligence useful to preventing 9/11. I emphasize, might.
Italian investigators had not paid close attention to the conversations before the attacks, and they only shared a rough summary of the intercepts with the FBI prior to Sept. 11.Yet if the CIA had vigorously responded to the clues listed above, it well could have informed the FBI and other Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to watch for any information suggesting al Qaeda was hatching an airliner-attack. Any hints obtained could then have been pursued.
As far we know, figuring out how to detect such a plot never made it on to the CIA's to-do list. An intelligence service usually cannot find hard-to-find information unless it is looking in the right spot. The agency failed to connect its own dots.
As for the Pentagon, it, too, should have responded to the hints neglected by the CIA. From the moment the US government learned terrorists anywhere were considering hijacking planes in order to crash them into prominent targets, the Defense Department, particularly the Air Force, should have been drawing up plans for dealing with this contingency.
Okay, what do we do if terrorists take control of in-flight airplanes over the United States? How can we intercept? How do we interface with the FAA on this? Should we run exercises for such a scenario? Are there holes in our air defenses? But there is no evidence anything of this nature transpired. The Pentagon did nothing to address an identified threat.
Yet only Mueller is feeling the heat. Not George Tenet, not Donald Rumsfeld. And for his princely efforts, Mueller could see his position at the FBI undermined. As New York Times reporter David Johnston noted, "Mueller's candor may come at a cost in his support among rank-and-file agents. Some senior officials at FBI headquarters are said by associates to be increasingly unnerved, fearful that Mr. Mueller will not protect them as lawmakers demand that someone at the bureau take a fall for the mistakes of last summer."
Johnston noted that Mueller's "unsettled standing" at the FBI "can be measured in large and small ways. One sign is the reemergence of an old Justice Department nickname for Mr. Mueller....'Bobby Three Sticks,' a reference to the 'III' he uses at the end of his name." So Mueller comes clean -- sort of -- and his colleagues call him names and fret he won't make excuses for their mistakes.
That is a bad omen for anyone hoping that the FBI of Ruby Ridge, Waco, Robert Hanssen, Wen Ho Lee, and the Timothy McVeigh documents fiasco can pull its act together. In the meantime, the leaders of the CIA and the Pentagon probably are quite appreciative of Mueller. Having placed a bull's eye on his back, Mueller is drawing all the fire and, unintentionally, providing the spies and the soldiers plenty of cover.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.