Archive for Monday, June 10, 2002

A question for Ashcroft

June 10, 2002


Pieces of the intelligence puzzle leading up to the tragedy of Sept. 11 shock us. The Man should have seen it coming. But who's The Man? Everyone seems to want to blame someone in Washington for letting the terrorist attacks happen.

The latest snafu: The CIA had its eye on two of the 9-11 terrorists more than a year and a half before Sept. 11. But the CIA never notified the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

We know that in July, a Phoenix FBI agent warned the main office that Middle East terrorist groups could be using flight schools in the United States to train pilots for missions. But FBI headquarters in Washington didn't act.

Headquarters also was ho-hum when Minneapolis field agents sought help last August to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui.

The CIA, FBI and even the Immigration and Naturalization Service had different pieces of information about al-Qaida operatives but didn't tell the others what they knew.

Many seem eager to blame FBI Director Robert Mueller for his agency missing important clues that would have made it possible to stop the terrorist attacks. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial went so far as to call for Mueller's resignation.

But why?

Mueller didn't take over the agency until a few days before Sept. 11. How can he be held accountable for decades of bureaucratic bungling and miscommunication at the FBI?

Some Democrats want to blame President Bush for not connecting those darn dots in August, when he was briefed about Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and the possibility of hijackings. But nothing made public so far indicates that Bush or any other president, for that matter could have envisioned that talk of hijackings meant using planes as missiles to destroy American financial and government institutions.

What we do know is this: Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft didn't give counter-terrorism a high priority when he took charge of the Justice Department way before Mueller was appointed to head the FBI.

Pointing the finger at Mueller is a sideshow. The buck should stop at Ashcroft, because he rejected adding more counter-terrorism experts to the FBI when the agency requested it Sept. 10. Yes, just one day before the attacks, the FBI sought $58 million to hire 149 counter-terrorism agents and 200 more analysts and 54 translators. Ashcroft had other priorities.

Since the attacks, Ashcroft has used the 9-11 tragedy to attack the U.S. Constitution every which way. To Ashcroft, it seems, the answer to fighting terrorism is cracking down on Americans' civil liberties and immigrants' basic human rights. Ashcroft's latest "solution," which he and Mueller unveiled last week, relaxes FBI rules to allow agents to monitor libraries, political rallies, mosques or Internet sites in search of potential terrorists.

More snooping, but where's the information going to go? The major problem is turf protection among the different federal agencies. They didn't share enough of their information. And when field agents out in the hinterlands did, the bureaucracy in Washington froze.

Who knew what and when?

Joint congressional hearings start today to try to figure it out. Intelligence committees will meet behind closed doors to get to the bottom of what happened.

The committee should go back a decade to try to find all the missing pieces. One thing they'll find is that Mueller's predecessor, Louis Freeh, a Republican in Democratic President Bill Clinton's administration, added more agents on the streets assigned specifically to fight terrorism during the 1990s after the World Trade Center bombing in New York. The terrorism-fighting budget was tripled during that time.

Maybe Clinton could have done more, but what of Congress back then? The Republican leadership was busy "outing" Clinton's pizza-eating habits with a White House intern.

There's a lot of blame to go around, but that shouldn't be the point of the congressional inquiry. The question that Ashcroft has yet to answer is why fighting terrorism on our shores wasn't on his radar screen when it clearly should have been.

It's a missing piece of the puzzle.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is

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