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June 10, 2005
Report: The Five Missed Chances Of The FBI

A report now being released due to the Zacarias Moussaoui trial determined that the FBI had five opportunities to find out about the 9/11 attacks before they happened, but that systemic problems and a lack of urgency led the agency to miss them. The report mirrors the findings of Congress and the 9/11 Commission, but brings to light the shortcomings of the FBI, which escaped most of the post-attack criticism:

The F.B.I. missed at least five chances in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, to find two hijackers as they prepared for the attacks and settled in San Diego, the Justice Department inspector general said in a report made public on Thursday after being kept secret for a year. Investigators were stymied by bureaucratic obstacles, communication breakdowns and a lack of urgency, the report said.

The blistering findings mirror those of the independent Sept. 11 commission last summer and a joint Congressional inquiry in 2002 but they also provide significant new details about the many bureaucratic breakdowns that plagued the Federal Bureau of Investigation before the attacks and are likely to fuel questions about the bureau's efforts to remake itself. The Sept. 11 commission had access to an earlier version of the inspector general's study and incorporated parts of those findings in its final report.

In the case of the San Diego hijackers, for instance, the report disclosed that an F.B.I. agent assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency wanted to pass on information to the F.B.I. about the two men in early 2000 - 19 months before the attacks - but was blocked by a C.I.A. supervisor and did not aggressively follow up. That set the stage for a series of bungled opportunities in an episode that many officials now regard as their best chance to have detected or disrupted the Sept. 11 plot.

The previous investigations have held the FBI responsible, in some degree, for the intelligence failures that created the opening for the 9/11 conspiracy, but the brunt of the blame fell on the CIA and other agencies operating entirely within the intelligence community. The new report gives fresh details on the FBI's mistakes for the first time, including:

* Two of the hijackers lived openly with an FBI informant known to have connections to radical Islamists, and yet the case handler did not investigate the pair

* A memoradum detailing a Phoenix agent's suspicions about flight training for Islamists that was placed in the FBI's faulty computerized information-sharing system did not get widely disseminated -- and those who did see it discounted the tip, believing that others had already investigated it

* The CIA and the FBI bungled information-sharing regarding one of the terrorists, Khalid al-Midhar, whose entry into the US became known to only one FBI agent (in New York) after an al-Qaeda meeting, but the CIA blocked the agent from alerting other FBI offices, and the agent never escalated the problem to his superiors

Many of the issues that caused these failures have already been addressed. The report itself goes into detail on the effect that the intelligence/law-enforcement "wall" had on analysis of the pre-9/11 threat, for example. The Patriot Act dismantled that wall, allowing a legal basis for intelligence and law-enforcement personnel to coordinate their efforts for threat analysis. The computer system at the FBI still has its problems; the FBI just announced yesterday that it intends to scrap it entirely now, and use off-the-shelf software to create a more reliable system.

However, the most disturbing aspect about the report is the effect that multicultural political correctness played in intimidating the FBI into being less aggressive about investigating leads on Islamists. Eric Lichtblau reports on that aspect of the failure (emphases mine):

The report provides new information about the bureau's mishandling of a warning from an agent in Phoenix in July 2001 about Middle Eastern extremists connected to Osama bin Laden using American schools to receive aviation training.

The F.B.I.'s cumbersome computer system - still beset by problems today - did not automatically forward the agent's memorandum to bureau officials who were supposed to receive copies of it, the report found. Those agents who did see the warning did not have the time to follow it up, or disregarded it because they felt the presence of Middle Eastern flight students was already commonly known. The agents were also concerned that racial profiling had become so "hot" an issue that they could not pursue the Phoenix agent's suspicions, according to the report.

This is one of two passages in the report which demonstrate the problems that occur when sensitivity overcomes good investigative procedure (page 80 of PDF):

Ellen told the OIG that she thought that the theory presented in the EC was "interesting,'" but that she, like Jane, believed that further research needed to be conducted before any action was taken on the Phoenix EC. Ellen also asserted, "It was a theory that certainly needed to be explored more fully before disseminating it to the [Intelligence Community] as fact or not." In addition, Ellen said that she believed that attorneys in the FBI's National Security Law Unit (NSLU) would have had to review the Phoenix EC before any action could be taken on it because the issue of racial profiling was "hot."

In other words, after determining that the lead and the theory that resulted from it had been confirmed, "Ellen" (a code name for an FBI agent) would have to run it by a committee first to see whether it offended the tender sensibilities of "racial profiling" before it could be shared with other FBI agents. While the entire law-enforcement and intelligence communities knew of a brewing threat from radical Islamists to attack the United States, at home and abroad, the FBI was more concerned with possibly offending Arabs instead of protecting US assets and American citizens.

The FBI has a lot of explaining to do. Meanwhile, however, that PC attitude remains alive and well throughout our security systems. It's time we stopped hindering the intelligence and interdiction agents that need to act in our defense with silly and self-congratulatory attitudes about multiculturalism and allow them to pursue genuine leads without fear of retribution and without having to convene an Inquisition to ensure the purity of their hearts every single time they act. If we don't act to stop that mindset, it will be our missed chance to stop the next Islamist attack.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 10, 2005 6:31 AM

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