Clues reveal U.S. intelligence lapses

May 20, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The intensive White House damage control since disclosures that President Bush received intelligence warnings of possible al-Qaida skyjackings before Sept. 11 may well minimize political fallout against him personally. But shielding the intelligence agencies themselves may be another matter.

Giving the president cover obviously was the objective in trotting out National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to tell the White House press corps that all Mr. Bush got while he was vacationing in Texas Aug. 6 were "generalized" references to possible skyjackings.

The president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican leaders in Congress all joined in with pre-emptive jabs at questioning Democrats. Mr. Bush reportedly told Republican senators he "sniffed politics in the air" in the latest furor. Mr. Cheney, in a New York speech, warned "my Democratic friends in Congress ... not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions as were made by some ..." And Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi professed to see politics' ugly head raised in it all.

But not all the critics were Democrats, particularly in the matter of the performance of the American intelligence community before Sept. 11. Under the old Harry Truman axiom that "the buck stops here," Mr. Bush as president is bound to take some of the heat for its shortcomings.

The critical political question is whether he knew enough soon enough to do anything to foil or minimize the Sept. 11 attacks.

Unless it is established that he did, the immense public support that rushed to him immediately afterward and has largely stayed with him in backing his war on terrorism figures to sustain him, at least in the days ahead.

The position of the beleaguered intelligence community is something else again.

Its obvious failures on inter-agency communications, especially falling on the FBI, have already invited congressional demands for investigations into what was known and not passed onto the president or other higher-ups.

Since Sept. 11, the remarks of the president and others in the administration that no one could have imagined terrorists using huge aircraft as missiles against American landmarks have been swallowed whole.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with such planes were "unthinkable," but aren't there hosts of experts at the CIA and the FBI who are well paid to think the unthinkable?

It's now known that some years back a similar plot to crash a plane into the Eiffel Tower was thwarted and that other schemes were uncovered in the Philippines and elsewhere. Also, a 1999 study on future terrorist threats, which was conducted for the National Intelligence Council by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, discusses the possibility of al-Qaida forces loading a plane with explosives and crashing it into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House. How unthinkable were the Sept. 11 attacks after all to experts on terrorism?

Key members of Congress in both parties already are demanding to know why the intelligence boys failed before Sept. 11 to "connect the dots." The reference is to the FBI memo by a Phoenix agent in July warning that al-Qaida operatives might be taking flight training in aviation schools, the seizing by the FBI in Minnesota of a suspected terrorist seeking such training and other CIA warnings.

Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the failure of the Phoenix memo to make its way to other leading intelligence agencies "is not connecting the dots -- it's facts staring you in the face." He says the lapse cries out for "a massive revamping of the FBI and its culture." The agency is notorious, he says, for not sharing information with local law enforcement agencies, let alone other federal intelligence bodies.

In a sense, the latest disclosures are a sharp reminder to both President Bush and the American people to take a harder look at the often-sacrosanct intelligence community, especially the FBI, that fell short in the days leading up to Sept. 11.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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