Evidence points to failure by the FBI to read terror data

Interviews suggest agency couldn't grasp warnings

May 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The day of Aug. 6, 2001, broke in the capital with the steamy torpor of deep summer. Congress was in recess, and President Bush, away on a working vacation at his Texas ranch, was out jogging before the temperature began its climb above 100 degrees. He later hacked brush in a sweltering gulch and fished for bass in a stocked pond. Maybe, later on, his aides said, he would finish reading a biography of John Adams.

But it was on that morning that Bush sat down for his daily intelligence briefing. It was delivered not by his usual briefer, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, but by a low-level CIA officer. At some point in the meeting, the briefer told Bush that Osama bin Laden's followers in al-Qaida might hijack commercial jets in the United States - a dated fragment of information.

What Bush was not told that morning, and what his CIA briefer did not know, was that crucial pieces of al-Qaida's intentions in the United States did exist elsewhere inside the government's counterterrorism agencies.

A re-examination of events before Sept. 11 clearly suggests that the FBI, the agency most directly responsible for protecting the country against an attack on American soil, failed to assemble a coherent picture of the available danger signals. Nor did it fully communicate what it knew to the CIA or other intelligence agencies.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior policy-makers and law enforcement and counterterrorism officials suggest that in the summer of 2001 the government's counterterrorism apparatus was too lumbering, compartmentalized and inattentive to grasp the emerging pattern. Also, perhaps, a bit unlucky.

In addition, recent interviews of intelligence officials by The New York Times suggest that the bureau had a specific reason for growing cautious about applying to a secret national court for special search warrants that might have supplied critical information. The FBI, the officials said, had become wary after a well-regarded supervisor was disciplined because the court complained that he had submitted improper information.

"It's too bad that someone had not connected the dots - they had the dots," said a retired senior FBI official, who would not speak on the record on such a sensitive subject.

Beyond the apparent inability to detect any pattern, a question of willful negligence has been raised. In a memorandum that is the subject of congressional scrutiny, an FBI agent in Minneapolis argued last week that there was enough evidence last August to obtain the special national security search warrants for a computer and other belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, a man who officials believe was meant to be the 20th hijacker. The agent, Coleen Rowley, said that bureau headquarters repeatedly thwarted the efforts of agents in the field to investigate Moussaoui,

Bush and his closest advisers never got the information that on July 10 an FBI agent in Phoenix had warned that bin Laden might be sending operatives to American aviation schools to prepare for terrorist operations. Bush did not learn of the memorandum until months after the attacks.

Other signs came and went, seemingly without being fitted into the growing file on al-Qaida. For example, in the summer of 2001, Bush's national security team was told about the extensive FBI debriefings of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian arrested in December 1999 at the Canadian border by a Customs Service agent in what became known as the millennium bombing plot. Ressam provided a firsthand account of his training in Afghanistan and his plan to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport.

The FBI's counterterrorism division units had complete access to the Phoenix memorandum, the details of the Moussaoui case and the Ressam debriefings. But the agents assigned to these units did not understand the broader meaning of the signs, senior law enforcement officials now acknowledge.

"No one was looking at any overall picture," one of the former officials said.

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