The FBI's unthinkable blunder

May 29, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The blistering denunciation of the FBI leadership by a whistleblower in Minneapolis who says the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks possibly could have been thwarted can only add to the grief of the surviving relatives and friends of the victims.

Yet it is important that Coleen Rowley, the agency's top lawyer in Minneapolis, made public her letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller III, which flatly charges that agency indifference to, or mismanagement of, internal warnings may have detoured preventive action.

Repeatedly at the time of the attacks and long afterward, officials from President Bush on down said the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by hijacked aircraft were so unthinkable as to have been unfathomable as well as unstoppable.

The president obviously had no grounds to say otherwise, but the same cannot be said for officials in the intelligence business.

We know now that there were people thinking the unthinkable as far back as 1999, when a Library of Congress analysis suggested precisely such attacks by terrorists, and that the president had been advised on Aug. 6 that the al-Qaida network was considering airplane hijacking.

It is, or should be, the business of both the FBI and CIA as intelligence gatherers and analysts not only to think the unthinkable, but also to apply information they receive to possible applications of such far-out ideas.

The Rowley letter says the arrest of the so-called "20th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, in Minnesota and a July memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix about Arabs in flight training had the sort of linkage upon which people in the business of thinking the unthinkable should have seized.

Ms. Rowley conceded in the letter that it was "very doubtful that the full scope of the tragedy could have been prevented." But she added, "It's at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to Sept. 11."

Mr. Moussaoui aroused suspicions by indicating he was interested only in how to fly a plane, not in how to take off or land it. The Phoenix agent urged FBI higher-ups to canvass other American flight training schools to determine whether more Arabs were in such training.

After the fact, we now have plenty of people in the intelligence business, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, thinking the unthinkable and warning the populace of what might come next.

The trouble is there has to be a difference between warning those who can do something about it and those who can't. It turns out, according to the New York Daily News, that remarks from captured al-Qaida operations chief Abu Zubaydah led to the heightened security measures at the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge over the Memorial Day weekend.

At the same time, however, New York Gov. George Pataki paid a highly publicized visit to the statue in New York harbor last Sunday to demonstrate his confidence that it was safe to do so and encourage others to do the same. President Bush exhorted fellow Americans shortly after Sept. 11 to be on the alert but to go about their lives without intimidation.

That mixed message remains at the heart of the public confusion and dissatisfaction over the recent dire warnings about what, in Mr. Cheney's words, "almost certainly" will happen again -- but how, when and where, nobody knows.

Thinking the unthinkable remains the responsibility of the intelligence agencies, and they did not do a very good job of it before Sept. 11. Agent Rowley's damning letter to Mr. Mueller should cause any negligent FBI heads to roll, and that is the responsibility of the FBI director, Attorney General John Ashcroft and, yes, the president.

Jules Witcover's column from The Sun's Washington bureau appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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