FBI admits Sept. failures, reorganizes to fight terror

Director acknowledges that bureau might have prevented attacks

`A turning point for the FBI'

Better data analysis, a flying squad of agents and power in Washington

May 30, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged yesterday for the first time that the bureau might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks if it had aggressively followed up on all the warning signs that filtered into the agency's headquarters before the attacks.

"Putting all the pieces together, who is to say?" Mueller said, noting that those warning signs amounted to "snippets in a veritable river of information."

"The jury is still out on all of it," he said. "Looking at it right now, I can't say for sure ... that there wasn't a possibility that we could have come across some lead that would have led us to the hijackers."

His comments were the first time a senior administration official has conceded that federal investigators might have prevented the attacks had they properly analyzed what Mueller called "red flags" that arose in the months and years before Sept. 11. A congressional committee is investigating that issue and will begin hearings next month.

"There were a number of things that organizationally should have happened," said Mueller, who took over the FBI a week before the attacks. He said the Justice Department's inspector general will look into whether any bureau employees should be punished.

Mueller's statements to reporters came after the FBI announced, under severe pressure, that it would drastically reshape its "structure, culture and mission" to make its top priority the prevention of terrorist acts against Americans.

The FBI director unveiled a number of far-reaching changes in light of the bureau's failure to act on indications before Sept. 11 that terrorists might be planning to hijack commercial jets.

For months, Mueller has been reorganizing the bureau, pressing for more funding and updated technology. Yesterday, Mueller disclosed details of the FBI's ambitious plan to cut back on its century-old mission of enforcing federal law and solving interstate crime. Now, the bureau will concentrate its resources on rooting out terrorists before they strike.

"The events of Sept. 11 marked a turning point for the FBI," Mueller said. "It was clear that we needed to fundamentally change the way we do our business."

The effort will essentially shift the bureau's center of power away from the field offices and pull it back toward the Washington headquarters. The idea has met with resistance from some field officers, who worry that it would mean more bureaucratic inefficiency.

Mueller said plans call for nearly 700 agents to join several newly created sections authorized to analyze intelligence and field reports to glean patterns of terrorist activity. In the next few weeks, 25 CIA analysts will be permanently transferred to the bureau to help perform that task.

The reorganization plans also call for a "flying squad" of agents who would be based in Washington but could be deployed quickly in the United States or abroad should there be another terrorist attack.

Mueller cautioned that the bureau would not stop solving crimes that have long been its mainstay - bank robberies and organized, white-collar and violent crimes. But it will redirect more than 25 percent of its agents to focus on terrorism. Many of the resources needed to make this happen will be siphoned from bureau efforts to combat drugs.

At least 400 agents previously assigned to investigate drug cartels will move to anti-terror units, with the expectation that the Drug Enforcement Administration will pick up the slack.

Asa Hutchinson, the DEA director, said his agency "stands ready to accept this new challenge. This is a new opportunity for the courageous men and women of the DEA to do even more for our country." He said, though, that the drug agency would likely have to seek additional federal funding.

The FBI has come under fire in recent weeks after two memos surfaced suggesting that the agency missed warning signs of the September attacks because of bureaucratic bungling.

The first memo, written last summer by an agent in Phoenix, warned that Osama bin Laden might be sending operatives to train at U.S. flight schools. It was not heeded by senior FBI officials in Washington.

The second memo, written less than two weeks ago by Coleen Rowley, an FBI counsel and longtime agent in Minneapolis, charged that officials in Washington thwarted the repeated attempts last summer of Minneapolis agents to obtain a warrant to search the computer and home of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is thought to have been the intended 20th hijacker.

Rowley's memo accused senior FBI officials, and Mueller in particular, of skewing the facts in recent months about the FBI's handling of the Moussaoui matter and of denying that the bureau had received warning signs in advance of Sept. 11.

The FBI director also revealed two other instances in which, he conceded, the bureau missed possible danger signs.

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