The Writing on THE WALL

At the 9/11 hearings in Washington, 'The Wall' is a buzzword and a target of blame. And, many would say, a barrier that needs to come down.

October 01, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Even an outsider to the Beltway's inside could see it coming: the christening of a new buzz word in Washington, where news cycles travel faster than a speeding bullet. Remember al-Qaida? If our post-Sept. 11 lexicon now includes such phrases as "the Phoenix Memo" and "Watch Lists, " then "The Wall" could be included as well.

"The Wall" has been the reverent nickname for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. But this past month, another kind of wall has become visible: the historical wall that can hinder intelligence sharing among the country's intelligence community, namely the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.

This wall has been a persistent image in the hearings held to investigate U.S. intelligence failures in the 18 months before Sept. 11. At the Hart Senate Office building, FBI agents working in terrorism have testified they couldn't open criminal investigations based on intelligence information because of "the wall." Their jarring testimony seemed right at home in a government building primed for drama.

The entire Hart building was closed for three months in last year's anthrax scare, and Room 216 - the site of the joint 9/11 hearings - served briefly as the anthrax testing site for Senate workers. Once dubbed "the capital's Scandal Central," Room 216 was home to the Keating Five hearings in 1990 and hearings on illegal campaign fund-raising allegations in 1997.

With balconies for TV studios and telegenic marble, wood paneling and red table coverings, the room is bathed in hot lights and equipped with screens for concealing witnesses' identities. During the current hearings, an opaque screen was replaced by a completely darkened wall. The made-for-TV hearing room is as fitting a government site as any for putting up walls - and exposing them.

A wall is a daunting image - the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China. Unlike a ceiling, a wall theoretically can be scaled. The walls between and inside U.S. intelligence agencies evoke the image of bodies of information trying to get a leg up and over. As one joint committee member asked, "How damn high" must that information get to get over the wall? Damn high, obviously.

"I used to believe in the wall, but I don't now," says Washington attorney Stewart Baker, former general counsel to the National Security Agency. "What you're seeing is a crumbling of a mindset."

The hearings have made an argument for the mindset's crumbling.

The joint inquiry released more than two dozen examples of intelligence reports that suggested Osama bin Laden and his operatives were plotting to strike the United States. Many dots but none connected, as lawmakers have noted. "Linkages" not made. "Failures upon failures."

Memos from field agents were disregarded or shelved or simply not passed to other intelligence agencies because of miscommunications, technological failures and legal barriers, according to the joint inquiry's reports. Each new hearing seems to raise the shock bar: Suspected al-Qaida terrorists living in California and listed in the phone book. Bin Laden operatives enrolled in flight schools and fascinated with the notion of using airplanes as weapons.

It's almost as if the public could expect to next learn how bin Laden himself e-mailed his specific plan of attack Sept. 11 - but the e-mail didn't get forwarded around at headquarters. In light of the testimony so far, the exaggeration doesn't seem so exaggerated.

Senators, congressmen, FBI and CIA officials and agents alike have been referring to "the wall" that prevented sharing of what proved to be vital information about Sept. 11. In a quote relayed around the country, a New York FBI special agent testified he wrote e-mails to FBI headquarters nearly two weeks before the terrorist attacks.

"Someday someone will die - and wall or not - the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at it," the agent wrote.

In the case of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, Minneapolis agents testified that the wall took a legal form: FBI headquarters advised against trying to obtain a criminal search warrant for Moussaoui's belongings in the summer of 2001.

"FBI headquarters was concerned that if a criminal warrant was denied and then the agents tried to get a warrant under FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], the court would think the agents were trying to use authority for an intelligence investigation to pursue a criminal case," said Eleanor Hill, staff director of the inquiry.

The issue of the wall - legal, cultural, technological - appears central to the problems the country faced in dealing with threats from al-Qaida. But the wall dates to the time of the other attack on American soil.

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