Skip to comments.Freeh at Last; The former FBI director uncovers (and defends) the agency’s pre-9/11 incompetence.
Posted on 10/27/2002 10:55:49 AM PST by SWO
Last week former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who managed Bill Clinton's counterterrorist policy, broke more than a year of silence on the September 11 attacks. Freeh's testimony to the Joint Intelligence Committees, though clearly intended as a defense of the FBI, actually confirmed that the bureau must indeed bear much of the blame for 9/11.
The blame is not the bureau's alone. As Freeh stressed, Bill Clinton refused to engage terrorism militarily, and Congress imposed onerous restrictions on FBI surveillance. "The point is," Freeh said, "that while the CIA and the FBI should be intensely examined regarding September 11, they should not be examined in a vacuum."
Fair enough. But because Presidential Decision Directive 39 (June 21, 1995) made the FBI America's "lead agency" for counterterrorism, the FBI does merit our special scrutiny. And because the bureau failed to "Prevent, disrupt, and defeat terrorism operations before they occur" the "Strategic Goal" Freeh himself set in May 1998 we just ask whether Freeh or his analysts properly grasped the terrorist threat.
Freeh insists they did. "Before the end of 1999," he testified, "the FBI and the intelligence community clearly understood the foreign-based al Qaeda threat regarding targets within the United States."
That statement is demonstrably false. Throughout the Clinton years, the FBI played a soothing harp when it should have been sounding trumpets and beating drums.
Consider the official view of the FBI on July 26, 2000, when all 18 of the doomsday conspirators were already inside the country. Appearing before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Freeh's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, Terry Turchie, said: "FBI investigation and analysis indicates that the threat of terrorism in the united states is low."
Summarizing the FBI's take on the terrorist threat, Turchie did not mention al Qaeda, Islamic militants, or even "religious" extremists. Rather, he cited the "serious terrorist threat" posed "animal-rights and environmental extremists," and by "right-wing groups."
That the ignorance was the bureau's and not just Turchie's is clear from other FBI analyses. In December 2000 as Mohammad Atta ordered flight-deck videos for the Boeing 767 Model 300ER and the Airbus A320 Model 200 Freeh published this assessment about the threat to our airliners:
FBI investigations... do not suggest evidence of plans to target domestic civil aviation. Terrorist activity, when in the U.S., has focused primarily on fund raising, recruiting new members and disseminating propaganda. While international terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. soil, these acts represent anomalies in their traditional targeting, which focuses on U.S. interests overseas.
These wrong assessments, delivered late in the game, were but the last links in a long chain of bad thinking. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as Laurie Mylroie documents, the FBI officially insisted that Islamic terrorism was carried out only by "loose networks," by bad guys who "just somehow" managed to work jointly, in total security, with tick-tock precision. Even though the same names and groups, all now linked to al Qaeda, emerged in virtually every attack by Islamic militants against Americans, the FBI found no "coordinated international effort behind these movements."
When Ramzi Youssef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, was captured in 1995, the FBI did not link him operationally to his landlord in Pakistan: Osama bin Laden. Over the objections of James Fox, the special agent in charge of the FBI's New York office, headquarters maintained that Youssef was a lone-wolf misfit, an Islamic Lee Harvey Oswald. As late as August 1997 when Iranian and al Qaeda links to bombings in Saudi Arabia were known even to the press the FBI was still describing Islamic radicals as "transnational terrorists," not aligned with specific sponsors.
Freeh's own statements during these years of national sleep were hardly those of a Paul Revere. In a May 1995 speech even as bin Laden and Iranian intelligence officials were planning strikes against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia Freeh declared: "Nor are we under siege by enemies, domestic or foreign." In his 1999 Report to the American People a chance, if ever there was one, to swing the bell in the public square Freeh's words on terrorism were tepid and vague.
One of the national security crimes that has become more prevalent in recent years that is most frightening to all Americans is terrorism. ... Some terrorism now comes from abroad. Some terrorism is home-grown. ... Terrorism can be carried out by U.S. citizens or by persons from other countries.
This is about as rousing, and enlightening, as Mr. Rogers reading Terrorism for Dummies.
In his testimony, Freeh himself quoted that last passage to show that the FBI "clearly understood" the terrorist threat. Then, abruptly, he let slip this telling sequitor:
Al Qaeda-type organizations, state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, and the threats they pose to America are beyond the competence of the FBI and the CIA to address.
The truth of that self-evaluation is tragically evident. The question which ought to press all of us now is why our intelligence analysts were so incompetent.
Freeh approached that question amphibiously. On the one hand, he refused to admit error or shoulder blame. On the other, he testified that FBI analysts "could have done better." His analysts would have done better, he testified, if they had received "huge influxes of new resources." Such is the perverse, reverse reasoning of Beltway Washington: Abysmally bad performance by an agency is transmuted into a demand for dollars.
Would more money have made the FBI's assessments more accurate? In theory, perhaps. In reality, bigger bucks might have just meant more bad analyses. Indeed, there are two reasons to suspect that if the bureau's problems were rooted in poverty, it was a poverty of mind.
1. Congress rained counterterrorist tax dollars on Freeh. The counterterrorism budget for fiscal year 1996 was $97 million; by FY-1999 it had more than tripled, to $301 million. In 1993, the FBI had under 600 special agents working terrorism; by 1999, that number had more than doubled, to nearly 1,300. There is no evidence that Freeh judged this funding insufficient. To the contrary: In his 1998 Report to the American People, he wrote: "One of my major priorities has been to seek increased funding for the FBI's counterterrorism programs. The Congress has shown great foresight in strengthening this vital work."
2. If money were the key to good analysis, then FBI analysts should have hit predictive bull's eyes, while outside analysts comparatively on shoestring budgets should missed the broad side of the barn. In fact, the opposite is true. As Freeh denied the existence of "enemies, domestic or foreign," others columnist Charles Krauthammer, professor Samuel P. Huntington, NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes predicted a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. Where the bureau could discern no "coordinated international effort," the Hart-Rudman and Bremer commissions drew a bead on al Qaeda. While FBI analysts assessed the peril posed by "animal-rights activists," political-science professor Stephen Sloan predicted:
The image of the smiling truck bomber driving his vehicle into the Marine barracks in Beirut may be duplicated in a large urban center in the United States. ... One only has to consider what might have happened if the pilot of the lone single-engine light aircraft which crashed into the [Clinton] White House had filled his plane with something as simple as a fertilizer bomb. That incident, even if it was not a terrorist act, should serve as a warning It is exceedingly difficult to expand a security zone beyond the confines of an airport.
Ordinarily, it might seem unfair to simply put the FBI's wrong predictions up against these isolated right ones. Outsiders, too especially diversity-worshipping academics in what is termed Islamic Studies made many wrong calls. But the problem here is that FBI analysts as far as anyone can tell did not make any right ones.
What went wrong? Congressman Ray LaHood forced this question leadingly on Freeh: Was it reasonable to hope that "the culture of the FBI," could provide the conceptual equipage to assess "religious fundamentalism that has lent itself to very lethal terrorism?"
The form of Freeh's denial confirmed the answer. "I don't think it's so much a question of the culture of the FBI [as of] the complexity of the task, admittedly, which is the obstacle," Freeh said. "The complexity here is overwhelming."
Mark that cloned word, "complexity." Note how it is deployed also in the FBI's May 1998 Strategic Plan how it blurs what should be sharpened.
Terrorism... poses arguably the most complex and difficult threat of any of the threats for which the FBI has a major responsibility. New perpetrators, loosely organized groups and ad hoc coalitions of foreigners motivated by perceived injustices, along with domestic groups and disgruntled American citizens have attacked United States interests at home and abroad.
Note, finally, how "complexity" hangs, unstated, above the July 2000 testimony of Freeh's counterterrorism deputy, Turchie:
Since 1995 [i.e., when Clinton made it the lead agency for countering both foreign and domestic terrorism], the FBI has avoided issuing comprehensive assessments estimating the threat against U.S. interests. Given the range of potential threats from domestic left-wing, right-wing, and special interest extremists to state sponsors of terrorism, formal international terrorist organizations, and loosely affiliated international radicals-as well as potential targets-ranging from important landmarks, critical infrastructures, and commercial sites to political and business leaders, and Americans traveling or working overseas such assessments would be inherently too broad-based to provide much practical value[emphases added].
In other words: The lead agency for assessing the terrorist threat refused to assess the terrorist threat.
That refusal created a strategic vacuum at the heart of our national security. The critical stage of intelligence management the setting of collection priorities requires definition of the probable danger. As Richard Betts has written: "Surprise can be engendered if collectors focus on the wrong threat. Surprise can also be engendered, however, if collectors focus on all threats equally."
So it was before 9/11. "An overall assessment of the risk to America was not prepared," the joint committee's chief investigator, Eleanor Hill, testified. "As a result, to much of the intelligence community, everything was a priority. The U.S. wanted to know everything about everything all the time." No wonder Freeh found that "analyzing intelligence" was, as he recalled, "like trying to take a sip of water coming out of a fire hydrant."
Given the bureau's own lack of clear priorities, its agents and analysts could only be overwhelmed. Thus, in its May 1998, Strategic Plan, the FBI claimed to be outnumbered by a nebulous horde ("...perpetrators, targets, and weapons exist in almost unlimited numbers, while the law-enforcement resources arrayed against them are finite"). In fact, the FBI outmanned al Qaeda in the U.S, by about 1350 to 19. But lacking any definition of the threat, "FBI field offices around the country were 'clueless' with regard to counterterrorism and al Qaeda and did not make them priorities," as one agent told committee investigators.
In that fateful respect, domestic spying in summer of 2001 was as poor as it was in the sleepy months before Pearl Harbor. In July 1941, British Commander Ian Fleming surveying U.S. intelligence for His Majesty's Office of Naval Intelligence lamented that FBI agents seldom had any clearer brief than "to go and have a look." Then, as in our own time, a failure of threat assessment virtually guaranteed that we would be surprised.
The German strategist Clausewitz framed the lesson three centuries ago. To win a war, we must apprehend some unity in the mass of events. We must interpret reality from one viewpoint, which guards us from inconsistency. This is precisely what the FBI, under Louis J. Freeh, refused to do.
Freeh refuses even now to do it. What is more, he defends this failure as an American principle. "We can't come up with an invalid profile or stereotype and [sic] that becomes the focus of what we do," he testified. "We don't do that in America. We don't do it well and we don't do it at all."
So here it is, brothers and sisters. Here, after "walking back the cat" through an intelligence Oz, we meet the scared, little, politically correct man behind the curtain. Here, having chugged upriver, having chopped our way through a Congo of secret reports, we meet our Kurtz, seated on a pile of rubble, his hands over his eyes.
"We don't do that in America" no, not anymore. That's the whole problem. In 1983, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," and made that "stereotype" the focus of his administration. Four decades earlier, President Roosevelt "profiled" one great nemesis Nazism and devoted the nation quite narrowly to Hitler's destruction. We won both those wars. But we will not win this one if we will not allow ourselves to know the enemy.
Mark Riebling is the author of Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 How the Secret War between the CIA and FBI has Endangered National Security, which has been reissued by Simon and Schuster in an updated paperback edition.
Fortunately weve learned our lesson since then, and have in more recent terrorist instances told the truth to the American People as soon as we could, without giving a thought to any possible 9/10 type PC considerations.
It must be getting pretty crowded behind that curtain, dont you think?
The FBI gets something to the tune of 30 billion dollars a year, and they have the gall to claim that they aren't responsible for this?
It's my opinion that unless our ideas about leadership change fundamentally, we will not win this war.
As long as nothing slopped over onto the klintons. That's why the little fish that issued warnings were ignored and/or punished, and their bosses promoted. And it's still happening today. Several sniper victims died because politics demanded everybody say, "look for a white NRA member in a white truck", rather than even suggesting that blacks or muslims might be suspects, too.
The power of Political Correctness and the klintons' FBI database is so vast that even millions of American dead in a nuclear attack would be "a small price to pay" (for them).
I believe the Clinton issue is what Freeh meant when he said "they should not be examined in a vacuum" (second para of the post).
Clinton seized the moment. He blamed Right-wing radio talk shows for sowing distrust of government institutions and for creating a climate of "hate" that fostered recourse to violence. He did not name the Republicans as co-conspirators; he did not have to.
The US media made the connection for him. Bombing Haunts ^
To protect the hundreds of investigators on the ground, O'Neill and American military commanders wanted to show the Yemenis a forceful presence -- guns ready, perimeters established. But much to O'Neill's surprise, that approach quickly angered the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, who felt his actions were harming U.S.-Yemeni government relations.
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: You had an ambassador who wanted to be fully in control of everything that every American official did in the country and resented the fact that suddenly there were hundreds of FBI personnel in the country and only a handful of State Department personnel. She wanted good relations with Yemen as the number-one priority.
John O'Neill wanted to stop terrorism as the number-one priority. And the two conflicted.
º º º
In New York, O'Neill was also convinced Al Qaeda had picked a target. But he was by now more marginalized than ever at the FBI. And so in July of 2001, when that memo from the Phoenix office pleading for investigations of flight schools made its way to headquarters, it was not passed on to O'Neill or Mawn in New York, nor was the struggle that August of the Minnesota office to investigate the alleged 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
At least we are paying attention IMO.
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