By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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The mood was somber in the Situation Room at the White House as President Bush convened a meeting of his top National Security Council advisers several days after the September 11 attacks.
Among those present in the small, electronically sealed room in the basement of the executive mansion were National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George J. Tenet.
Robert S. Mueller III, the new FBI director, was there as well. Mr. Mueller, a former U.S. attorney in San Francisco who had been on the job only days before the attacks, told the secret conclave that the FBI would pursue Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to "preserve prosecutions" of the terrorists.
Mr. Ashcroft interrupted Mr. Mueller to contradict him.
"No, we're not going to 'preserve prosecutions,'" the head of the Justice Department said. "We're going to use FBI intelligence to prevent further attacks."
Mr. Ashcroft spoke for the rest of Mr. Bush's assembled team in underlining that terrorist attacks no longer would be treated solely as law enforcement matters but as matters of national security.
Several weeks later, the "War Cabinet" met again, this time at the presidential retreat, Camp David, in the hills of remote Western Maryland. Mr. Bush called on Mr. Mueller to brief the group on the FBI's efforts against al Qaeda. The FBI director, unprepared, had no information to share.
"He just fell flat on his face," a source familiar with the Camp David meeting said.
The impression left on the other Cabinet members was that Mr. Mueller was out of his league in running what was supposed to be the world's premier investigative agency.
Mr. Mueller, however, did not preside over the dismantling of the FBI's intelligence capabilities that left the bureau blind to al Qaeda terror cells in the United States. Shortsighted political leaders did.
The bureau's counterterrorism chief, John P. O'Neill, had singled out the growing domestic threat of radical Islam more than five years earlier. He went on to become security director for the World Trade Center and was among the more than 2,800 killed there.
Islamic radicals pose "the greatest threat coming to us domestically in the United States," Mr. O'Neill told a conference of corporate security managers in April 1996.
"No longer is it just the fear of being attacked by international terrorist organizations; attacks against Americans and American interests overseas," Mr. O'Neill said. "A lot of these groups now have the capability and the support infrastructure in the United States to attack us here if they choose to."
The FBI, Mr. O'Neill said, had observed Islamic radicals practicing in the United States with small-arms and defensive-tactics training. "And on a few rare occasions," the counterterrorism chief told the security managers, "we have actually seen explosives training taking place in the United States."
Caught off guard
Yet the Clinton administration refused to recognize the threat outlined by Mr. O'Neill, despite warnings from within the FBI and despite a failed 1997 letter-bomb campaign directed at American targets by associates of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
The administration hastened the demise of effective intelligence-gathering by further politicizing the CIA and the FBI, where promotions were made on the basis of politics and feel-good affirmative action rather than operations experience.
One result was that the FBI had no clue that al Qaeda terrorists had plotted within the United States for as long as two years. In late 2000, the FBI reported secretly to the White House that no al Qaeda members were in the country.
Dale Watson, the FBI's intelligence chief, testified at a Senate hearing in February that the bureau was caught off guard by the terror attacks because most of the 19 successful hijackers entered the country close to September 11. Asked about the presence of al Qaeda cells within the United States, Mr. Watson declined to discuss details in public.
The reason was obvious: The FBI was embarrassed that its intelligence section had been so ignorant. To draw attention away from the lapse, Mr. Watson told senators that "there are hundreds of investigations" in the search for al Qaeda cells.
What he did not say was how many of those investigations were opened after September 11 and that the reason the FBI didn't know about al Qaeda cells in the United States was that its agents had not infiltrated radical Islamic groups here.
More important to the Clinton administration than countering domestic terror was the political correctness of an FBI reorganization under a new director, Louis J. Freeh. The Clinton Justice Department, led by Attorney General Janet Reno, sought to refocus domestic counterintelligence efforts on anti-abortion bombings, even though the FBI knew that problem was not as serious as the growing threat of Islamic terrorism.
Mr. Freeh, following the push for diversity over performance, appointed a black, a Hispanic and a woman to top FBI posts on Oct. 13, 1993. The appointments marked a "momentous day," he said.
His reorganization also included the first of several shifts that seriously harmed the FBI's intelligence-gathering capabilities and led indirectly to the failure to detect the movements of bin Laden's al Qaeda network before September 11.
Mr. Freeh abolished the job of deputy director for investigations, considered the third-highest position in the FBI. The last official in that job, W. Douglas Gow, had no intelligence background even though he was in charge of the decades-old Intelligence Division from January 1990 to June 1991.
The FBI director appointed a criminal-side agent, Robert B. "Bear" Bryant, to take over the new National Security Division, which replaced the Intelligence Division. Mr. Bryant was promoted from head of the Washington field office, where he had won praise for directing the investigation of CIA mole Aldrich Ames. (The real hero of that operation, though, was squad supervisor Leslie Wiser, who disobeyed orders to break the Ames case wide open.)
Mr. Bryant, those who worked with him say, had little use for intelligence specialists. He bragged that he put counterintelligence agents on criminal cases. He convinced Mr. Freeh that responsibility for counterterrorism should be transferred from the Criminal Division to the National Security Division. And so counterintelligence - and more importantly, its approach to fighting terrorism - was given a lower priority.
A commission led by William Webster, a former director of both the FBI and CIA, concluded that the bureau damaged its intelligence capabilities as well as internal security by fostering a law enforcement approach to crime, terrorism and counterintelligence.
"Until the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the FBI focused on detecting and prosecuting traditional crime," the Webster commission's report said. "That focus created a culture that emphasized the priorities and morale of criminal [division] components within the bureau, which offered the surest paths for career advancement. This culture extolled cooperation and the free flow of information inside the bureau, a work ethic wholly at odds with the compartmentation characteristic of intelligence investigations involving highly sensitive, classified information."
This orientation within the FBI dismissed rules intended to protect information as "cumbersome, inefficient and a bar to success," the report said.
"Whether the two can co-exist in one organization is a difficult question," the report concluded, referring to criminal and intelligence operations, "but they will never do so in the FBI unless the bureau gives its intelligence programs the same resources and respect it gives criminal investigations, which, employing its own sensitive information and confidential sources, would also benefit from improved security."
Not a player
FBI counterintelligence veteran I.C. Smith agrees with that critique and says there was "a de-emphasis on the collection of intelligence" during the Clinton years.
"They never really felt comfortable in handling intelligence information," Mr. Smith says of FBI leaders. "They worked these cases like bank robberies."
Shortsighted political leaders in Congress and the White House had already forced FBI agents to make do with low technology, including primitive computer systems that hindered data searches and couldn't "talk" with each other.
Under Mr. Freeh, the bureau ceased to be a major part of the U.S. intelligence community, Mr. Smith says. For one meeting with outside intelligence specialists, he prepared remarks for Mr. Freeh on the FBI's counterspy mission. Instead, the director talked about improving relations among law enforcement agencies.
"I was watching people on the panel," Mr. Smith recalls. "They didn't want to hear about cop-to-cop relationships. They wanted to hear that the FBI should be the lead counterintelligence agency.
"It was clear the FBI had no interest in being a player," he adds. "The attitude [about counterintelligence agents] was, 'They aren't making arrests, so why are they here?'"
Funds allocated to the FBI for intelligence-gathering were redirected to criminal investigations. Half of the $5 million budgeted for intelligence analysis was instead spent on a computer crime center. A counterterrorism budget was used in part to fund criminal forensic work. And $83 million for hiring as many as 1,000 counterterrorism agents was spent on regular street agents.
Mr. Smith understood what Mr. Freeh didn't: The FBI's counterterrorism operations had to do electronic surveillance, penetrate groups, recruit informants and rigorously analyze intelligence. And this had to be done by specially trained agents who understood foreign cultures, foreign languages and foreign threats.
At one point in the mid-1990s, though, the FBI did not have even a basic training course for terrorism analysts. In 1998, only two Arabic-speaking agents were available to work on counterterrorism.
Mr. Freeh - at the urging of Mr. Bryant, his national security director - announced another major restructuring at headquarters in November 1999. The moves, the FBI director said, were designed to "respond to the changing threats from espionage and terrorism; [meet] the need to enhance analytical capacities, especially across program lines; and to make more effective use of existing resources."
A new Counterterrorism Division highlighted, at least bureaucratically, the need to do more to detect and prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. targets. A new Investigative Services Division would coordinate the FBI's international activities and "substantially strengthen" analysis. But counterintelligence, left within the National Security Division, continued to be robbed of resources.
'A complete grasp'
September 11 proved that the plan didn't work. It later came to light that headquarters ignored dedicated agents in the field who had flagged the suspicious activity of Middle Eastern men enrolled at U.S. flight schools.
In December, Mr. Mueller announced yet another restructuring. The decade-long program to homogenize the FBI had eliminated specialty jobs, the new director said.
"Over the years, the FBI tended to hire generalists, operating within a culture that [believed] most jobs were best done by agents," Mr. Mueller said. "We need subject-matter experts in areas like computers, foreign languages, internal security, area studies, engineering, records and the like."
A new Office of Intelligence would be aimed at "building a strategic analysis capability and improving our capacity to gather, analyze and share critical national security information."
Mr. Mueller also pledged to mount a "massive prevention effort" against terror. He said he recognized the FBI's intelligence-gathering shortcomings and vowed to fix them.
"The September 11th terrorists spent a great deal of time and effort figuring out how America works. They knew the ins and outs of our systems," Mr. Mueller said in a speech in April, six years after Mr. O'Neill warned of the domestic threat posed by radical Islam.
"We need to have a complete grasp on how terrorists operate as well," Mr. Mueller said. "Our analysts do some great work, but we need more of them, and we need to do more of the kind of strategic thinking that helps us stay one step ahead of those who would do us harm."
Bill Gertz, defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times, in his new book, "Breakdown" (Regnery), details pervasive intelligence failures that allowed the United States to be blindsided by Islamic terrorists on September 11.