Weenies or Moles?

In October 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, an essayist who had worked in the U.S. government summed up the genesis of the tragedy this way:

It was a catastrophic systems failure, a catastrophic top-to-bottom failure of the systems on which we rely for safety and peace. Another way to say it: The people of the West were, the past 10 years or so, on an extended pleasure cruise, sailing blithely on smooth waters . . . through an iceberg field. We thought those in charge of the ship, commanding it and steering it and seeing to its supplies, would—could—handle any problems. We paid our fare (that is, our taxes) and assumed the crew would keep us safe. . . .

The American people knew, or at least those paying attention knew, that something terrible might happen. But they knew the government had probably done what governments do to protect us. The people did not demand this; the government did not do it. . . . It was a catastrophic systems failure, top to bottom.

It is generally not good form to quote yourself, but I do it to make two points:

1. That a system failure occurred has been acknowledged almost since the tragedy took place. It was acknowledged because it was obvious to those with eyes. The Democrats did not say it, nor did the Republicans, but citizens did, writers did, thinkers did, professionals did.

2. The depth and extent of the system failure, at least within the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was greater than citizens knew in the months after Sept. 11, and has only now become clear. FBI officials didn’t fail to connect the dots; they refused to see a pattern. And this scandal is going to grow.

*   *   *

You know of the Rowley memo, the 13-page letter written last week by a 21-year veteran of the FBI, the chief counsel to the Minneapolis field office, Colleen Rowley. She has joined the ranks of those women—these days, as others have noted, they are always women—who blow the whistle on sick and shameful actions within powerful organizations.

You can read an edited version of the entire memo on Time magazine’s Web site. It is the story of what happened when FBI agents in Minneapolis discovered the presence of Zacarias Moussaoui’s in their state taking lessons on how to fly planes. They quickly recognized him as a terrorist threat, and arrested him on immigration charges on Aug. 15, four weeks before the World Trade Center became a burial ground. Moussaoui is now infamous as the “20th hijacker”—part of the cell or cells that planned and executed the attack on America.

Days after his August arrest, the Minneapolis FBI received information from French intelligence: Moussaoui was connected to Osama Bin Laden’s terror organization and other groups. The Minneapolis agents asked the FBI in Washington for a warrant to look at Moussaoui’s computer and personal effects; they asked too for a wiretap.

The FBI in Washington already had in its hands the Phoenix memo—the one that warned that Middle Eastern males in great numbers were taking flying lessons in Arizona. The FBI also had in its hands the French intelligence report on Moussaoui. Yesterday we found they had in their hands a report from the FBI’s chief pilot in Oklahoma warning that “large numbers of Middle Eastern males” were receiving flight training in the Sooner State. It was happening “all over the state,” said the Oklahoma agent who wrote the memo. He suggested this might be connected to future terrorist attacks.

The FBI may also have had in hand other clues, tips, warnings and data that have not yet been made public.

*   *   *

How did FBI headquarters in Washington respond to the Minneapolis request for a warrant? It refused. It said no—“no probable cause.”

The days ticked by. Ms. Rowley: “FBIHQ personnel whose job it was to assist and coordinate with field division agents on terrorism . . . Continued to, almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis’ by-now desperate efforts” to obtain a search warrant.

The Minneapolis FBI agents finally, frantic to move forward, took an act that required some courage. They went around FBI headquarters to the CIA’s counterterrorist unit. The FBI found out; Ms. Rowley doesn’t say how. The FBI then “chastised” the Minneapolis agents.

And continued to refuse a warrant.

You know when the FBI finally OK’d a search? On Sept. 11—after the attacks.

Even then, it wasn’t without a fight. Ms. Rowley writes that FBI supervisory agent in Washington who had been making the decisions on Minneapolis’s requests seemed to have been “consistently, almost deliberately thwarting the Minneapolis FBI agents’ efforts.” On Sept. 11, just minutes after the attacks began, the supervisory agent in Washington headquarters phoned Minneapolis, and Ms. Rowley took the call. In that call, she says, he “was still attempting to block the search of Moussaoui’s computer.”

Ms. Rowley recounts the conversation this way: “I said something to the effect that, in light of what had just happened in New York, it would have to be the ‘hugest coincidence’ at this point if Moussaoui was not involved with the terrorists. The [supervisory agent] stated something to the effect that I had used the right term, ‘coincidence’ and that this was probably all just a coincidence and we were to do nothing in Minneapolis until we got their [FBI headquarters’] permission.” He added, she says, that he didn’t want Minneapolis to “screw up” investigations “elsewhere in the country.”

Ms. Rowley adds another chilling detail. In the early aftermath of Sept. 11, whenever she told the story of the Moussaoui investigation to FBI personnel, “almost everyone’s first question was: ‘Why? Why would an FBI agent(s) deliberately sabotage a case?’ ” She adds that “jokes were actually made that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen [actually Hanssen], who were actually working for Osama bin Laden.”

This is no laughing matter. When an FBI field operative who is the chief legal counsel of her office tells the head of the FBI in Washington that they’ve been wondering, out in the field, if spies or moles made the fateful decisions, she is saying something huge. She is saying she thinks it is possible that spies within the FBI thwarted attempts to stop or diminish the attacks of Sept. 11. And she wants the FBI director to know this. She uses the word joke, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s saying: This may be true. When she put this information in a memo that she knows she herself will soon hand-deliver to the Senate Intelligence Committee, she is telling Congress, the press and the people to consider the possibility that spies or moles had some part in the attack on America.

*   *   *

Ms. Rowley asserts that a terrible problem within the FBI in Washington, a problem that likely affected the handling of this case, is “careerism.” The FBI is staffed by “short term careerists” who “only must serve an 18 month-just-time-to-get-your-ticket-punched minimum.” The FBI supervisory agent who thwarted the Moussaoui search was one of them. He and his kind are a reason FBI headquarters is “mired in mediocrity.” She made it a point to look up and share with the director the dictionary definition of careerism: “the policy and practice of advancing one’s career often at the cost of one’s integrity.”

Ms. Rowley said she would not use the term coverup to characterize the FBI’s official statements since Sept. 11. She said she will “carefully” use, instead, these words: “Certain facts . . . have . . . been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mis-characterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons.”

What improper political reasons? She does not say. But throughout her memo she demonstrates a seriousness about words, a carefulness as to meaning. It will be interesting when she is asked by Congress or the press what she meant exactly.

*   *   *

Which is where our media come in. Tim Russert, “60 Minutes”: This is the story you’ve lived for. Were there spies in the FBI helping out the other side? What political influences may have dictated or affected their decisions? Why did the FBI ignore all the information coming in from French intelligence, from Phoenix, from Minneapolis, from Oklahoma?

There are those who say sure, the picture is always clear in hindsight. But that itself now sounds like the language of coverup. Bin Laden made his plans clear enough over the years. The World Trade Center had been bombed in 1993, two U.S. embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000. U.S. and Western intelligence have every reason in the world to think something terrible was coming. Anyone who read a Tom Clancy novel knew what was possible, and anyone who read a Tom Clancy novel and had a higher than average IQ knew the possible becomes the probable becomes a tragedy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein had a sense of foreboding about U.S. security; so did many of us. And the FBI is supposed to know more than we do.

It is true, as Slate’s Mickey Kaus and the columnist Ann Coulter have pointed out in different ways, that the long political-media campaign against “ethnic profiling” had an impact on this case and a bad effect on the FBI. It is true that many Democrats and Republicans who now criticize President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for not combing the flight schools for possible Arab terrorists were previously complaining about profiling.

But it is also true—and here I display what is perhaps naivetè—that a lot of us think the FBI is supposed to be full of people with the sense and toughness to work around irresponsible demands and limitations, and not just fold in the face of potential heat. They’re not supposed to be complete weenies in the FBI. They’re supposed to have some guts and common sense.

*   *   *

If this were a dark Hollywood thriller, Ms. Rowley would feel it necessary to request whistle-blower protection.

She did.

The supervisory agent in FBI headquarters who thwarted and insulted the responsible men and women of the Minneapolis FBI would get a promotion.

He did.

And the attorney general would announce, just days after the Rowley memo became public, that FBI field offices will now be given expanded authority to move independently on terror threats without going through headquarters.

Two hundred sixty-one days after the attack on America, he did.