- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Joseph Webber, the senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in Houston, was investigating whether a local man was raising money for the terrorist group al Qaeda. He needed a wiretap and went to the FBI, but the bureau did nothing for months.

“Seven hundred communications with a suspected nexus of terrorism were not intercepted,” Mr. Webber said. Now two federal watchdogs are looking into the delay, which lasted at least four months, and whether it shows FBI reluctance to adjust to post-September 11 law-enforcement changes emphasizing cooperation.

The inspectors general at the Justice and Homeland Security departments are investigating this and 10 other cases in which the FBI has taken over investigations begun by ICE. In one of the cases, the FBI delay allowed a suspect to leave the country, said a congressional investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the record.

The Houston probe dates to 2003, when Mr. Webber began accumulating evidence. To build a criminal case, he decided he needed to intercept the man’s conversations, and for that, he needed the FBI to sign off on an application for a phone tap.

The detailed sworn statement that Mr. Webber signed last fall was sufficient to win the support of local prosecutors and FBI agents, he said. “It referenced terrorism 49 times, Osama bin Laden three times and al Qaeda twice,” he said.

But when the request reached FBI headquarters in Washington, which must approve all wiretap applications before submitting them to a judge for final approval, nothing happened. “Why in a post-9/11 environment would anyone get in the way of someone pursuing a terrorist-related investigation?” Mr. Webber said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III concedes the FBI was at fault in not acting quickly but said it was a unique example and not evidence of a larger problem. “There was a delay, and there should not have been a delay,” Mr. Mueller told Congress last week.

He attributed the delay to a bureaucratic mix-up that he could not explain when he testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Mueller would not discuss the case in detail, but he told lawmakers, “Ultimately, appropriate action was taken, and the investigation is ongoing.”

That admission of the delay was a start, but not sufficient, said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a frequent FBI critic. “It took the FBI forever to give approval. I want to know what happened in the meantime,” he said.

Both Mr. Grassley and Mr. Webber said they think the delay was neither isolated nor innocent, attributing FBI inaction to the investigation’s roots in another agency. “These things happen too often with the FBI to say these are isolated incidents,” Mr. Grassley said, calling it a disturbing reminder of the FBI’s failure to act on intelligence before the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Webber, 54, is on sick leave and has indicated that he plans to retire. On Monday, ICE internal investigators notified Mr. Webber that he is the target of a probe into unauthorized disclosures, he said.

Mr. Grassley said the investigation seemed to be retaliation or intimidation. Yesterday, Mr. Webber said he received word that the investigation had been closed.

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