- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

In the midst of the war on terrorism, the biggest questions in Congress are what did the Feds know, when did they know it and why didn't they act on that information to prevent the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Bear in mind, the very first order of business in war is finding and eliminating the enemy. That means providing our military and intelligence forces with the arms, funding and other legal tools necessary to safeguard the country from another attack.
Thus, it is more than a little troubling to see Congress devoting so many resources to the investigative hearings when no legislative action is scheduled in the Senate on the defense authorization bill, the homeland defense bill, the intelligence funding bills and the other legislation critical to preventing the next terrorist act from killing thousands of Americans.
But having said this, it is clear that some lower-level officials in our intelligence apparatus knew a lot about the terrorists in our midst, and that their memos were not taken seriously and were never acted upon. Specifically, people in higher positions of authority at the FBI here in Washington prevented recommendations for further investigation from going forward.
There was the prescient memo from a watchful, conscientious FBI agent in Phoenix last July who noticed that a number of suspicious Middle Eastern men were taking flight-training courses at local airline schools. He suggested that the FBI monitor all flight schools because he suspected terrorists might be planning some hijackings.
There were the memoranda and other warnings from the FBI's Minneapolis office seeking a secret court warrant to search the computer and other materials belonging to Zacarias Moussaoui, a new student at the Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagen, Minn.
The school's manager tipped off the FBI's Minneapolis office, saying he suspected that Moussaoui might be planning a hijacking. His tip came on Aug. 15, nearly a month before the September 11 terrorist hits on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Throughout the fateful month of August, the Minneapolis office pressed by its chief legal counsel, Coleen Rowley sought warrant authority from headquarters to conduct its search under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Moussaoui had been arrested for violating his visa stay (he has since been indicted as a conspirator in the attacks), but FBI officials here in Washington told frustrated Minneapolis agents they "did not think there was sufficient evidence of Moussaoui's connection to a foreign power" to request a FISA warrant.
Even after the September 11 attacks, an official at FBI headquarters told the Minneapolis office that the attacks may be unconnected to Moussaoui and the two cases might be a "coincidence." Unbelievably, Mrs. Rowley and her colleagues were told that day not to take further steps in their investigation without approval from Washington. As further details emerged on September 11, that warning was withdrawn and the Minneapolis office got its warrant to search Moussaoui's laptop and other possessions, but by then it was too late.
Last week, as congressional investigators probed deeper into what intelligence officials knew, they realized that the information in Moussaoui's possession was far more critical than they had suspected. A notebook and some letters apparently connect him with an al Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, and to other al Qaeda terrorists in Malaysia. Notably, the CIA had been investigating these cells a year earlier.
"These and other connections have led some officials to argue that if the FBI had been bolder in seeking a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings, the bureau might have been able to unravel at least part of the plot," The Washington Post reported last week.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller have since changed the ground rules on all future investigations, giving local bureaus much broader authority to conduct their own probes and to seek warrants. Mr. Mueller has shifted one-fourth of the FBI's personnel resources to counterterrorism and there is regular and required communications between the CIA, the FBI and the Defense Department's intelligence agencies.
The joint House and Senate intelligence committee's investigation into what went wrong and why the U.S. appeared asleep at the switch on September 11 is just getting started. But we need to keep several things in mind as the investigation unfolds.
The incoming Bush administration was in the early stages of reshaping our intelligence operations in the spring and summer of 2001. Terrorist threats were at the top of its agenda and a plan was being implemented to beef up our counteroffensive operations.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney believed the Clinton administration had left them a mess in the government's intelligence apparatus. The FBI was in disarray, with a weak chain of command. The CIA shared information with no one. There was no coordinated, strategic plan to combat terrorist attacks. Mr. Mueller, a brilliant choice by Mr. Bush to reform the FBI after years of neglect, had just taken office on Sept. 4. There was no war on terrorism.
Tragically, we have learned from our mistakes at a terrible cost in human life. But long overdue changes are being made and have been implemented. The United States is safer as a result. I just wish the Senate would get busy and begin passing those antiterrorism defense bills sooner rather than later.

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