- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The powerful letter written last week by FBI senior agent Coleen Rowley to FBI Director Robert Mueller dissecting the bureau's failure to aggressively investigate terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui prior to September 11 raises troubling questions about the role of senior agency bureaucrats in undermining any serious investigation of his suspected terrorist ties. It also raises even more questions about the damaging effect that a 1979 federal statute known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is having on this country's ability to investigate terrorist groups operating here.

Mrs. Rowley, a highly respected senior agent with 20 years of FBI service, alleged in the May 21 letter that Mr. Mueller had misrepresented the bureau's handling of the Moussaoui investigation, and that he and other high-ranking FBI officials are engaged in "a delicate and subtle shading/skewing of facts" about the Moussaoui investigation. In particular, she takes strong issue with Mr. Mueller's claim that no information that was available prior to September 11 would have enabled the bureau to prevent the hijackings or minimize the loss of innocent life which took place that terrible day.

Writing in Friday's Commentary section of The Washington Times, Herbert Romerstein, a former congressional intelligence investigator, explained that the mid-August arrest of Mr. Moussaoui was the FBI's real missed opportunity. Agents in Minneapolis who had seized Mr. Moussaoui's computer asked FBI headquarters in Washington for a warrant to open it and sought another to tap his phone. Had they done so, they might have learned that New York was a target, and that he was studying wind patterns over the city. Had one of his al Qaeda colleagues telephoned Mr. Moussaoui, the FBI might have been able to trace the call and catch up with the 19 hijackers.

The problem goes back to the anti-CIA hysteria of the 1970s and the sensationalistic Senate committee chaired by Frank Church of Idaho. The prime movers behind FISA, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Carter in 1979, were Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Birch Bayh and Reps. Peter Rodino and Edward Boland. The law, Mr. Kennedy explained at the time, was aimed at making sure that a warrant could only be issued if it could be shown that a crime might be committed. This made it almost impossible to gain such a warrant in Mr. Moussaoui's case prior to September 11, because there was no evidence at the time that he had committed any crime, aside from overstaying his visa. Also, as per FISA, FBI headquarters turned down the Minneapolis agents' request for a warrant on the grounds that there was no evidence that Mr. Moussaoui was acting "in preparation for sabotage or international terrorism."

Obviously, FISA is in dire need of reform. Mr. Mueller, however, has pooh-poohed the idea, but perhaps now, he might be persuaded to change his mind. As for Mrs. Rowley, it is essential that this courageous whistleblower be protected against retaliation.

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