A legal wall that has divided FBI intelligence from its criminal agents for years is blamed largely for the government’s failure to grasp the threat posed by al Qaeda inside the United States before the September 11 attacks.
One FBI agent, frustrated at his inability to track two soon-to-be hijackers known to be in the United States, wrote in an August 2001 e-mail that “someday someone will die, and wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource at certain problems.”
The September 11 attacks killed about 3,000 people.
The problem, since resolved, is expected to be among the topics when current and former Justice Department and FBI officials testify tomorrow and Wednesday before the independent commission investigating the attacks.
Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former Attorney General Janet Reno, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III are among those scheduled to appear.
In the months after the attacks, the wall was dismantled by the USA Patriot Act and a court ruling allowing the FBI to seek special warrants to wiretap phones and conduct other secret surveillance inside the United States of suspected foreign terrorists, government agents and spies.
Former Sen. Slade Gorton, Washington Republican and a commission member, said yesterday the FBI’s lack of internal communication, not just the intelligence-criminal wall, will be the principal topic of this week’s hearings.
Exhibit A will be President Bush’s daily briefing (PDB) of Aug. 6, 2001, which the White House declassified and made public Saturday night, he said.
“The most important feature of the PDB … is the line that the FBI is conducting 70 full field investigations,” Mr. Gorton said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t know where those 70 full field investigations were.”
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice talked about such investigations Thursday in her appearance before the commission. She came under fire from commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
“We have done thousands of interviews here at the 9/11 commission. We’ve gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices,” Mr. Roemer said.
Senior law-enforcement officials said the 70 represented every case the bureau was handling that related to terrorism, including even financial crimes and terror groups outside al Qaeda.
Mr. Roemer said the acting FBI director at the time, Tom Pickard, testified that he had not issued such an order, and special agents in charge of field offices testified that they had no knowledge of one.
Because of such lapses, law-enforcement officials say, the liberalized rules governing the FBI’s activities are the most significant legal changes that might help prevent another catastrophic terror attack in the United States.