Civil Liberties

Rant: Unconnected Dots

Why the FBI failed to stop 9/11

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For years federal authorities have argued that antiquated laws kept the cops from stopping 9/11. They said the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks demonstrated the need for the PATRIOT Act and every other proposed expansion of the government's surveillance powers. But in testimony before Congress in September, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell changed tack, saying "9/11 should have and could have been prevented" after all; the authorities simply "didn't connect the dots."

McConnell did not draw the obvious conclusion: If greater federal power was not needed pre-9/11 to stop terrorists, then even more federal authority is not needed now. Instead, McConnell argued that the Protect America Act—which allows the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, without judicial oversight, to authorize surveillance of international phone calls and email involving people in the U.S.—made vitally needed changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

How does the supposed need for greater surveillance power square with McConnell's declaration that 9/11 was preventable and his lament that "we didn't connect the dots"? How did we get the dots without the Protect America Act?

Via good old-fashioned police work that top officials in the Federal Bureau of Investigation ignored. Federal agents on the ground knew that hijackers Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi had sought pilot training. They knew Zacarias Mous­saoui had sought the same sort of training; he was carrying 747 manuals when he was picked up on immigration charges. In the days leading up to 9/11, Minneapolis FBI agent Harry Samit repeatedly tried to obtain permission to search Moussaoui's laptop computer and belongings. Headquarters refused to seek a warrant.

New details on just how costly that denial proved to be were first published in a widely overlooked September 10 story by Greg Gordon, McClatchy Newspapers' Washington reporter. Gordon discovered that the FBI had enough information to arrest part of Al Qaeda's financing network in the days before 9/11—information that could have stopped the hijackings. Cue McConnell's dots.

Moussaoui's fellow jihadists considered him a loose cannon and security risk. They were right: The key to the whole network was right there in his notebooks. Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Binalshibh wired $14,000 to Moussaoui in August 2001, and Moussaoui sloppily recorded the routing number.

But authorities never looked at that notebook. Instead, FBI brass rejected Agent Samit's attempts to search Moussaoui's belongings, citing lack of information that Moussaoui was a known terrorist or foreign agent. The notebooks were not searched until after the attacks.

Gordon notes that investigators almost certainly could have traced Moussaoui's money back to an Al Qaeda moneyman in Dubai; Binalshibh's transactions would have led them there. The Dubai contact used one of his Western Union receipts to jot down a phone number in the United Arab Emirates. That number received calls from 9/11 hijackers while they were living in Florida prior to their attack.

As Gordon reports, FBI agents at Moussaoui's trial testified that had he confessed to the plot after his August 16 arrest on immigration charges, thus giving them access to his notebooks pre-9/11, they could have moved on 11 of the 19 hijackers. But Washington steadfastly refused to move on information developed from the field offices. Rather than endlessly tweaking the intelligence-gathering statutes, the White House should have spent the past six years addressing the "obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism" that Samit cited as the roadblock in his investigation. It obviously has not.

It was bureaucratic hubris, not a lack of actionable intelligence, that allowed 9/11 to happen. The same hubris continues to demand that ever more raw surveillance data be dumped into the same slavering but useless federal maw.

Contributing Editor Jeff Taylor is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.