Friday, October 29, 2010

The FBI and 9/11: Could It Have Been Prevented?

The FBI seal

The very heart of FBI operations lies in our investigations – which serve, as our mission states, 'to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats and to enforce the criminal laws of the United States.' ”1 This quote is from the FBI's website; it expresses the FBI's mission, to “protect and defend” us against terrorism and foreign threats, and to enforce the laws at home. These are their responsibilities. But how well are they carrying them out? In the years and months leading up to 9/11, the largest terrorist attack on American soil, the FBI missed many clues that may have helped prevent the attack. Could 9/11 have been prevented? And are we protected from events like 9/11 happening in the future? 
One of the first missed clues by the FBI was more than ten years before 9/11. As described by the National Geographic TV special, “Inside 9/11,” a reporter witnessed a radical Islamic meeting taking place here in the United States. Shocked, he called the authorities, but they told him, “We don't know what you've been drinking.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the FBI, completely ignored his tip. 
Later, in 1990, there was another instance of the FBI's negligence. A Jihadist terrorist shot a Jew in the first successful attack of al Queda, Sudam Hussein's organization that would later be responsible for 9/11. The FBI and other investigative groups examined the terrorist's home, but overlooked many papers that contained information about al Queda, including future targets of the organization.

While the future hijackers of 9/11 lived in the United States for years, preparing for the meticulously planned-out attack, the FBI did not seem to notice them. Only months before the attack in 2001, the FBI received information about potential terrorists enrolled in flight schools, but they did not act on it in time. The information did not reach higher-level FBI agents until after 9/11.

 The four hijacker-pilots of 9/11

Only ninety-one days before the attack, Special Agent Robert G. Wright Jr., a member of the FBI, criticized the FBI in a memo, saying that American lives would be lost because of the FBI's failure to investigate terrorists living in the U.S. Months later, he charged that corruption inside the organization was responsible for the FBI's failure to stop 9/11. “The FBI is not protecting the American people,” he said.2 Although Wright was threatened by the FBI Director with criminal prosecution if he went public about the bureau's misdeeds, he defied his boss and spoke about them at a press conference in Washington, DC. 

 Robert Wright at the conference in D.C.
At the conference, Wright brought information about a Muslim FBI agent who had refused to record a telephone conversation with a suspect terrorist. The agent is quoted in two sworn statements as saying, “a Muslim does not record another Muslim.”3 One of the statements was from Wright, and the other was from a retired agent named Barry Carmody, who wrote, “I informed FBI headquarters twice about this incident in 1998 and again in 2000, but I am aware of no disciplinary action being taken against him in this matter.”4

Wright was not the only FBI member to criticize the bureau as it related to the 9/11 attacks. FBI legal counsel, Coleen Rowley, claimed in a memo that 9/11 could have been prevented, and that the FBI Director, Robert Mueller, covered up for senior FBI officials. Also, according to Wright's lawyers, the FBI had evidence that the World Trade Center was a possible target of terrorists. 
“I love America,” Wright told reporters at the conference. “and likewise I love the FBI, particularly its purpose and mission. However, the mission has been seriously jeopardized to the point where American lives have been needlessly lost.”5

Wright also stated that the responsibility of handling terrorism should be moved from the hands of the FBI. “Knowing what I know,” he said. “I can confidently say that until the investigative responsibilities for terrorism are transferred from the FBI, I will not feel safe.”6

So, why exactly is the FBI incompetent with handling terrorism affairs? Is it a lack of efficiency? Is it a failure to learn from past mistakes? According to Reason Magazine, “It was bureaucratic hubris, not a lack of actionable intelligence, that allowed 9/11 to happen.”7 The FBI and other branches of government had all the evidence that an attack like 9/11 was coming, but they were too slow to respond, did not connect the dots, and in many cases, simply did not take the threats seriously. 
You may ask, what should have been done to prevent 9/11? One thing is that the FBI should have assumed the worst, and paid more attention to evidence of potential attacks. They should have taken every threat seriously, and kept a close eye on details. Also, according to the FBI agent Robert Wright, there was – and still is – corruption and inefficiency in the bureau that needs to be cut out for it to work the way it should. 

Am I blaming the FBI for 9/11? No, I am not; if 9/11 could possibly be blamed on any aspect of the U.S. government, it would not be exclusively on the FBI, but on many different government agencies and departments that all failed to detect the tremors signaling the coming attack. But the FBI should have learned from their mistakes; they messed up, and the right thing to do would be to recognize their wrongdoings and adjust their focus accordingly to prevent these mistakes from happening again. Unfortunately, they have not done this.

The recent Fort Hood shootings are a perfect example of how the FBI and other investigative groups still seem to be unable to prevent acts of terrorism in our country. There was evidence before the shootings that Nidal Hasan, the shooter, might carry out an act of violent terrorism, but people in authority who could have taken action against him were too afraid of being “politically incorrect.” A CBS poll in November 2009 showed that 51% of Americans believed that the Fort Hood shootings could have been prevented.

 Nidal Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood

Agent Robert Wright warned ninety-one days before 9/11 that American lives would be lost because of the FBI's failures to investigate terrorists in our country. I hope and pray that his next warning will not also ring true: “...more terrorist attacks against the American interests, coupled with the loss of American lives, will have to occur before those in power give this matter the urgent attention it deserves.”8

1"What We Investigate."
2 Vernon, Wes. "Agent: FBI Could Have Prevented 9-11." 31 May 2002.
7 Taylor, Jeff. "Rant: Unconnected Dots: Why the FBI Failed to Stop 9/11." 22 November 2007.
8 Vernon, Wes. "Agent: FBI Could Have Prevented 9-11." 31 May 2002.
Other Sources
Inside 9/11.” National Geographic.  
Montopoli, Brian. “Poll: 51% Say Fort Hood Could Have Been Prevented.” 17 November 2009. 5687337-503544.html
Wong, Alex. 30 May 2002. “FBI Special Agent Disclosed Failures.”