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A history of failures within the FBI describes the scandals that have marked the bureau since its inception in 1908, drawing on years of research and interviews to explain why the September 11 attacks were unforeseen. 35,000 first printing.
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One: A Shadow of Itself
This is the history of an American tragedy. The story of how as great an American institution as the FBI could become so traumatized by its past that it failed its duty to the nation it was sworn to protect.
The morning of September 11, 2001. I was in my car on the Gowanus Expressway along the Brooklyn waterfront. Just before nine o'clock, sirens. Traffic slowing. Fire trucks sped toward Manhattan. Over the car radio, word that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
When the planes hit, this history of the Bureau was well under way. I knew that the FBI was, by law and presidential directives, the country's lead agency against terrorism. For years the FBI had been "rendering" terrorists from overseas back to the United States to stand trial for attacks against the United States. Where the Marines would once have landed, Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton had ordered the FBI to investigate embassy bombings, barracks explosions, and assaults on American warships. Under Clinton, law enforcement had emerged as the country's preferred weapon against terror. The architects of this doctrine may never have meant for law enforcement actually to replace military action or diplomacy, but during the 1990s FBI law enforcement had effectively taken their place. Then came 9/11. The dream of bringing terror under the rule of law through arrests, prosecutions, and punishment suddenly seemed the tragic and failed relic of an impossibly idealistic era.
I had recently interviewed the FBI's top official on counterterrorism, Neil Gallagher, assistant director in charge of the National Security Division. When I asked him what the Bureau was doing about terrorism, he took me to their high-tech Strategic Intelligence and Operations Center, where government leaders could stay in touch with a terrorist attack site by means of banks of computers and monitors. He briefed me on the Bureau doctrine of joint operations command and joint information facilities, used to coordinate the efforts of first responders. The FBI's planning for a terrorist attack focused on establishing order at the "crime scene" to preserve evidence and organize it for the eventual trial. The Bureau's famed Hostage Rescue Team -- the guys who slither down ropes from black helicopters-had been embedded in a "Critical Incident Response Group" who were to take charge at violent crime scenes. The team rehearsed "close quarters battle" against the "Tangos" (aviation lingo for the letter T, meaning terrorists) in mazelike shooting ranges at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, preparing themselves to fight barricaded terrorists. In field drills and "tabletop" exercises at headquarters the Bureau had practiced restoring order as a panicked population tried to flee an urban center (one scenario was a biological attack on Wall Street) while emergency personnel -- police, fire department, military personnel, government leaders -- made their way through the crowds. The Bureau had spent the better part of a decade studying how to shape the chaos of a terrorist attack into investigative order for an eventual trial. The focus was on response, not prevention. FBI Director Louis Freeh liked to reassure critics disturbed by memories of the Hoover era that his FBI was and always would be reactive, never proactive.
The first few hours after the 9/11 attack would make that planning seem irrelevant, almost bizarrely misguided. As for preserving evidence, getting ready for a trial, everyone in the world had seen the crime, and the terrorists were all dead along with their victims. There would be no trial. There was no evidence in any real sense, only the recovery of what remained of the victims for burial. And although the FBI succeeded in identifying the nineteen hijackers with startling speed, that was cold comfort.
The question we were asking was not who had done it, and whether they could have been convicted. It was why the FBI (and the CIA) hadn't kept it from happening. But when I had asked the FBI's National Security Division what they were doing to stop terrorist attacks, they had replied, again and again, with the mantra "We aren't violating anybody's civil liberties."
That hadn't impressed me then. It was going to impress other people even less after 9/11.
Pearl Harbor, the only intelligence disaster in American history comparable to 9/11, ushered in years of finger-pointing, with Democrats and Republicans each trying to assign the other guilt for the intelligence failure, and for over half a century conspiracy buffs have promoted the idea that only colossal incompetence or treason could explain how clues to Japanese intentions were ignored by FDR, the Navy...or the FBI. But all responsible historical examinations of Pearl Harbor found that those few meaningful "signals" pointing to an attack were drowned out before December 7, 1941, by the meaningless "noise" of conflicting messages.
I had no doubt that after 9/11, too, all manner of "signals" would surface that supposedly should have tipped off the FBI and other agencies about the impending attack, had those signals been interpreted correctly. I expected that this time, too, careful investigation and sober reflection would reveal that those meaningful signals were distinguishable only in hindsight from the static of meaningless noise. There would be no smoking guns. There would be no really damning answer to the question, What did the Bureau know and when did it know it?
I was wrong.
This time there were more than a few signals lost in the static. This time there actually would be, in a figurative sense at least, smoking guns, and the full picture of how the FBI had mishandled the pre-9/11 investigation would be so devastating as to raise the question of whether the FBI would -- or should -- be allowed to continue in its role as the nation's primary defender against the threat of terrorist attack.
The FBI -- and the CIA and many other intelligence agencies -- had come tantalizingly close to cracking the 9/11 conspiracy during the summer of 2001. No one can say for sure that even if the Bureau had pursued all its leads vigorously and effectively, it could have spared the country the 9/11 attack. But the fact is that the FBI did not pursue those leads -- and it had good leads -- vigorously or effectively. The 9/11 failures of the Bureau were the result of decisions so wrongheaded as to seem almost incredible to anyone hearing about them for the first time -- decisions, however, that were not only predictable but almost inevitable, when viewed against the turbulent history of the FBI.
By 9:30 A.M. on September 11, when the president told the country it was under terrorist attack, Bush, his top advisers, and key officials in the FBI knew exactly who was responsible. Like a persistent and unshakable stalker, Osama bin Laden had been following America, in his thoughts at least, long before America or the FBI had any thought of him. Sometime around 1989 bin Laden assembled his top lieutenants and told them he was founding a new organization that would be "focused on jihad" both in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. Driving the American military out of the Arabian peninsula was (and still is) his primary objective. Soon after that, the United States began to come under ever more frequent terrorist attacks at home and abroad. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 has not been directly linked to bin Laden, but Ramzi Yousef, who planned the 1993 attack, and several of the other bombers had trained in Afghanistan at al Qaeda camps. Ramzi Yousef himself is the nephew of al Qaeda's Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (Mukhtar, or "the brain"), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (and currently in U.S. custody -- somewhere). Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, probably provided the financing for Yousef's failed plot in 1995 to blow up twelve American airliners flying Pacific routes. When Yousef was arrested in 1995 by the FBI's Brad Garrett, he was staying at a bin Laden guesthouse in Pakistan.
Preventing an attack like 9/11 should have been the Bureau's most pressing objective after its earlier investigations of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. The FBI had been collecting information on bin Laden since its investigation of the October 1993 attack in Somalia that killed eighteen U.S. Marines and became the movie Black Hawk Down. The Bureau concluded that bin Laden's organization was behind the attack, and this led to a June 1998 sealed indictment against him for a "conspiracy to attack defense installations of the United States." On June 7, 1999, bin Laden was put on the Bureau's Ten Most Wanted fugitives list. The Bureau (along with other intelligence agencies) collected enough evidence that bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for the 1998 attacks on the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam for an unsealed indictment of bin Laden on November 4, 1999, for conspiring to "murder United States nationals anywhere in the world, including in the United States."
The FBI foiled the "Millennium" plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on January 1, 2000, when it picked up an al Qaeda operative carrying explosives near the Canadian border. The FBI had more proof that bin Laden planned and financed the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, evidence gathered by an army of FBI agents sent to the crime scene. On the morning of September 11, the FBI was investigating no fewer than three major al Qaeda attacks abroad: the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, to say nothing of the Iranian-inspired Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1995, which had become something of a personal obsession for Louis Freeh, who was working that case like a street agent.
The CIA had also been warning about the danger bin Laden and al Qaeda posed to American lives and interests. On January 8, 1996, the CIA set up a bin Laden unit within its Counterterrorism Center, and in 1998 the agency declared that bin Laden and al Qaeda were the most dangerous current threats to the United States. That year the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, told his agency that it was "at war" with al Qaeda, and that "I want no resources or people spared, in this effort, either inside CIA or the [intelligence] community." Tenet testified to Congress on June 24, 1999, that bin Laden was planning attacks within the United States. On February 21, 2001, the CIA's annual worldwide threat analysis reported that "UBL [the CIA and FBI use the spelling "Usama" for bin Laden's name, hence "UBL"] and his associates remain most immediate and serious threat. UBL's commitment of striking against the U.S. undiminished...strong indications planning new operations...capable of mounting multiple attacks with little or no warning."
For two years the intelligence community -- the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department intelligence agencies -- had been receiving reports that bin Laden was planning to strike targets within the United States at an unspecified time and an unspecified place. Soon after bin Laden's February 23, 1998, fatwa calling for attacks on American military and civilian targets everywhere in the world, he began hinting that the war would be brought home to America. As early as August 1998, intelligence agents told the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration that a group with ties to al Qaeda was talking about flying an explosives-laden plane into the World Trade Center. Throughout 1998 and 1999 the intelligence community had reports on other al Qaeda plans to utilize aircraft in attacks within the United States. One report, not shared with the FBI, had bin Laden thinking about using commercial pilots in a "spectacular and traumatic" attack on the country.
During the spring and summer of 2001 the intelligence community was getting more signals than ever that there might be an al Qaeda attack on American interests, though these were unspecific as to time, place, or method. On June 25, 2001, the intelligence community warned government leaders of an upcoming "spectacular" strike. On June 30 senior government officials were told that bin Laden's organization was telling its followers to expect an imminent attack on the U.S. with dramatic consequences. At the beginning of July a memo circulated to senior government officials warning that,
based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming months. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning!
Meanwhile, George Tenet was all over town warning of an imminent attack, though he could not say where or when. But the FBI was telling the law enforcement community that it had no credible information of an imminent attack within the United States.
A week after that July 2 warning, FBI agent Kenneth Williams of the Phoenix field office sent Washington headquarters an "electronic communication" that pointed directly to the unfolding 9/11 conspiracy.
Williams had been watching several Middle Eastern men in his area for more than a year. He had noticed that several of them were taking flight instruction at a Prescott, Arizona, branch of the well-known Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
When Williams interviewed the Middle Eastern students, they made it clear that they hated the United States. One of them had a poster of bin Laden in his room. Another, who was taking expensive aviation training although he was from a poor Middle Eastern country and had not studied aviation before his arrival in the United States, was in touch with Abu Zubayda, chief of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Several of the other students had also been involved with al Qaeda. All this led Williams to suspect a coordinated campaign by Muslim extremists to use civil aviation to attack the United States.
While conducting physical surveillance of his primary subject, Williams learned that he was using a vehicle registered to another Middle Eastern individual who had been detained in 1999 when he and a friend tried to enter the cockpit of a commercial airliner. They claimed they had mistaken the cockpit for the bathroom and "accused the Bureau of racism" for questioning them. They were released for lack of evidence and the case was closed. In November 2000, the owner of the car was placed on the State Department's watch list on the basis of a report that he may have gotten training in explosives and car bombs in Afghanistan. In August 2001 he was denied reentry into the United States.
In his July 10 memo, Williams also told headquarters he thought al Qaeda had an active presence in Arizona. Several members of bin Laden's organization had lived in or traveled to Phoenix recently. One of them was Wadih el-Hage, a bin Laden lieutenant, who was later convicted for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. Williams believed it was el-Hage who had established the bin Laden network in Arizona (and Williams believed it was still in place when he testified before Congress in 2002).
Williams's communication named ten individuals, all subjects of FBI investigations. They were Sunni Muslims from Kenya, Pakistan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Saudi Arabia. Some were in flight training, others studying aeronautical engineering and international aviation security.
Williams concluded with a list of recommendations for the Bureau:
Popular historian Powers, biographer of J. Edgar Hoover, has produced a timely and nuanced history of the legendary agency that puts its current struggles in appropriate context. Beginning with the debate about the need for a federal detective force in the early 1900s, Powers traces the evolution of a small unit within the Justice Department into the G-Men of lore. Despite some odd omissions (there is no mention of the bureau's role in investigating the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy or the first bombing of the World Trade Center) and a little sloppiness (Rudolph Giuliani passed on trying the Mafia Commission in order to try a political corruption case, not to handle insider trading investigations), Powers succeeds in showing how the FBI's handling of terrorist threats prior to 9/11 was the direct result of the public backlash against Hoover's excesses and a desire to better respect civil liberties. His balanced and reasoned defense of recent director Louis Freeh, who has become a convenient scapegoat in the eyes of many, will spark renewed debate, especially as the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and consideration of reforms of the intelligence community remain in the spotlight.
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