TCS Daily

Duty Freeh

By Greg Buete - October 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Louis Freeh is perhaps the most important but overlooked figure in the September 11 investigation. Despite being director of the FBI while 20 al Qaeda terrorists plotted American destruction from American soil, Freeh has somehow successfully avoided public scrutiny for 13 months. This past Tuesday Congress pulled Freeh out of the comfort of his new life and back into the realm of public scrutiny. Better late than never.

While certainly not alone in responsibility, Freeh nonetheless had thirteen months to prepare constructive and relevant answers for the public. Unfortunately, his delivery to Congress was nothing but spin based on a fallacy that money will cure the FBI's woes.

In his testimony, Freeh was at times principled but mostly defensive. Freeh blamed Congress and two presidential administrations for not providing desired counter-terrorism funding. For his last three fiscal years Freeh requested additional special agents, but received only 76 of the 1,895 desired. "To win a war, it takes soldiers," Freeh declared. Always the politician, he argued that he had hoped in 1998 that successful indictments of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden would spark the military into action. Thus, Freeh also shifted blame onto the military and those who command them.

Freeh's defense is all spin, of course. Nobody is asking that Freeh be held responsible for what were a past administration's anemic military responses to terrorism. However, Freeh should answer for investigative failures that occurred on his watch, in his FBI. His primary defense - lack of funding and agents - is lacking itself.

Budgetary problems exist for every branch of government, but we still expect competence, especially in those agencies charged to keep us safe. Freeh seems to argue that an army of FBI "soldiers" could have changed the outcome of September 11, but this ignores a deeper problem involving the culture of the FBI; it is a culture of fearful indecision, and a bureaucracy of "careerism" that FBI Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel Cowleen Rowley detailed in her famous memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller.

In her memo, Rowley expressed extreme frustration over FBI leadership during her division's investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui. Even after the French acknowledged Moussaoui's al-Qaeda connections FBI Headquarters refused the Minneapolis team the power to search his laptop computer. Regrettably, FBI headquarters would grant the search warrant only after the September 11 attacks. Rowley said in her memo that the late warrant reflected, "that the missing piece of probable cause was only the FBI's (FBIHQ's) failure to appreciate that such an event could occur."

In other words, FBI Headquarters failed to execute initiative or support proper investigative police work. Does this sound like a funding or manpower issue?

Rowley also expressed disbelief that while her Minneapolis team suspected Moussaoui of terrorism, FBI HQ was stubbornly doubtful. Indeed, unlike Rowley, the FBI HQ at the time had full knowledge of the Phoenix memo in which Special Agent Kenneth Williams warned that bin Laden operatives could be training at flight schools across the US. Williams noted an unusual amount of Middle Eastern men taking flight-training courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, including at least one member of the militant group al-Muhajiroun. The FBI later discovered that one of the students Williams was investigating knew hijacker Hani Hanjour from flight training and an Arizona mosque. Had FBI HQ connected the two investigations and circulated information properly it is possible the FBI could have exposed the al-Qaeda plot. There are no budget or manpower shortages to blame. There were just good cops doing their job well and Washington supervisors doing theirs poorly.

Beyond her charges of pure ineptitude Rowley even accused her primary contact at FBI HQ, the FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA), of "consistently, almost deliberately thwarting" the Moussaoui investigation. FBI HQ personnel, Rowley said, "continued to, almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis' by-now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant." Incredibly, Even after the September 11 attacks had started FBI HQ was still trying to prevent a search of Moussaoui's laptop. The FBI HQ also prevented Minneapolis agents from questioning Moussaoui on the day of the attacks. When Rowley's team took the initiative to contact the CIA Counter Terrorist Center the FBI HQ scolded them for doing so. The obstruction was so obvious that in the days following September 11 Rowley's co-workers joked that not even a spy for Osama bin Laden could have caused as much damage to the investigation as FBI HQ caused.

But in front of Congress, Freeh would have you believe that the FBI's problems stem from budget deficiencies and lack of agents. Unfortunately for Freeh, Rowley had already dispelled that illusion five months before his testimony. Rowley complained to Director Mueller that after September 11 the FBI tried to officially excuse the failures of FBI HQ personnel saying that at the time resources were spread too thin. But Rowley says that FBI HQ was not too busy to reword a Minneapolis affidavit line by line in order to "downplay the significance" of the Moussaoui case. Rowley believes that the FBI HQ supervisor did so in order to either get out of the work involved in a tedious FISA case, or to avoid an "unnecessary career risk."

Which brings us to the heart of the problem. Even had Congress and two presidents awarded the FBI every dollar desired it would not have changed the hurdles that Rowley discussed. It would not change the culture of the FBI, particularly at FBI HQ. In fact, as Rowley notes, it might even have exacerbated them by creating a larger bureaucracy.

Despite Freeh's budgetary problems, the Minneapolis, Phoenix and Paris Legal Attache offices acted with brilliant fieldwork. Despite Freeh's lack of "soldiers" the field agents passed information onto FBI HQ in a timely and professional manner; more so, they acted with urgency. Conversely, the FBI HQ acted with the incompetence usually only found at your local DMV office.

It's true that funding could have given agents more tools, such as a proper database system, to conduct their job. But the culture would remain. For example, a database system could have been an essential component in linking at least two hijackers, Nawaq Alhamzi and Khalis al-Midhar, to Mohammed Atta. When the pair purchased their plane tickets they would have set off red flags, and a search on common addresses would have revealed the names of Mohammed Atta, and Marwan Al Shehhi - two of the four hijack pilots.

But with the culture that Rowley describes such a database system would be useless. There is every reason to believe that investigations into Alhamzi and al-Midhar would have been hampered in the same way FBI HQ impaired the Moussaoui case.

Unlike those in the field the FBI's upper echelon seems to suffer from what Rowley terms "careerism" - the practice of advancing your career at the expense of your integrity. A decade of FBI travesties, from Ruby Ridge to the revelation that the FBI failed to disclose documents pertaining to the McVeigh defense, reinforced an atmosphere that made September 11 more probable. FBI managers are now afraid to make mistakes, even at the expense of aggressive police work, in order to avoid more controversial decisions and preserve their careers. After September 11, money and "super squads" of agents cannot alter public relations, media coverage, and public criticisms of FBI failures. Nor can they prevent terrorism. Only destroying the bureaucracy of fear and ineptitude will do this.

Louis Freeh had a grand opportunity to address the FBI's true ailment, but chose business as usual. Unfortunately, his testimony mirrors that of other current career bureaucrats who look to funding and manpower as a government cure-all. To Congress' credit, members appeared skeptical of the Freeh defense. Sadly, it took 3000 dead Americans and some brave, professional FBI agents to get their attention.



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