The sound of one hand slapping
You probably read something yesterday about the release of the year-old, 371-page audit by the Justice Department's Inspector General Glenn Fine into pre-9/11 intelligence. What you've read likely describes it as a "sobering" and "blunt" accounting of the FBI's "serious shortcomings", and its "missteps" and "mishandling" of leads in the months before the attacks. Principally, the agency is faulted for not having aggressively pursued Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar once their presence in the US was confirmed, and for not following up on reports that American flight schools were training al Qaeda pilots. Fine concludes that "the way the FBI handled these matters was a significant failure that hindered the FBI's chances of being able to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks."
Nevermind that al Hazmi and al Mihdhar were met at the San Diego airport in 1999 by Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi known to the agency and suspected of ties to al Qaeda; that their conversations with an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen were monitered; that they received funds from the wife of "Bandar Bush", Princess Haifa bin Faisal, via Jonathan Bush's Riggs Bank; that they attended a "top-level al-Qaeda summit" in Kuala Lumpur, and were followed, photographed and videotaped by Malaysian secret police at the CIA's request and that their names were still not added to the "watch list"; that they moved in with Abdussattar Shaikh, a tested FBI asset. Michael Isikoff wrote that the disclosure that an FBI informant had been the roommate of two 9/11 hijackers "stunned some top counterterrorism officials." But you know what? Nevermind.
And it's interesting to see the report ascribes blame to the CIA, by confirming it intentionally blocked a memo which would have alerted the FBI to the pair's return from Malyasia's "terror summit." (The FBI can be allowed to appear incompetent; the CIA, unfathomable. It's all part of their bad cop/worse cop dance.) But nevermind that, either.
What's really fascinating is the "sobering admission" that the FBI should have known that terrorists were training at American flight schools. But I'm not talking about the Phoenix Memo, Zacarias Moussaoui and Colleen Rowley, though that's what they are talking about. As much as these trails suggest intention - and let's remember, they all lead to Special Agent Dave Frasca and his Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters - the talking point has always been incompetence, though Frasca was the one promoted.
And here's my fascination: for an agency which, before 9/11, appeared clueless that members of al Qaeda were training at flight schools, the FBI inexplicably and immediately knew, upon the attacks, which flight schools al Qaeda members had attended. And this was long before suspects should have been identified.
Venice Florida's Huffman Aviation was the principal flight school used by Mohammed Atta and associates, though used for what is a good question, as Atta was already a pilot. (The best answer may be a familiar one to students of deep politics: trafficking narcotics.) A former Huffman manager told investigative journalist Daniel Hopsicker that a carload of FBI agents pulled up outside his house in the middle of the day, on the day of the attack.
"They were outside my house four hours after the attack," he says in Welcome to Terrorland. Hopsicker writes that "they didn't strong-arm him to make him think harder and cough up some useful leads, but to ensure he kept his mouth shut."
The shaken source had quit Huffman because he'd found the workplace to be something else than he'd expected. Something, well, spooky: "I had to leave and get out. I wish I didn't know as much as I know. I told them they had nothing to fear from me."
What did he know?
"[T]hese guys [Atta et al] were double agents.... I gleaned early on that the operation I was working for had government protection. They were let into this country. How did the FBI get here so soon? Ask yourself: How'd they get here so soon?"
And note: when he says "here," he doesn't mean Huffman Aviation; he means his own house. So, only four hours after the attack, the FBI didn't merely know enough to visit Atta's flight school; it knew enough to visit the home of a former employee of Atta's flight school who had quit because he suspected Atta and his cadres were double agents. It wasn't investigating the attacks, it was intimidating witnesses.
In the August 25, 2003 edition of The New York Observer, author Gail Sheehy recounts an exchange following a formal meeting between senior FBI agents and the 9/11 widows known as the "Jersey Girls." Kristen Breitweiser was having difficulty reconciling something:
"I don’t understand, with all the warnings about the possibilities of Al Qaeda using planes as weapons, and the Phoenix Memo from one of your own agents warning that Osama bin Laden was sending operatives to this country for flight-school training, why didn’t you check out flight schools before Sept. 11?"
"Do you know how many flight schools there are in the US? Thousands," a senior agent protested. "We couldn’t have investigated them all and found these few guys."
"Wait, you just told me there were too many flight schools and that prohibited you from investigating them before 9/11," Kristen persisted. "How is it that a few hours after the attacks, the nation is brought to its knees, and miraculously FBI agents showed up at Embry-Riddle flight school in Florida where some of the terrorists trained?"
"We got lucky," was the reply.
Amazing, isn't it, how the FBI's luck changed?
Rather than drop the ball, the FBI ran with it, though some tried to call foul. For instance, those agents who contacted attorney David Schippers about imminent attacks in lower Manhattan, and even provided the proposed dates and targets, and names of suspects, after their own investigations had been squashed and their careers threatened.
How nice it must be, to be called only "incompetent," and suffer nothing more grievous than self-administered wrist slaps.