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Is the FBI Up to the Job? | The Nation

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Is the FBI Up to the Job?

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In May 2000, Louis Mizell Jr., a terrorism and security expert in Washington, received a call from Jake White, an acquaintance who was a bouncer at a strip club in Omaha. White told Mizell a disturbing story he had heard from a dancer at the club and another bouncer. Several nights earlier, they claimed, the dancer had been asked by two customers who, she believed, were Middle Eastern or Indian to perform privately for them at their home. She agreed and took the other bouncer along for protection. There was almost no furniture in the men's duplex, and on the wall was a picture of a man the dancer and bouncer took to be a religious figure from the Middle East. While in a bedroom with one of the customers, the dancer noticed a shoebox full of cash and items she took to be explosives. The bouncer meanwhile spotted automatic weapons and explosives in the kitchen and watched the other man look at cut-away diagrams of commercial airliners on a computer.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Neither the dancer nor the bouncer wanted to go to the authorities, White says, so he phoned Mizell, a former special agent and intelligence officer for the State Department. Mizell says he "quickly called the FBI and was passed from one agent to another. I then called the FBI in Omaha. They said to call headquarters." Mizell ended up giving the details to the FBI in Omaha, which, according to White, did not contact him, the dancer or the bouncer.

White's version of the tale told by the dancer and bouncer cannot be independently confirmed. A few days after the attack, the dancer appeared to have left town and was unreachable, and the bouncer was demanding to be paid for recounting his story. After September 11, the FBI twice interviewed White. Larry Holmquist, a spokesman for the FBI in Omaha, says the Bureau found no connection between the episode related by the dancer and the bouncer and the World Trade Center and Pentagon assaults. But this is the crucial and troubling point: The FBI apparently did not initially act on the lead provided by Mizell, a credible source of information.

Was the FBI action--or lack thereof--in this matter unusual or representative? This is an important question, for in the aftermath of September 11, many politicians, pundits and national security experts have called for expanding the powers and prerogatives of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for quick passage of legislation that would expand the ability of federal investigators to conduct secret searches (including wiretaps and the interception of computer communications), to seize assets in nonterrorism cases and to allow for the indefinite detention of noncitizens without judicial review. Members of Congress have urged a boost in the intelligence budget and demanded increased efforts to penetrate terrorist groups.

There is certainly a need to review and strengthen programs and agencies that aim to detect and defuse terrorism. But in order to do so effectively--and without unduly weakening civil liberties--Congress and the federal government ought to examine thoroughly what went wrong in the days, weeks and years preceding September 11. The public record of what may have been missed opportunities (or missed indications) keeps growing. In 1995 US investigators learned that Osama bin Laden's operatives had hatched a plan to bomb eleven US airliners simultaneously and crash another airplane into CIA headquarters. The FBI did nothing after learning that an Islamic extremist suspected of ties to terrorist camps in Afghanistan had been trying to learn how to fly passenger jets. For years law-enforcement officials have known that several people linked to bin Laden attended flight schools in the United States. Assorted warnings and threats against the United States issued this spring and summer were not quickly reviewed by US intelligence, due partly to the lack of analysts and translators. After August 23 the FBI sought two suspected bin Laden associates but failed to find them before they boarded the airliner that was piloted into the Pentagon. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the week before September 11, India's intelligence apparatus intercepted a bin Laden communication referring to the coming assault. According to the Washington Post, the FBI has tracked four or five Al Qaeda cells in the United States--none of which have yet been connected to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks--but has failed to discern their goals.

Was there a "massive intelligence failure," as Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, declared? (Since the attack, the most prominent critics of the intelligence community have been Republicans.) If Shelby is right, should Congress and the President rush to hand more money and more power to the bureaucracies that messed up? Even if some changes must be implemented quickly in order to locate and punish the mass murderers of September 11 and to discover and thwart immediate threats of terrorism, the mistakes of the past should be carefully raked through before determining how best to improve and reform those agencies charged with protecting Americans. Can it be that a mere phone call to a stripper might have led to the undoing of the September 11 plotters? Probably not. But how sad that it is even a possibility.

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