Is it the CIA’s turn?

For weeks, the FBI has been excoriated for having failed to follow 9/11-related leads unearthed by field agents months before the airliner attacks. In response to the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller III was recently compelled to announce an extensive reorganization of the FBI and to embrace Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, who wrote Mueller a scorching letter–later leaked–that detailed numerous problems within the bureau. (The changes at the FBI will provide more latitude–perhaps too much–to field agents, even though a key foul-up occurred because FBI headquarters failed to coordinate two different field investigations.)

While Mueller and the FBI have been in the hot seat, other key agencies that contributed to the US government screw-up on September 11–most notably, the CIA and the Pentagon–have not drawn much fire. The Agency failed to act on intelligence from the mid-90s indicating Osama bin Laden’s network was interested in a 9/11-type plot. The Pentagon did not prepare for such an assault. But George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective bureaucracies, escaped crucifixion, let alone harsh words. There were no demands for reorganization or an examination of the bureaucratic culture at either CIA headquarters or the Pentagon.

Now comes the news the CIA engaged in its own boneheaded move. As first reported by Newsweek this week, the CIA, having spied on a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, tracked one of these suspected terrorist to the United States and discovered another already possessed a multiple-entry visa allowing him to enter and leave the United States at will, and the agency did nothing with this information. The two men–Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar–went about their business in the United States for months, opening bank accounts and obtaining driver’s licenses in their own names, enrolling in aviation schools, before they walked on to Flight 77 on September 11 and presumably helped crash it into the Pentagon.

For about nineteen months, according to Newsweek, the CIA did not notify the FBI, the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the pair. The two men were not added to the watch list used by the State Department and INS to screen visa applicants. Neither name was red-flagged until August 23, 2001–when the CIA did contact the other agencies about Almihdhar, who, by then, was already in the United States. (Almihdhar’s visa had expired in late 2000, but the State Department, left clueless by the CIA, had okayed a new one for him.) The FBI only then began searching for the two men, not realizing it had but nineteen days to locate them.

Before the latest news broke, it was publicly known that Almidhdar had been at the terrorist summit in Malaysia. Apparently his attendance there was not sufficient to place him on the watch list. Yet the new report notes the CIA was aware Alhazmi had flown from the meeting to Los Angeles, and the CIA later learned Almihdhar had done the same. It also knew then that Almihdhar had frequently entered the United States–a factor that could have qualified him for placement on the watch list.

The day after the Newsweek story made front-page headlines, the CIA struck back. Citing internal email, unnamed CIA officials, speaking to The Washington Post, noted that the agency had routinely told an FBI counterterrorism contact in January 2000 that Almihdhar was on his way to the al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and that he possessed a US visa that would permit multiple entries. (This information, though, presumably was not shared with the State Department and the INS.)

The Post placed the CIA’s rebuttal on the front-page. But the CIA’s defense contained several holes. By its own account, it still had not informed the FBI that Almihdhar flew to the United States right after the Kuala Lumpur confab. Nor did the CIA tell the FBI that Alhazmi was in the United States, after the agency learned that in March 2000 from a foreign intelligence service. “No one picked up on that,” a senior official told the Post. The headline on the Post article–“CIA Gave FBI Warning On Hijacker”–was slightly misleading. It turns out the CIA had passed a piece of information–not a warning–to the bureau about one of the two men. But the agency had not told the FBI that either were in the United States. The headline could have as easily read, “CIA Failed To Follow Intelligence on 9/11 Hijacker.”

The United States, it seems, missed out on two possible actions that might have changed the course of events. Had the CIA told the FBI that two foreign nationals who had attended a terrorist convention had entered the United States, the bureau could have attempted to track the men and uncovered who-knows what. During their time in the United States, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had frequent contacts with at least five other 9/11 hijackers, two of whom had their 9/11 airline tickets purchased by alleged mastermind Mohamed Atta. Perhaps a close watch of the two would have led the bureau to suss out something was up. That is, if the bureau could have effectively handled such an investigation.

The other action the United States never had the opportunity to take was to deny Alhazmi and Almihdhar entry to the United States after they had participated in the terrorist get-together. Maybe bin Laden and Atta would have replaced them easily. Maybe not.

This latest revelation prompted an inevitable round of recriminations. “There’s no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together,” an unnamed FBI official told Newsweek. The not-too-hidden message: we at the bureau are not the only ones who messed up. But a senior intelligence official huffed to the Post, “The notion that we were withholding information from the FBI is absurd.” On ABC’s This Week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this.” Note his prudent, CYA use of the word “substantial.” How about a “reasonable chance”? It would have been nice if the United States law enforcement, intelligence and security apparatus had had a fighting chance against the 19 mass-murderers of September 11. But Ashcroft was echoing the official line. In February, Tenet testified before Congress that the CIA had done no wrong and that 9/11 was not due to a “failure of attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort.” Except for Senator Richard Shelby, a Democrat-turned Republican from Alabama, few members of Congress have raised any 9/11-linked questions about the CIA and Tenet’s leadership there.

Would Tenet now say the CIA deserves no criticism for mishandling the Alhazmi/Almihdhar leads? Will the congressional intelligence committees force him to explain this episode publicly? For years, the spies have received an easier ride on the Hill than their comrades-competitors in the bureau. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has long had the FBI in his crosshairs. He’s called for an investigation of senior FBI officials and has said “their heads should roll,” if it turns out they failed to properly warn Mueller, who took over the bureau a week before 9/11. What of the CIA? Will there be a similar accounting of actions in Langley?

To date, the Bush White House has done nothing but embrace Tenet and has not encouraged a vigorous investigation of the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 performance. Majority Leader Tom Daschle says that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney asked him to oppose any inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures. The White House denies this and claims it supports the mostly-secret probe by the congressional intelligence committees. But even if that is true, there is no indication that after September 11, Bush was dismayed by the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 record and ordered an examination of its failings. He’s the President, he doesn’t have to wait for or rely upon Congress. He could have instructed the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the Intelligence Oversight Board or the CIA’s own inspector general to assess what had happened. As far as we know, he took a pass and decided to concentrate on the war at hand. In his view, it didn’t matter whether–and how–the $30-billion-a-year intelligence community had botched its primary mission, not even as billions in extra dollars were being appropriated for the CIA and other agencies.

As a dazed and confused FBI attracted flak for months, the senior managers at CIA headquarters–officially dubbed the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999–skated by. Now they have hit a rough patch. Let’s see how much political protection comes from naming a building for the president’s father.