The FBI’s failure to see clear warning signs in the Fort Hood case revives the question of whether it’s up to the task of countering terrorism.
Before his murderous rampage, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was exchanging e-mails with a radical Yemen-based imam with ties to the 9/11 hijackers. FBI investigators examined intercepts — and, finding that their “content was explainable by his research,” concluded “that Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning.” It did not warn the Army of the potential menace.
The lapse has been attributed to an FBI bending over backward to avoid giving offense to Muslims. Perhaps it did — but, thanks to reporting by National Public Radio, we’ve learned that sheer incompetence played a larger role.
After Hasan’s e-mails came under scrutiny, NPR reports, his investigative file languished for months on an agent’s desk, growing out of date. When the FBI opted to close the case, the file didn’t include fresh e-mails, held in another office, in which Hasan pondered whether Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a Muslim solder who threw grenades at fellow troops at the start of the Iraq war, was a holy martyr.
FBI lassitude in national-security cases has a long history. The bureau took years to investigate the possible Chinese theft of nuclear-weapons design plans by Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, ending the case inconclusively in 2000 with a conviction on only a minor count. A scathing Justice Department review noted that the FBI probe was marked “by dead-stop-in-the-water delays that can only be characterized as maddening and inexplicable.”
Just months after that fiasco came the revelation that Robert Hanssen, the FBI official in charge of ferreting out Soviet (and then Russian) spies, had been spying for Moscow since 1985. Despite bizarre personal behavior (one supervisor called him the “strangest person” he’d ever worked with), Hanssen was promoted into the critical slot, leading to the deaths of several (at least) US agents in the USSR.
Then, in August 2001, FBI investigators detained Zacharias Moussaoui — an al Qaeda operative then trying to learn how to fly a Boeing 747. When they sought a warrant to examine his laptop, FBI supervisors in Washington balked — despite Moussaoui’s known jihadist beliefs, ties to Chechen rebels and the field agents’ belief that he was preparing to hijack a plane. It took the toppling of the World Trade Center for FBI bosses to change their minds.
Yes, Robert Mueller, who became FBI director in summer 2001, has sought to turn the bureau into a counterterrorism machine. And the FBI can claim credit for a growing list of accomplishments. This year alone, it amassed a string of successful convictions, including of five al Qaeda wannabes who sought to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago. The FBI has contributed significantly to eight years without a repetition of anything on the scale of 9/11.
But profound problems persist. The bureau’s investigation of the September 2001 anthrax attacks dragged on for seven years as agents focused on Steven Hatfill, a bio-warfare expert at Fort Detrick, Md. Tunnel vision kept them from taking a serious look at another suspect right under their nose: Hatfill’s colleague, Bruce Ivins, was a microbiologist who’d tried to cover up a spill of anthrax spores in his lab in late 2001 and exhibited other suspicious activity — including, according to the court testimony of his psychotherapist, a decades-long history of making homicidal “threats, actions, plans.” Ivins committed suicide last year when the FBI finally closed in.
Sloppiness in that — its most important case ever — and now in Hasan’s, bears out federal Judge Richard Posner’s warning that the agency lacks “the tradition, the skills, the patience, the incentive structures, the recruitment criteria, the training methods, the languages, the cultural sensitivities and the career paths that national-security intelligence requires.”
To that devastating catalog, add external pressure. Civil-rights groups and some in the media have hammered the FBI mercilessly for allegedly being free and easy in drawing up its vitally important terrorist watch lists — which the ACLU insists are “bloated” and replete with names of “innocent people.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has lambasted the bureau for placing “law-abiding Americans and babies and nuns” on the lists.
Perhaps in response, the agency is sometimes dangerously under-inclusive. A Justice Department audit this past May reviewed 216 FBI investigations — and found that in 32 cases, agents failed to add 35 suspects to the terrorist watch list. At least three times, “individuals with names matching the subjects [later] traveled into the United States.”
Charged at once with being too passive and too aggressive, the FBI has been whipsawed into failure. It’s high time to look at creating a new and separate domestic counter-terrorism/counter-intelligence agency along the lines of Great Britain’s MI5. This would not be a panacea, but the alternative is more of the same — and possibly worse.