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We were too smug about our invulnerability


American culture and perhaps human nature demands a scapegoat when things go wrong.

Despite the fact that second-guessing is the easiest way on Earth for someone to appear to have all the answers when he or she really has none, many critics make a career of doing just that. This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hear testimony from Coleen Rowley, the Minnesota FBI agent whose written warnings about the activities of alleged terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui went unheeded by her superiors in the months leading up to September 11, 2001. She will testify about her dissatisfaction with FBI headquarters, but not about anything that could impede the prosecution of Moussaoui, who had taken flight training in Minnesota and was detained before he was to have been the so-called 20th hijacker.

The ongoing hearings will be praised by senators as providing insight into the agency breakdowns which prevented some sort of decisive intervention. And as the media continues to investigate the activities of both the FBI and CIA, it appears that both had what can be viewed in hindsight as colossal failures.

Newsweek magazine reported this week that top al Qaeda operatives held a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 which was monitored by the CIA, unknown to al Qaeda. One al Qaeda member who left that meeting flew directly to Los Angeles, and another already had a visa which permitted to enter and leave the United States at will. According to Newsweek, the CIA did not pass this information along to either the FBI or Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agencies which would have been authorized to investigate activities in the U.S. (The CIA is not permitted to spy in the United States.

Those two individuals went on to live open, public lives in Southern California -- including at least one having his name, address and phone number listed in the phone book -- before going on to be two of the 19 September 11 hijackers.

The second-guesser would slam a hand down on the desk and demand to know why these two hijackers were allowed to drop from surveillance efforts. But in January 2000, they were not hijackers -- they were merely members of al Qaeda, which at that point had been involved in attacks against U.S. interests on foreign soil (coordinated embassy bombings, and later the USS Cole). But those CIA agents were like all other Americans at that time -- not giving much credence to the possibility that a foreign enemy could successfully attack us on our own soil.

Analysts will tell you that there are endless blips of information on the foreign intelligence radar screen, but few of them give enough specifics to allow anyone to draw a firm conclusion on the exact nature of a pending threat. In January 2000, the al Qaeda meeting had entirely different significance than such a meeting would have today -- different from the perspective of American eyes.

Then, it was a dangerous group of terrorists who were posing serious problems overseas. Now, it would be a meeting of the braintrust of the enemy which murdered nearly 3,000 Americans in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Different perspectives elicit different responses.

The people who made the decisions not to share or pursue what in hindsight were very valuable nuggets of information were guilty of complacency about our perceived invulnerability -- and there’s not one of us out there who can’t honestly say we felt the same way prior to September 11. Blame a complacent culture that had become used to the idea that it was the lone superpower as much as you may blame individuals at the FBI and CIA.

The Justice Department took steps last week to give the FBI some more authority to investigate possible terrorist activities unfolding within our country. Pending a Congressional review, the FBI will be permitted access to Internet chat rooms, places of worship, libraries, public meetings and any other place where the general public is permitted. Most people didn’t realize that the FBI couldn’t routinely do that. After public outrage of the FBI’s aggressive investigation of Martin Luther King in the 1960s, its powers of public surveillance were greatly reduced.

In today’s American society, where our enemies live among us, it is entirely appropriate to give the FBI the power to mingle publicly. Some argue that it is an infringement upon our rights to privacy. Privacy in a public place? At the expense of allowing terrorist operatives to function unfettered? That argument doesn’t hold water in 2002 American society.

It’s a society which has had to completely change its perceptions of invulnerability. The FBI and CIA are members of that society which, like the rest of us, were completely unprepared for the possibility that an attack could be so completely successful. We’ve all had our eyes opened, and we’re reacting.

If the FBI and CIA can be faulted for misjudging the threat, they are no different than any American.

This column was written June 2, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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