Recently, a CIA officer and an FBI agent testified before Congress on how their respective agencies failed repeatedly to pursue two terrorist suspects who would later play major roles in the September 11th attack. However, this was no ordinary testimony. Fearing that their lives would be threatened because of the information they divulged, the two agents spoke about the failures while seated behind a five-foot screen that concealed their identities.
The information revealed was chilling. It showed that two of the most important agencies we rely on to ensure national security are just as tied up in meaningless red tape as the rest of our government. Moreover, it paints a picture of the extent of complacency that allowed the attacks to take place right under the noses of what are supposed to be the best defense and security agencies in the world.
In January of 2000, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi attended an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. They were identified as security threats but were never put on a watch list. Then, in October of the same year, al Qaeda terrorists attacked the USS Cole, and the CIA learned that the organizer of the assault had attended the same meeting as Almihdhar and Alhazmi in January. Even then, none of the men were placed on a watch list.
According to the agents’ testimonies, the CIA told the FBI about the men, but did not disclose any information about the meeting in Malaysia or why the men were considered dangerous. It was not until late August that the CIA formally “watchlisted” the suspected terrorists, but the FBI would not conduct a search for Alminhdhar because, according to supervisors, they could not “breach the wall separating intelligence matters from criminal investigations.”
It was after this rebuff that the testifying FBI agent reportedly sent an e-mail reading in part: “Someday, someone will die – and wall or not – the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems. Let’s hope the National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially because the biggest threat to us now, bin Laden, is getting the most protection.”
On September 11th, people did indeed die, as Alhazmi and Almihdhar passed through airport security unnoticed (the watch list was not used for domestic flights), and together with three other hijackers took over the plane and crashed into the Pentagon.
In light of the information against the FBI and CIA, President George W. Bush has agreed to the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the September 11th attacks, reversing his previous opinion. However, not everyone is pleased with the president’s decision as it excludes an investigation into intelligence lapses. Stephen Push, a leader of a group of relatives of the victims of the attacks accused Bush of trying to cover up the failures of the FBI and CIA. In light of the recent testimonies, a cover-up may be harder than it seems.
The fact that these two agents have only recently divulged this information begs the question, what were they waiting for? Why has it taken them more than a year to come forward? Could it be that their respective agencies traditionally deal very harshly with insiders who speak out against them? Or were they simply unsure of when the right time would be? Either way, one can only hope that it will not take this long to disclose vital information about national security in the future.