Briefing on the Sept. 11th Terrorst Attacks

Intelligence Agencies Fell Asleep at the Switch

By Ken Garcia, San Francisco Chronicle
September 16, 2001

Tough times call for tough talk. This is as tough as it gets.

"Terrorism has a new face," the president tells us. "It is a clear and present danger. Terrorism is a danger to open societies and innocent people everywhere."

There is no more open society than the United States. There is no country now more aware of its dangers.

So the president's comments could not ring more true. Or as the death count mounts, more painful.

But the president who uttered those words was not the saddened George W. Bush, but William Jefferson Clinton, who shared those prescient thoughts in a 1998 speech to the United Nations General Assembly after two U.S. embassies were attacked by terrorists linked to a group run by a man named Osama bin Laden.

Terrorism may have a new face, but its fingerprints have been identified by any number of U.S. agencies in the past 20 years, no matter that the terrorists keep slipping by the many agencies charged with keeping watch over them. The country's leaders have vowed to thwart terrorism following any number of bombing attacks, and we know what that has gotten us.

Clinton's 3-year-old speech is now being echoed in various forms by our new president and his administration's leaders. But if time wounds all heels, why are bin Laden and the members of his sprawling, multinational network still around to cheer at the loss of thousands of innocent lives?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, not far from where the tireless rescue workers at the former World Trade Center and the Pentagon are still digging.

If you want tough talk, you have to deal with tough questions, and before the U.S. government starts congratulating itself on winning support for blowing any number of misguided zealots back to the Stone Age, perhaps they should concentrate on some niggling problems closer to home. Such as how the entire nation's so-called intelligence network could allow a group of killer terrorists to set up shop under their noses and move around as if they were on an extended holiday.

It would appear that some of the highest watchdogs in the U.S. government not only fell asleep at the switch, they unwittingly kept the terrorists trains moving. I realize that many people can fly under the radar of the nation's security network, but I didn't really think that they would include a number of international terrorists who were known to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service as well as numerous police agencies in the ballot-challenged state of Florida.

So as we prepare to unleash our superpower arsenal on the God-forsaken plains of Afghanistan, perhaps we might want to ask why the country's elite surveillance experts cast a blind eye to the workings of a number of known terrorists -- people who visited local courts, police agencies, businesses, federal agencies and a few sleazy strip joints before casting their horrible dark shadow over the nation last week.

According to a number of published reports, though most chillingly detailed in the Los Angeles Times, at least one of the suicidal hijackers, Mohamed Atta,

managed to travel in and out of the United States on an expired visa. This despite the fact that Atta was on the government's watch list of suspected terrorists and had been since 1986 when he was implicated in a bus bombing attack in Israel.

Since Atta apparently flew under his own name on his many jaunts to Spain and Germany and back to the United States, you'd presumably think that someone in the FBI, CIA, State Department or the INS might have noticed his comings and goings. But I say presumably because the State Department also issued several visas to sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence for his role in the plot to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.

Atta also had a bench warrant issued for his arrest in Broward County in Florida for failing to show up in court after being cited in April for driving without a license. The state Department of Motor Vehicles, apparently unaware of this, issued Atta a license after he applied for one in May. And it must have come in handy because he logged thousands of miles on rental cars in the past few months cruising around the Eastern seaboard.

It may be a little tougher now to get into the hundreds of flight training schools across the country, but since the Federal Aviation Administration does such a poor job of screening its own passengers, it doesn't seem that it could weed out known terrorists from receiving flying instruction. But if customs agents can allow a known terrorist with an expired visa to travel in and out of the country, there's probably no reason to blame the FAA for certain names not appearing on its radar screen. And because several of the terrorists involved in the attack on the United States were on CIA watch lists -- yet still allowed to travel in and out of the country -- it's hard to fault airport security for failing to do its part.

So while the CIA, FBI and its fellow intelligence agencies are rushing to ask Congress to ease limitations on domestic spying, it might be just as useful if they actually used the many investigative powers already at hand. The fact that the U.S. intelligence community has neglected using foreign informants in favor of highly advanced satellites shows that technology is no substitute for good, old-fashioned spying -- something that helped the country win two world wars.

But a lot of presidents before Bush have resolved to combat terrorism at home and abroad with ill-fated results. And even while our attentions focus on far off lands, it might be useful for the government to shore up the gaping holes in U.S. security that were exposed so cruelly last week.

There's been a lot of tough talk about terrorism over the years. But never in times this difficult.

Copyright 2001 San Francisco Chronicle