2002-01-12 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

I was reading a report on the crash of Flight 587 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week and ran across the assertion that the NTSB "has been in contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since the first day of this investigation. To date, nothing has been found to indicate that the crash of flight 587 was not an accidental event."

Somehow, the fact that the FBI is on the case is not reassuring; particularly in the light of the way the organization handled the investigation of Moslem terrorists prior to September 11.

There is no doubt in my mind after reading the literature that the FBI blew it and blew it badly. There is lots of documentation about the organization’s lack of interest and its inability (or unwillingness) to act on valid tips that the attack was coming.

Take the case of John O’Neill. Until last August, O’Neill was the FBI’s top expert on Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group. He was the lead investigator of the USS Cole attack and the embassy bombings in Africa.

In August of last year, O’Neill left the bureau – or, it left him. Nobody is sure which.

He was reportedly a maverick and he was angry about the bureau’s failure to act against the terrorist groups based on information that he had developed from his far-flung sources.

He took what he called a "dream retirement job," as the head of security for the World Trade Center. He died on September 11, helping to evacuate the building.

"When the planes hit, I’m sure he knew who was responsible," says a long-time friend who spoke with a writer for New York Magazine. "I know that he must have been mad as hell. He must have been thinking, ‘how did we allow this to happen?’"

O’Neill, however, was sure that Saudi Arabia played a big part in financing and supporting the terrorist network. His reports were not well received by the State Department and others who see the Saudi’s as our only ally in the area and want to keep it that way.

He also ran into flack with the government in Yemen because it was stalling the Cole investigation. He was reprimanded for making waves in that case as well.

"Frustrated, angry and in need of earning a higher salary," O’Neill turned to the private sector, got the job at the WTC and died at his post on September 11.

Would the attack have happened if the FBI had listened to its own expert rather than playing politics with his information? There is no way to know for sure, but many experts believed that an attack was imminent.

Then, there is the case of Zacaris Moussaoui, often called the "Twentieth Hijacker." Last August, the FBI got a call from a flight instructor in Minnesota. He had a student named Moussaoui who only wanted to learn to fly 747’s around the sky. He did not want to learn how to take off or land the plane.

"Don’t you realize that a 747, fully loaded with fuel, could be used as a weapon," the flight instructor told the FBI when it seemed not to be interested in his tip.

Moussaoui was arrested shortly thereafter by the FBI on immigration charges.

Agents in Minnesota asked FBI headquarters in Washington for permission to seek a warrant to search his computer for information on terrorist activity.

The government lawyers turned down the request on the grounds that there was not enough probable cause to search his computer, even though a cursory search of his apartment turned up information on flying heavy aircraft, crop dusting, using edged weapons and building bombs. There was even a video on how to fly commercial aircraft. And, although he did not have a job, he paid more than $6,000 in cash for his flight lessons.

He was released and then rearrested after September 11.

From what I’ve heard, the school was clearly more alert than federal officials," says Representative Martin Sabo of Minnesota.

Should the FBI lawyers have allowed a search of the computer disks? Clearly, in hindsight, the answer is yes. At the time, prior to September 11, probable cause was more of an issue than it is today, under the new anti-terrorism laws passed by Congress.

Could the September 11 attacks have been stopped with the knowledge that was in Moussaoui’s computer hard drive? Experts think that there is a good possibility that the computerized information would have provided a link to the other hijackers, who might then have been picked up before they boarded their deadly flights.

Then, there is the case of Walid Arkeh, a Jordanian inmate in a Florida prison. Arkeh claims that he warned the FBI last summer that the Al Qaeda "had something big planned for New York City" as the end of the summer.

Arkeh claimed that he was friendly with three Al Qaeda fighters in prison in England. The three were accused of plotting the 1998 embassy bombings. He was in prison for dealing in stolen goods and slapping his daughter.

In August, he reportedly got word to the FBI that he had information on an upcoming terrorist attack.

Two FBI agents responded to the prison, but left when Arkeh told them that he wanted freedom from his crimes and asylum in the United States in return for his information.

They did not come back to him until September 12.

"We did not put any credibility in his information," the FBI announced.

The FBI has often been arrogant in dealing with other police organizations. It refuses to share its information with local agencies, even those in the need to know.

The FBI’s dealings with New York City are no different. A quick read of the literature will show that it did not share even its sparse information with the city so that it could have prepared for a response. It looks as if it did not even share information with its own agents.

It is clear that nobody was prepared for what happened on September 11. Even Tom Clancy, the award-winning author who posited an attack on the Capitol Building with a airliner (Japanese, not Middle Eastern), did not even think of the possibilities.

"I would never have written such a thing," he says now, "because my readers would not have believed it possible."

"Now," he adds, "anything is possible."

The FBI should have paid more attention to its own experts. It should have paid more attention to the people who were telling its agents that Moslem men were learning to fly planes without bothering to learn how to take off or land. It should have been more aggressive in investigating every lead and every tip in the light of the fact that bin Laden was openly touting an attack on an American city.

Is the FBI playing the same game in the flight 587 investigation? We have no way of knowing, and we probably never will.

Was the plane brought down by an extremist with plastic explosive in his shoes? Was it sabotage? Was it an accident? Was it pilot error? We will wait several months for the NTSB’s final report and then we will choose whether to believe it or not.

It does not help things that such agencies as the NTSB and the FBI have credibility problems.

What are we to believe? That is a question that will come up lots of times as we venture blindly into the future.

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