Week of warnings raises questions about efforts to prevent Sept

Sunday, May 26, 2002

WASHINGTON -- It's been a head-snapping week in the fight against terrorism, raising unsettling questions about both the future and the past.

A rat-a-tat round of fresh warnings about possible future terror attacks has been matched almost day to day by new doubts about whether the government did all it should have to forestall Sept. 11.

In just the past week, Americans have been pelted with warnings about the possibility of suicide bombers, terrorist scuba divers, subway and railroad attacks, suicide attacks using small planes, seaport sabotage, use of weapons of mass destruction and assaults on nuclear plants and landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.

"There is no doubt they wish to strike again and are working to acquire the deadliest of all weapons," Vice President Dick Cheney declared at week's end, summing up the weeklong drumbeat.

Skeptics couldn't help but ask if the blizzard of warnings was intended to divert attention from increasingly nettlesome questions about whether the government failed to do all it could to avoid the suicide hijackings that claimed more than 3,000 lives.

Or, at least to shield the government from charges down the road that it failed to tell the public what it knew about attacks that do come to pass.

Cheney dismissed any notion the warnings were part of some political strategy. And, whatever the intent, the warnings failed to stop questions about whether the administration had missed clues before Sept. 11.

"We know enough now to say that there was a lack of aggressive follow-through of information that I think -- not only in benefit of 20-20 hindsight but on the day it arrived -- clearly was relevant," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Graham spoke after new details emerged about terrorist suspicions raised last summer by FBI agents in Arizona and Minnesota that failed to set off alarm bells in Washington.

In perhaps the most dramatic development, a Minnesota FBI agent gave congressional investigators a 13-page letter recounting her division's "desperate" efforts last summer to get someone in Washington to pay more attention to suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who later became the only person indicted as an accomplice to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Agent Coleen Rowley wrote that local agents were so frustrated with the inattention from FBI headquarters that they contacted the CIA directly about Moussaoui, only to be chastised by FBI higher-ups for going outside the chain of command.

The FBI also was a focal point for critics because of a memo that Arizona agent Kenneth Williams wrote in July 2001 raising concerns about a number of Arab men taking flight training in Arizona. That memo didn't make it past midlevel FBI officials until too late.

FBI Director Robert Mueller himself acknowledged at week's end the agency needs "a different approach" and said he had referred Rowley's complaints to an inspector general for investigation.

More questions are inevitable as the House and Senate pursue their joint investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath.

While leaders of the inquiry have pledged a bipartisan approach designed to fix problems rather than point fingers, some outsiders warn that congressional politicking has itself been part of the problem.

"The politicians on the Hill have to look for a genuine opportunity to correct it and not just make headlines," said John Martin, a longtime chief of internal security at the Justice Department and a former FBI counterterrorist specialist. "There is an awful lot of bombast; there isn't a lot of substance in terms of correcting it."

Jay Farrar, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while much of the Sept. 11 second-guessing has been unfair, the questions about who knew what and when they knew it reflect "the reality of bureaucracy."

"What we are seeing come out now are the raw realities of what happens under the surface in these organizations," he said. "This is the way organizations work: They keep and hold information because it is their basic lifeblood as a bureaucracy."

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