FBI arrogance and secrecy dismays US



NOBODY has yet been charged over the attacks on America. FBI chiefs talk about the agents they have on the case, the doors they have knocked down, the thousand and more suspects they have arrested, but they do not explain why they have failed to catch anyone responsible.

Troubled by these failures, President Bush is to make a televised statement next week on what is being done to protect America from another atrocity. Mayors, congressional leaders and a growing number of Americans clearly feel in need of reassurance about what the FBI and CIA are up to.

The failure of their investigation is doubly alarming. The dearth of intelligence suggests that the agencies knew next to nothing about the Muslim extremists in their midst before September 11 so it hardly surprising that they can not swiftly bring them to justice. The bigger worry is the popular belief that Osama bin Laden’s network is still in place and free to carry out more attacks in America.

This is why Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defence Secretary, interrupted speculation over what American jets would bomb next to warn: “Our priority is the war against the terrorists at home.”

On that front the feeling is that America is losing.

By killing themselves, the 19 hijackers deliberately sought to frustrate the investigation by laying false trails and ensuring there would be no survivors to betray their terrorist controllers.

The main suspect in US custody — a former London student, Zacarias Moussaoui, 33 — is accused of being “the 20th hijacker” but he has refused to say a word since he cheered television pictures in prison of the jets hitting the twin towers. The Frenchman had been picked up by immigration authorities in August but the FBI refused to let its field agents search his laptop computer which contained clues as to the September 11 mission.

Scotland Yard officers complain that from the start of this manhunt the FBI have been secretive and chaotic. Scotland Yard was sent over 400 names to investigate but the list was littered with mistakes and the FBI did not make it clear why those people were wanted. The most important arrest here was Lotfi Raissi, 27, an Algerian pilot. When the anti-terrorist branch was sent to get him, it was not told that he had trained the four suicide pilots how to fly.

So far Mr Raissi has been charged only with failing to disclose on his pilot’s licence application that he had undergone knee surgery and that he had been convicted of stealing a bag.

Robert Mueller, the FBI Director, has acknowledged that his agency needs overhauling. “We clearly have to be more proactive and more prevention-orientated,” he said.

Mr Mueller says that one in three of his agents is tracking terrorism tips but he will not say how agents are divided between the anthrax and September 11 investigations. There is exasperation that scientists still cannot prove if the same strain of anthrax has been used and that the FBI do not know who posted the mail.

What angers local authorities is that the FBI will not ask for help. Martin O’ Malley, Mayor of Baltimore, said: “The FBI have 7,000 people on the job. We’ve got 650,000 if only they would call.” Police chiefs complain the FBI refuses to share basic information.

There was consternation among European security agencies last week when the FBI announced that it had exhausted most of its leads and was convinced that the key to al-Qaeda’s operations lay in Germany. But arrests made in Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Germany showed that in almost every case these cells knew nothing about the September 11 hijacks.

President Bush gave the impression of feverish activity when he announced America’s most wanted terrorist suspects, headed by bin Laden, last month. This flourish concealed, however, the absence of FBI clues as to the whereabouts of the fugitives.

When Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, was asked yesterday why President Bush wanted to talk about “homeland security”, she replied: “He thinks it’s vitally important to make certain that the American people are kept informed about the nature of the threats that we face and the progress of our response.” What the opinion polls show is that the vast majority of Americans are scared about what bin Laden’s men in America will do next.