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Next month, four years will have passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. After those attacks, Congress hurriedly passed the USA Patriot Act to better protect us, and President Bush appointed the 9/11 Commission to investigate. The commission’s public report came out in July 2004. But are we safer today than we were then? We have been down this road before. I remember the Sept. 11 attacks and read the subsequent report of the 9/11 Commission. I also remember the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. And I helped write the 1975 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, “The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies,” which followed up on the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination. Those two events have more in common than heart-rending tragedy. They share a pattern of intelligence failure and show that lessons were not learned from the Kennedy assassination. And even now, members of the 9/11 Commission are warning that the lessons of Sept. 11 should not go unheeded. The following chronologies, taken from the official reports, show that U.S. intelligence agencies made the same mistakes before these two national tragedies. To be sure, in neither tragedy did U.S. intelligence get specific information of the violent act that was to come. That is, no one told the FBI that Lee Harvey Oswald planned to assassinate the president, nor did anyone name specific terrorists and say that they intended to hijack jetliners and fly them into buildings. But it is also true that the intelligence agencies cannot claim that they were completely blindsided by the events. And the common elements of both tragedies raise the nagging question: Are we really safer? IGNORING OSWALD Lee Harvey Oswald was under investigation well before he assassinated the president. Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and married a Russian woman. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1962, the FBI interviewed him and found him cold, arrogant and difficult. It then proceeded to ignore him. A year later, in August 1963, Oswald was arrested by New Orleans police for disturbing the peace in connection with pro-Fidel Castro activities. Oddly, he asked to see an FBI agent and then told the agent obvious lies. FBI headquarters ordered the New Orleans office to conduct a fuller investigation. But Oswald was on the move. He left New Orleans and, between Sept. 27 and Oct. 2, 1963, he reappeared in Mexico City, where he visited the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic establishments. He was seen by CIA surveillance teams. FBI headquarters learned this from the CIA on Oct. 6, but FBI headquarters didn’t inform its New Orleans office, which it had told to investigate Oswald, for two more weeks. On Oct. 18, FBI headquarters received a second report from the CIA saying that while Oswald was at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, he talked to a KGB agent. The CIA believed the agent was in the assassination and sabotage department of the Soviet intelligence agency, but it did not see fit to share this information with the FBI. FBI headquarters did nothing with the CIA report, although it too had reason to believe the KGB agent was involved in sabotage and assassination. The CIA’s report was still sitting in a pile of papers on a supervisor’s desk when the president was killed. Later investigations determined that Oswald was not working for the KGB, but neither the FBI nor the CIA knew this before the assassination. Even the most casual contact between a returned defector like Oswald and a KGB assassination agent should have set off a manhunt for Oswald. Meanwhile, in Washington, on Sept. 12, 1963, a National Security Council committee met to discuss whether Cuba might retaliate for a “rash of covert activity” that the U.S. was then directing at that country. The National Security Council decided that attacks against U.S. targets in Latin America, including kidnapping or assassination of U.S. officials, were possible, but a domestic attack was “unlikely.” Therefore, it warned the FBI to be on the alert for “sabotage or terroristic bombings against U.S. territory” overseas but not for terrorism inside the country, and certainly not for assassination of the president. In late October 1963, the FBI’s New Orleans office finally realized that Oswald had moved to Dallas and so informed the Dallas office. On Nov. 1, an agent in Dallas tried to interview Oswald, but Oswald wasn’t living at the address the FBI had on file. This was the FBI’s last attempt to find Oswald (although some have claimed Oswald subsequently visited the FBI office in Dallas and left a threatening note). After the assassination, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote senior FBI officials: “There is no question in my mind but that we failed in carrying through some of the most salient aspects of the Oswald investigation.” An internal FBI investigation concluded: “Oswald should have been on the Security Index [a watch list]; his wife should have been interviewed before the assassination, and investigation intensified � not held in abeyance � after Oswald contacted Soviet Embassy in Mexico.” LOSING THE TERRORISTS The investigatory lapses before the 9/11 attack were similar in some respects. Nineteen men, not just a single assassin, were involved in the 9/11 hijackings, but two of the terrorists, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were under investigation well before the tragedy. These two Saudi Arabians helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. The 9/11 Commission found that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were in the plot from its inception, having been selected by Osama bin Laden personally. (Had either of them been apprehended before the tragedy, the entire plot might have been unraveled.) The two men attended a terrorist meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 that, among other things, involved planning for the 9/11 attack. The CIA knew about the meeting as it was taking place and had surveillance teams follow the men. It even briefed the National Security Council. Although the CIA did not know at the time that the meeting involved the 9/11 attack, it guessed there was “something nefarious afoot.” Nonetheless, the CIA did not give this information to the FBI or put al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi on a terrorist watch list. Thus, the two men were free of FBI scrutiny when they flew directly from the Malaysian meeting to Los Angeles and then moved in with a longtime FBI informant in San Diego. Al-Hazmi stayed in the U.S. until Sept. 11, 2001; al-Mihdhar left for Yemen in June 2000. Meanwhile, in Washington, by March 2001, U.S. intelligence had become very concerned that there would be further terrorist attacks, such as the one on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. But this concern related principally to U.S. operations and facilities overseas. In chapter 8 (“The System was Blinking Red”), the 9/11 Commission’s report characterized an April 13, 2001, message from FBI headquarters to its field offices thusly: “It asked the offices to task all resources, including human sources and electronic databases, for any information pertaining to ‘current operational activities relating to Sunni extremism.’ It did not suggest that there was a domestic threat.” While the system was focused on overseas terrorism, a CIA analyst in May 2001 realized for the first time that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles in January 2000. These two terrorists had been in the U.S. The CIA analyst told the FBI about the Malaysian meeting. He apparently did not say that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had then flown to Los Angeles (although the FBI could easily have gotten this information on its own). Still, the FBI convened a meeting of CIA and FBI analysts and FBI agents in New York to discuss this and related information but took no action. Because of this failure, al-Mihdhar was not stopped for questioning when he returned to the U.S. from Yemen on July 4, 2001, to participate in the 9/11 attack. On Aug. 22, the FBI finally realized that al-Mihdhar had been in Los Angeles in January 2000 and had returned to the U.S. in July 2001. It began trying to find him but did not make this a priority. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded: “The FBI was not made aware of and did not connect important details about them [al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi] until late August 2001, a short time before they participated in the terrorist attacks. Even in August, the FBI’s search for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi was not given any urgency or priority, and was not close to locating them by the time of the attacks.” A PATTERN OF FAILURE Thus, the two national tragedies, though almost 40 years apart and different in many ways, are linked by the same pattern of failure in four respects. First was a failure of analysis. The intelligence agencies had information that could have alerted them to what was afoot, but they didn’t recognize its importance and so didn’t follow the leads. Second was a failure to share information. In both cases, the CIA had important information about the suspects that it gave to the FBI either on a significantly delayed basis or not at all, and for its part, the FBI failed to share such information internally. Third was a failure of an isolationist culture. Although the system was “blinking red” before both Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence community persisted in believing the threat was overseas. It seemed incapable psychologically of comprehending that such dastardly acts could be committed right here at home. Fourth was a failure of execution. Even when alarm bells went off, the intelligence bureaucracies moved at a ponderously slow, business-as-usual pace and failed to relay the alarm to analysts, decision-makers and agents on the street. Of course, looking too closely at individual cases, particularly national tragedies, with the benefit of hindsight raises the possibility of seeing patterns where none exist. Besides, maybe the intelligence agencies get it right most of the time. Still, there is the unsettling question of whether something in the intelligence bureaucracies, their cultures, the psychology of intelligence or perhaps the American psyche blinds them to the threat of unimaginable tragedy. What is needed is a follow-up to the 9/11 Commission’s work. Recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking about the terrorist bombings in London, speculated that the world had let its guard down after 9/11. This may indeed be true in the U.S. We need to know if the root causes of the 9/11 intelligence failures have been found and corrected. Members of the 9/11 Commission have reconvened as private citizens to do just that and plan a report card assessing the progress of reform, but they have received little official support or public attention. Yet without further inquiry by the commission members or some other body that is independent of the intelligence agencies that failed us, no one can say that we are safer. Less than two weeks before the 9/11 attack, an FBI agent, chafing at needless obstacles to his investigation of al-Mihdhar, passionately made the point in an e-mail to FBI headquarters: “[S]omeday someone will die � [and] the public will not understand why we were not more effective.” James H. Johnston is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published in Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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