WASHINGTON, DC -- No doubt reassuring millions of Americans, President Bush on Jan. 4 defended his program of legally dubious wiretapping at home and strategically dubious regime change abroad for fighting terrorists by insisting he isn't in la-la land.
Terrorists want to use Iraq as a home base, Bush told reporters last week. He then added: "I'm not making this up."
So now you know: This time it's for real.
Fighting a credibility gap, the president has steadily insisted he needs the National Security Agency domestic wiretap program so as to ferret out information on terrorist plans and empower the government to prevent future attacks. But the kind of power Bush wants amounts to a family coup, carried under the pretense of defending the homeland.
"They attacked us before, they'll attack us again if they can," Bush said in San Antonio over the weekend. "And we're going to do everything we can to stop them."
If Bush is to be king, he'd better get his act and that of his courtiers up to par, at least. All the evidence is that the government knew in one case after another well before 9-11 that we were going to be attacked and did nothing about it.
The Zacarias Moussaoui fiasco is a prime example. In her letter to FBI director Robert Mueller of May 21, 2002, Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI agent who finally blew the whistle on the Bureau, points out the Minneapolis FBI agents figured Moussaoui was a terrorist threat in the summer of 2001. "The decision to take him into custody on August 15, 2001, on the INS 'overstay' charge was a deliberate one to counter that threat and was based on the agents' reasonable suspicions," she said in her May 21, 2002, letter to Mueller. These suspicions were reinforced by reports from French intelligence, but the FBI HQ refused to give the Minneapolis agents the go ahead on a search warrant. From the way Moussaoui was acting, the Minneapolis agents felt sure he was hiding something.
"The fact is that key FBIHQ personnel whose job it was to assist and coordinate with field division agents on terrorism investigations and the obtaining and use of FISA searches (and who theoretically were privy to many more sources of intelligence information than field division agents)," she told Mueller, "continued to, almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis' by-now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant, long after the French intelligence service provided its information and probable cause became clear. HQ personnel brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause. In all of their conversations and correspondence, HQ personnel never disclosed to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had, only approximately three weeks earlier, warned of Al Qaeda operatives in flight schools seeking flight training for terrorist purposes!"
The Moussaoui case again illustrates the inability of the FBI to take action in the face of obvious terrorist threats. The Bureau had been tipped off by one of its longtime Afghan assets in April 2001 of a planned attack on New York and Washington using commercial aircraft. It had an informant in San Diego, who actually socialized with two of the 9-11 hijackers when they arrived in the US in 2000 and even rented one of them a room.
None of this failing had anything to do with the slowness of the FISA court or a lack of intelligence or a lack of ability to gather intelligence. (The president has 72 hours to wiretap someone before having to get a search warrant and, in a time of war, 15 days.)
Instead, the falling down bore directly on the top officials of the Bureau, including both Mueller and his successor Louis Freeh, who did not act when confronted with clear evidence of a threat. Neither one of them has ever been held accountable for any of this disaster.
This is a reprint of Village Voice staff writer James Ridgeway's Monday Washington column.