Sunday, November 05, 2006

Analysis: Election About Stopping The Next 9/11

By Ronald Kessler

Contrary to what many pundits would have you believe, this election is not about side shows like the meaning of Macaca or Senator John Kerry’s assessment of American soldiers’ I.Q. Instead, voters face choices about the most fundamental issue: our national security and whether we can foil a devastating attack that could kill millions of Americans and wipe out our economy.

In talking about the war on terror, the Democrats have focused on how to beef up port security and why Osama bin Laden wasn’t captured years ago at Tora Bora. But the key to stopping an attack is uncovering a plot before a nuclear device has been slipped on board a ship. Nor is bin Laden relevant to the war on terror. He has been neutralized, unable to communicate to his underlings because of fear of being killed.

The Republican administration understands that what is necessary to stop the next attack is a fragment of information that might lead to uncovering a plot. Obtaining that clue requires giving the FBI and CIA the necessary tools and funds to penetrate terrorist cells and make use of intercepted phone calls and emails.

In cutting the CIA’s budget by eighteen percent, after taking inflation into account, and reducing the number of covert officers by 25 percent, the Clinton administration provided an example of how not to uncover those clues.

Under Clinton and John M. Deutch, his director of Central Intelligence, the CIA imposed a rule that its officers needed high-level clearance before recruiting an agent with so-called human rights violations.

Yet agents who had murdered or tortured people were the ones who would know what the bad guys were up to. Deutch’s rule sent a message to CIA officers throughout the agency that it was better to sit quietly in their offices than take the kind of risks necessary to obtain intelligence on terrorist activities.

President Clinton himself had little use for intelligence. While he read the President’s Daily Brief prepared by the Agency, six months after taking office he stopped his face-to-face CIA morning briefings.

Meanwhile, under Louis Freeh, Clinton’s appointee as FBI director, the bureau became so politically correct that agents trailing suspects were not allowed to follow them into mosques. FBI agents could not even sign on to online chat rooms to develop leads on people who might be recruiting terrorists or distributing information on making explosives. The FBI had to determine first that there was a sound investigative basis before it could sign on to chat rooms that any twelve-year-old could enter.

“A crime practically had to be committed before you could investigate,” Weldon Kennedy, a former FBI deputy director, told me. “If you didn’t have that, you couldn’t open an investigation.”

Two days after 9/11, Andrew H. “Andy” Card, Jr. started to go over the day’s schedule with President Bush. Bush stopped him. The previous evening, the president had developed plans for reshaping the government’s response to terrorism.

Instead of passively waiting for the next attack, the U.S. would become the aggressor, taking on terrorists wherever they were. Instead of focusing on catching and prosecuting terrorists after they had killed innocent people, the government would switch its priorities to preventing attacks. Instead of relying on laws that created impediments to tracking down terrorists, the government would enact new laws so the FBI and other government agencies would not be handcuffed.

Bush told Card he wanted to rearrange the day’s schedule so he could implement those plans. After the usual CIA briefing at 8 a.m., Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft began to brief Bush.

“They talked about how the terrorists got plane tickets, got on planes, moved from one airport to another, and then attacked our citizens,” Card told me. “And the president, while he was very interested in that report, said, ‘Mr. Director, that’s building a case for prosecution. I want to know what you have to say about the terrorist threats that haven’t materialized yet and how we can prevent them.’”

With those instructions, the entire mission of the FBI changed. It became prevention oriented.

While the FBI in the previous six years had stopped forty terrorist plots before they happened, the bureau tended to look no further than the latest case when going after terrorism. In the previous bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the FBI had been content to catch those responsible without taking the next step to try to determine if it was part of a larger plot or led to other terrorists.

To help the FBI stop the next plot, Bush proposed the USA Patriot Act. As outlined in an Oct. 31 NewsMax article, before the Patriot Act, because of what was known as “the wall,” FBI agents working the same case could not talk to each other about the case because some were working it as a criminal case and others were working it as an intelligence case.

The same wall prevented the CIA from sharing information with the FBI. The Patriot Act broke down the wall and allowed the FBI and the CIA to connect the dots.

Two weeks after 9/11, Bush met with General Michael V. Hayden, then director of the NSA, and other NSA officials in the Oval Office.

“The president asked, ‘What tools do we need to fight the war on terror?’” said Card, who attended the meeting.

Hayden suggested changing the rules to allow NSA to target calls and to intercept emails of terrorists if one end of the communication was overseas. Thus, if bin Laden were calling the U.S. to order the detonation of a nuclear device, and the person he called began making overseas calls, NSA could listen in to those calls as well as to bin Laden’s original call.

“Bingo. As a result of the president’s question, we took a fresh look at what NSA could be doing to protect us,” Card said.

Prior to Bush’s order, the information from the calls would have been lost. Even the emergency provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was useless because, before listening in on a call, NSA had to obtain Justice Department authorization. By the time approval came through, the call was gone.

“The president’s action made it more likely that the NSA would intercept the communications most critical to the defense of the nation—that is, communications we believe to be affiliated with al Qaeda, one end of which is in the U.S.,” Hayden told me for a Sept. 25 NewsMax article after he became CIA director.

Hayden noted that under the FISA statute, “NSA cannot put someone on coverage and go ahead and play for 72 hours while it gets a note saying it was okay.”

In August 2005, Bush created the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Despite the media’s claim that the FBI and CIA don’t talk to each other, at the NCTC, analysts from the FBI and CIA sit side by side, sifting clues and parceling out leads 24 hours a day.

These changes and others have produced solid results. Since 9/11, the CIA and FBI, often with the help of foreign partners, have rolled up some 5,000 terrorists. Dozens of plots have, in fact, been stopped. Others never materialized because the potential perpetrators had already been locked up or booted out of the country. The FBI now has 10,000 terrorism cases under investigation.

Those results have been achieved despite disclosures by the New York Times and other papers of secret operational capabilities, disclosures that are “killing us,” in the words of one high level FBI counterterrorism agent.

“The most important thing has been an overall strengthening of the intelligence community,” Fran Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, told me. “It’s intelligence reform, it’s greater resources in human intelligence, it’s the transformation of the FBI, it’s the Patriot Act, and the technical tools like the NSA terrorism surveillance program and the financial program. The sum of these changes is greater than the parts.”

If the Democrats win control of Congress and their rhetoric and votes are to be believed, they would adopt the Clinton administration’s spineless approach to fighting terrorism.

  • They would gut the USA Patriot Act.

  • They would stop interception of calls from al Qaeda to and from the U.S.

  • They would end tracking of terrorists’ financial transfers.

  • They would bestow legal rights on al Qaeda terrorists who are being interrogated about planned plots rights similar to those enjoyed by American citizens.

  • Finally, they would cut off funds to support the war effort in Iraq, handing al Qaeda a win in what the terrorists themselves have described as a crucial battleground in their effort to defeat America and impose their vision of radical Islam on the world.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had it right when he recalled how wrong appeasement was when dealing with Nazi Germany: Ultimately, the U.S. lost 300,000 lives in World War II. The total killed worldwide was 70 million. War expenditures were 38 percent of America’s GDP per year.

Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Yet today, because terrorists are trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, the stakes are far higher than in World War II.
“The race that we’re in right now is to prevent an attack with any kind of WMD,” Joe Billy, Jr., the FBI’s chief of counterterrorism, told me. “The implosion of a nuclear device or chemical-biological weapon of some type is really what we live to try to prevent.”

Because of George Bush’s vision and resolve in the face of vicious personal assaults, we have not been attacked since 9/11.

The question is whether voters will demonstrate the same vision by electing members of Congress who recognize the danger and will keep intact the tools needed by the FBI and CIA to insure our survival.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Get his dispatches FREE sent you via e-mail. Click here now.

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