The FBI has asked people in the Seattle area for help in identifying two young men who've been behaving suspiciously on Washington state ferries in recent weeks.
"They had more than the average interest in the working parts of the ferry, the layout of the ferry, the size of it -- more than you would see in a normal passenger," FBI spokesman Robbie Burroughs told the NBC affiliate in Seattle.
The FBI's concern is understandable. In 2004, more than 100 people were killed when a member of Abu Sayyaf, the al-Qaida affiliate in the Philippines, placed a bomb aboard a ferry from Manila to Bacolod.
Since 9/11, ferry passengers reported 157 incidents to the FBI, the Seattle Times reported in 2004. Of these "the FBI determined 19 incidents were highly likely or extremely likely to involve terrorist surveillance of the ferries, with individuals asking probing questions about ferry operations or taking photos of stairwells, car decks and workers going about their jobs."
A wary ferry employee took photographs of the two men who'd been behaving suspiciously, and gave them to the FBI. The FBI sent copies of the photos to area news organizations and asked their help in identifying the men. Most cooperated, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did not. "We have no confirmation that these men's behavior was anything but innocuous, and to forever taint them by associating them with terrorism under these circumstances is not consistent with our policy," said managing editor David McCumber.
The Post-Intelligencer takes a law-enforcement approach to the war on terror, as do most Democrats in Congress. Of the many weaknesses of the law-enforcement approach, perhaps the most significant is that our law-enforcement system is designed to punish criminals after they have committed a crime, not to prevent the crime from happening. The FBI thinks it's more important to keep a ferry from being bombed than it is to arrest the bombers afterwards.
This is a post-9/11 change in emphasis for the FBI, whose strict adherence to the law-enforcement approach had much to do with why the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were successful. Had the FBI searched the laptop computer of "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui when Mr. Moussaoui was arrested a month before the attacks, the plot could have been disrupted before the plotters killed nearly 3,000 Americans. But the application of agents in Minneapolis for a criminal search warrant was denied by FBI headquarters.
We were reminded of the weakness of the law enforcement approach by the release last week of the executive summary of the report of the CIA's inspector general on the CIA's performance before 9/11. The CIA was hamstrung in its efforts to fight al-Qaida by severe budget cuts imposed by the Clinton administration, but then CIA Director George Tenet did a poor job of managing the funds he had, and never developed an overall strategy to fight terror, the IG report said.
Counter-terror efforts also were crippled by President Clinton's insistence that Osama bin Laden be arrested rather than assassinated, Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's bin Laden unit, has said. The IG report acknowledges this was a problem, but "concludes the Agency's covert action against bin Laden lay not in the language and interpretations of its authorities, but in the limitations of its covert action capabilities."
The CIA failed to share critical information with other intelligence agencies. As many as 60 CIA officers knew two "bin Laden associates" (later 9/11 hijackers) had arrived in Los Angeles, but no one told the FBI.
Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, strenuously objected to making the executive summary public, but Democratic leaders in Congress, hoping there was something in the report that would embarrass President Bush, insisted upon it. That backfired, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid inadvertently have done the nation a service.
The CIA and the FBI have never been called to account for the massive failures leading up to 9/11, and subsequently. It was the CIA that was most responsible for the apparent misreporting of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The IG report makes it plain the CIA was unable to provide useful intelligence to U.S. forces during the invasion of Afghanistan.
The same was true in Iraq, say Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor in their book "Cobra II." The CIA suffers from institutional problems that can't be blamed on either President Clinton or President Bush. Rowan Scarborough's book "Sabotage" suggests nothing much is being done to fix them. Nothing much will be done if the CIA is permitted to sweep its failures under the rug.