Bumbling against terror

The FBI's record doesn't inspire confidence that we're being well protected

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The House International Relations committee issued a report last week criticizing the FBI's investigation of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

   
Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).
  

The FBI failed to pursue credible information that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had help, the committee said.

The FBI shouldn't have abandoned its search for John Doe No. 2, the committee said. Jayna Davis, then a reporter for a television station in Oklahoma City, said she found at least 20 witnesses who identified Hussain al-Hussaini, a former Iraqi soldier, as the man they saw with Timothy McVeigh.

And the FBI should have investigated more thoroughly contacts between Mr. McVeigh and Andreas Strassmeir, a German national who was a paramilitary instructor at Elohim City, a neo-Nazi compound near the Arkansas border, the committee said.

The FBI says its investigation was exhaustive, but the discovery just two years ago of a large cache of explosives in a house in which Mr. Nichols lived (and which the FBI had searched) casts some doubt on that claim.

Investigative reporter Peter Lance has just completed his third book describing FBI blunders (or worse) in the war on terror.

In his first, "A Thousand Years for Revenge," Mr. Lance showed how the 1993 World Trade Center bombing could have been prevented were it not for negligence by senior FBI officials in New York, and how the FBI had been informed in 1995 of al-Qaida's plans to use airplanes to attack American landmarks.

In his second, "Cover Up," Mr. Lance described how the FBI ignored intelligence about al-Qaida provided by a young mobster, Gregory Scarpa Jr., in order to protect a corrupt FBI agent. (Former Special Agent Lindley DeVecchio was indicted last March on four counts of murder chiefly because of the information Mr. Lance provided in this book.)

Mr. Lance's third book, "Triple Cross," focuses mainly on how Ali Mohamed, one of Osama bin Laden's closest aides, bamboozled the FBI into thinking he was helping the bureau even as he was plotting multiple acts of mass terror.

Mr. Lance, who has won five Emmys, is a better reporter than he is a writer. Reading one of his books is like panning for gold: You've got to sift through a lot of silt to get to the nuggets. For me, the most valuable nuggets in "Triple Cross" are the additional details Mr. Lance provides on the scoops in his earlier books.

On July 17, 1996, TWA 800 disintegrated over Long Island Sound. The FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was caused by the accidental explosion of the center wing fuel tank. What the 270 witnesses who thought they saw a surface-to-air missile streaking toward the aircraft before the explosion actually saw was a "zoom climb" by the damaged aircraft after its nose had been blown off, the FBI and NTSB said.

Former airline pilot Ray Lahr considers this improbable: "Such a steep climb is much beyond the capabilities of the engines alone on a large transport aircraft," he said. Last month a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the FBI and the NTSB to turn over to Mr. Lahr documents they'd been trying to keep from him. The case Mr. Lahr presented was sufficiently strong "to proceed based on his claim the government acted improperly," the judge said.

The most startling thing reported by Mr. Scarpa was that al-Qaida operative Ramzi Yousef, who was in a cell next to him in prison, claimed that he had arranged to have TWA 800 destroyed. Mr. Yousef was about to go on trial for plotting to blow up a dozen airliners in Asia and wanted a mistrial declared.

Minutes after TWA 800's destruction, Mr. Yousef made a brief telephone call in his native language of Baluch, according to Mr. Lance and Jack Cashill, who wrote a book about TWA 800. It was translated by the National Security Agency: "What had to be done has been done. TWA 800 (last two words unintelligible)."

If what Mr. Lance says is true -- if only a small fraction of what Mr. Lance says is true -- the best that can be said of the FBI is that it has been grossly negligent.

A story in the New York Sun Wednesday also does not inspire confidence in the bureau. According to an FBI court filing, the files in 22 of 94 investigations into leaks of classified information are missing.

"Knowing what I know, I can confidently say that until the investigative responsibilities for terrorism are removed from the FBI, I won't feel safe," said former FBI agent Robert Wright in June 2001. Reading Mr. Lance's book won't make him feel any safer.



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