Agents in charge of FBI offices across the country were instructed early in 2000 to scour their communities for al-Qaida operatives but they made only spotty progress before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, say officials familiar with a congressional report on terrorism intelligence failures. The FBI’s top terrorism official, Dale Watson, and the White House’s anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, told a meeting of FBI supervisors in March 2000 that there was a high probability that al-Qaida “sleeper cells” were working on U.S. soil and that identifying them should be a top priority.
Clarke told the joint congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks that he concluded that the job of getting the FBI to focus on the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden was like “trying to … sort of turn this big Queen Mary luxury liner,” according to officials who provided AP excerpts from the report that will be released tomorrow.
The report apparently concludes that the FBI and other intelligence agencies did not possess specific information to prevent the suicide hijackings, although many different agencies of government missed warning signs. FBI officials reiterated that Director Robert Mueller has completely remade the bureau to focus on preventing terrorist acts since Sept. 11. Mueller was on the job just a few days when the attacks occurred. Those changes include borrowing the expertise of the CIA to train FBI analysts on how to read intelligence with an eye toward prevention rather than crime solving; hiring new analysts and linguists to focus on intelligence from countries with high terrorism threats; refocusing the priorities of field offices, and shedding some crime-fighting duties to free resources for the war on terrorism.
One agent said the presentation by Clarke and Watson was one of several strong signals around that time inside the FBI that al-Qaida had crossed America’s borders, But some supervisors had difficulty freeing resources from traditional investigative priorities to focus on uncovering terrorists. “I remember SACs (supervisory agents) saying it isn’t going to happen in my city or they simply didn’t understand what it was they were being asked to do,” said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity.