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Editorials
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Tuesday, May 28, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

FBI flaws need
examining, eliminating


THE ISSUE

The FBI is being faulted for its handling of an alleged terrorist's arrest last August.



AN FBI lawyer's angry account of the agency's stifling of pre-Sept. 11 efforts to learn more about the activities of an accused terrorist adds to American discomfort about the nation's security. President Bush should end the bipartisan debate about security measures prior to the attack by appointing a bipartisan commission to investigate the flaws so they can be forever eliminated.

Coleen Rowley, the FBI's chief lawyer in Minneapolis, invoked federal whistleblower protection in complaining last week to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III about a supervisory special agent "consistently, almost deliberately, thwarting the Minnesota FBI efforts." The Minneapolis office had tried to secure a warrant to search a laptop computer found in the possession of alleged terrorism conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, but FBI headquarters refused to authorize an application for the warrant.

Moussaoui had been arrested on Aug. 17 after an instructor at a Minneapolis flight school reported his suspicions to the FBI. Within days, according to Rowley, Minneapolis agents learned from the French Intelligence Service that Moussaoui, a French citizen, had affiliations with "radical, fundamentalist Islamic groups and activities connected to Osama bin Laden."

Since Sept. 11, Mueller has insisted that the FBI had done all it could after Moussaoui's arrest to determine his intentions. However, Rowley alleged in a May 21 letter to Mueller that an FBI supervisor chose to "rewrite" the Minneapolis report "to downplay the significance of the information" either to "get out of the work" of following through on the warrant application" or "to avoid taking what he may have perceived as an unnecessary career risk." Since the terrorist attack on the East Coast, she added, that supervisor has been promoted.

Rowley added that Minneapolis agents had not been informed by FBI headquarters about a memorandum by a special agent in Phoenix three weeks earlier warning of al-Qaida operatives in flight schools possibly seeking flight training for terrorist purposes.

An FBI agent for 21 years, including 12 as a legal advisor, Rowley offered her "best real guess" about the reason for the bureaucratic snags: "Numerous high-ranking FBI officials who have made decisions or have taken actions which, in hindsight, turned out to be mistaken or just turned out badly (i.e. Ruby Ridge, Waco, etc.) have seen their careers plummet and end. This has in turn resulted in a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive FBI law enforcement actions/decisions."

The continued presence of such career-enhancing caution permeating the FBI -- and the promotion of officials who follow that course -- bodes ill for the nation's security.



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Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791; fbridgewater@starbulletin.com
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