The news that various government agencies had information that "if properly analyzed" might have provided some advance warning of what Osama bin Laden and his disciples were up to last September broke last week with a vengeance.
The usual suspects jumped on the president and demanded to know what he knew and when he knew it. The implication, of course, was that had he acted on the information available to him, the World Trade Center might still be standing. There were partisan and even marginally bipartisan calls for congressional and independent investigations and demands that the White House turn sensitive briefing materials over to investigators and the media.
Amid all this one detected a moment or two of glee among Democrats and Bush haters at the thought that they could finally go after the president for the conduct of a war they see as bolstering his popularity at their expense.
The problem is that the news on which they were basing their attack wasn’t really news at all. Most of what was breathlessly reported last week had come out months ago. The only "news" was that the information that virtually everyone in Washington knows the FBI had in its hot little hands was pushed up to the White House just prior to the September attacks.
Those who read this column may recall that back on Oct. 10th I wrote that "the FBI had the information needed to conclude that the bin Laden organization was preparing to do just what his operatives did on Sept. 11. They just couldn't connect the dots."
Others were reporting the same thing, but everyone believed at the time that none of the information the FBI had in its files -- some of it dating back to the mid-'90s -- had been shared with anyone. It is also true that it wasn't very specific and that none of it would have allowed anyone to predict what happened last fall in New York and Washington.
What is most interesting is the speculation from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and others over the weekend that the leaks about all this may have come not from Democrats on the Intelligence Committee staff, but from the FBI itself.
Surprising? Not if you think about it. The question any reader of mysteries knows to ask is "cui bono?" or "who benefits?" Any review of what was known prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would eventually result in questions about just what the FBI has been up to over the years, and why virtually any information its agents stumble upon is locked away rather than shared with others who might actually need it. What better defense than to say: "Hey, it wasn't our fault. We did our job. We sent it on up the ladder."
Call me a cynic, but I doubt that they sent it anywhere. They had several years to warn the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration that the bureau had information that could easily lead one to conclude that bin Laden might seize a commercial jetliner to use as a weapon. Had they shared this intelligence when they got it, real steps might have been taken before Sept. 11 to deal with hijackers differently than when it was assumed by all that they didn't have any such plans. But they didn't. These guys simply don't share information.
This is hardly a new problem. Former CIA Director James Woolsey complained about the FBI's reluctance to play ball with his agency in the mid-'90s. It seems that once the Justice Department decided to prosecute the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, they simply stopped providing terrorist information to the CIA.
If the president is to be faulted, it is for not moving more quickly to crush and transform the FBI corporate culture that prevents the FBI as an institution from providing decision makers with the information they need to act quickly in times of national crisis. The immediate steps taken after Sept. 11 enhanced the power of the bureau and threw more money at it, but did little to make it more accountable or effective.
The time to act is now. The problem is not at the White House, but at the FBI. FBI Director Robert Mueller has been trying to overhaul the bureau's management structure and fight terrorism.
If the Democrats who were so quick to try to blame the president for his alleged failure to read tea leaves and predict the future last fall really want to help, they should get behind a top to bottom look at the investigative agency that is the real problem.
David Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Washington-based government affairs consultant. If you would like to send a letter to Mr. Keene on this Article, Click Here.