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Autumn 2002
   
Why the FBI Didn’t Stop 9/11
Heather Mac Donald
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The greatest obstacle to domestic security in the war on terror is the worldview of the liberal elites. No sooner had the Twin Towers fallen than the press and an army of advocacy groups were on the hunt for victims—not of Muslim fanaticism but of American bigotry. The liberal commentariat has denounced every commonsensical measure to protect the country the Bush administration has proposed as an eruption of racism or tyranny.

But the elite ideology began its corrosive work long before 9/11. For three decades, the liberal establishment, fixated on preventing a highly unlikely repeat of Watergate-era abuses, has encumbered America’s intelligence and national security capacities with increasingly crippling procedural inhibitions, culminating in domestic intelligence restrictions promulgated by the Clinton administration in 1995. As long as the elites continue to act as if America’s biggest enemy is not al-Qaida but the country’s own allegedly repressive and bigoted instincts, the nation’s defense against terror at home will proceed at half throttle.

In August 2001, mere weeks before the greatest mass murder of civilians in U.S. history, the Justice Department squelched two prescient efforts to avert the attacks. In Minneapolis, FBI agents frantically sought permission to search the possessions of one Zacarias Moussaoui, a bumbling, suspicious flight student and a colleague of Islamic fundamentalists. In New York, another FBI agent no less frantically sought clearance to throw his squad into an 11th-hour search for Khalid Almihdar, an al-Qaida operative at large in the country.

Justice Department bureaucrats refused both requests on absurd grounds. In the case of the New York agent, for example, they argued that because he was a criminal investigator, not an intelligence investigator, his participation in the manhunt for Almihdar could violate Almihdar’s rights: the al-Qaida agent was wanted not as an ordinary felon but as a terrorist.

The refusals may have had enormous consequences. Had the Minneapolis agents searched Moussaoui’s effects, they would have found leads to two of the 9/11 terrorists and to the Hamburg al-Qaida cell that planned the attack. Had the FBI been able to find Almihdar, it would have apprehended the pilot who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Instead, the plot hurtled on undisturbed to its gruesome climax.

The media have portrayed both episodes as “intelligence failures,” “communication failures,” or the failings of individual managers to “connect the dots.” They were not. Each of these lost opportunities was the foreseeable outcome of senseless terror-fighting restrictions put into place by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1995. Good luck finding any hint of the decisive role of the Clinton Justice Department in press accounts of the Moussaoui and Almihdar affairs, however.

The 1995 Reno guidelines, though the craziest development in intelligence law to date, are not unprecedented. They are the culmination of three decades of liberal grandstanding around intelligence-gathering and use.

For most of the twentieth century, Congress, courts, and legal scholars agreed that the president had plenary authority to investigate and disarm threats to the national security. If the FBI suspected a Russian attach&#eacute; in Washington of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, for example, the Bureau could tap his phone without needing permission from a judge. Judges were not competent to make national security decisions, as an unusually self-effacing court explained in 1980, because they lacked “mastery of diplomacy and military affairs.” The Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, legal opinion held, was intended to protect citizens against unreasonable government intrusion in domestic crime investigations, not where the survival of the nation itself was at stake.

In the 1970s, however, the courts and Congress changed their minds, signaling a new adversarial attitude toward executive power, born of 1960s anti-war protests and the Watergate revelations. Congressional hearings on a rash of excessively zealous FBI and CIA domestic investigations sent a clear message: the American government, not its enemies, was the real threat to the American people.

In response, Congress saddled the investigation of foreign threats with complex procedural and judicial restraints for the first time in history. Under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the president (acting through the FBI) would need a judicial warrant to surveil foreign spies and terrorists and their American collaborators on American soil. The new law defined who could be surveilled and under what circumstances, and it created two new Justice Department bodies to monitor that surveillance: the FISA court, composed of sitting federal judges, which issues surveillance warrants (needing renewal every 90 days); and the gatekeeper Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), which screens surveillance requests from FBI field offices and then argues them before the court.

Problems surfaced immediately. FBI agents complained that FISA created a Catch-22 situation: in order to meet the statutory requirements for obtaining a surveillance order, you needed to show that your target was a probable spy with anti-American designs—part of the information that the wiretap was intended to obtain. In 1982, a Senate Select Committee reported that FISA had “enmeshed intelligence in procedures wholly inappropriate to it.”

They hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet. Per the infallible rule of bureaucratic accumulation, FISA would trigger an explosion of obtuse procedural distinctions that would harm America’s ability to obtain, and act swiftly upon, intelligence information.

One of the most vexing consequences of FISA was the requirement, imposed over time by federal courts and Justice Department officials themselves, that FBI agents continuously evaluate what their “purpose” was in conducting foreign intelligence surveillance. As long as their purpose remained gathering information on suspected spies and terrorists for its own sake—to learn about the extent of a terror cell, say, or to use in covert operations like infiltration—the FISA wiretap could continue. But if the agents concluded that the suspects had committed a crime that the government should prosecute, they had to shut down the FISA wiretap, often prematurely.

In the late 1980s, for example, agents working for Oliver Revell, the FBI’s Associate Deputy Director of Investigations, were monitoring followers of Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. A microphone installed in the home of a cell member in St. Louis recorded the parents’ murder of their daughter for becoming too Americanized. In order to prosecute the murder case, the Bureau had to close down the FISA surveillance, before agents had figured out the extent of the Abu Nidal cell.

Civil libertarian zealots sparked this nonsensical practice. They argued that because the probable-cause standards for a FISA wiretap were in some cases lower than the requirements for an ordinary criminal wiretap, power-mad prosecutors would gin up specious FISA requests in order to obtain criminal evidence in violation of constitutional standards. Therefore, they said, the Justice Department must draw a bright line between the gathering of foreign intelligence information for intelligence purposes, on the one hand, and for criminal investigation and prosecutorial purposes, on the other.

These arguments don’t withstand scrutiny. A FISA wiretap order is essentially a judicial warrant within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. As Kenneth Bass III, the first director of the OIPR, argued recently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, if the FISA court has issued the surveillance order properly—to obtain information about the agents of a foreign power—the fruits of that order should be available for any national security use, including prosecution. Since acts of terrorism and conspiracy to commit terrorism are themselves crimes, the distinction between a “pure” foreign intelligence wiretap and a “criminal” wiretap, where terrorism is concerned, is nonsensical.

Moreover, contrary to civil libertarian hyperventilating, FISA’s probable-cause standards for surveilling U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens are almost indistinguishable from traditional criminal wiretap standards. To get a FISA order for a citizen or resident alien suspected of terrorism, the government must establish that he is an agent of a foreign power and is knowingly engaged in international terrorism or spying—in other words, committing a felony, just as for an ordinary criminal wiretap.

But absurdity is no bar to realization in the airless world of civil libertarian absolutism. To prevent the wholly fantastical abuse of FISA power by criminal investigators and prosecutors, a set of inhibitions gradually developed to regulate contacts among FBI agents who were gathering intelligence under a FISA order, FBI agents who may be investigating an already committed terrorist crime, and federal prosecutors.

Those inhibitions reached their peak destructiveness with Attorney General Reno’s “Procedures for Contacts Between the FBI and the Criminal Division Concerning Foreign Intelligence and Foreign Counterintelligence Investigations,” issued in July 1995. Immediately dubbed “the Wall,” the 1995 guidelines erected a mind-boggling and ultimately lethal set of impediments to cooperation among all relevant anti-terrorist personnel.

Let’s say—and this is a purely hypothetical example—that David Dell, an agent in the New York FBI office, has a FISA wiretap on Abdul Muhammad, an Islamic fundamentalist Yemeni affiliated with a suspected al-Qaida support cell in Brooklyn. Muhammad is not yet tied to any crime or criminal conspiracy; Dell is surveilling him to determine the extent of al-Qaida strength in New York. In a phone conversation with a fellow Yemeni in Pakistan, Muhammad mentions a dying swan and several Muslim names that Dell does not recognize. Several desks away in the FBI’s downtown office, Sam Simpson is investigating the al-Qaida bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Simpson also worked on the al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, for which he traveled to Yemen and Kenya to execute warrants.

In a sane system, Dell and Simpson would be able to talk to each other about their cases, for although Dell doesn’t recognize the names and swan references in Abdul’s recent conversation, Simpson came across some of the named men while he was in Kenya and recognizes the code that Abdul is using. The content of the Abdul intercept would help Simpson’s criminal case, and Simpson’s knowledge of the code and identities of the men would help Dell map out the extent and possible goals of the Brooklyn cell. And if Dell interviews Muhammad, in a sane world Simpson would be in on the interview, since he might recognize the significance of some of Muhammad’s replies in a way that Dell could not, and he would then be able to press Muhammad immediately for further information. Simpson might even suggest to Dell that he expand his surveillance to a grocer in Brooklyn, suspected of running an informal credit scheme, or hawallah, that may have sent money to the USS Cole conspirators.

That reasonable (and, to repeat, entirely hypothetical) scenario is not the world of the Wall. Under the Wall, Dell and Simpson may not talk to each other, because Dell is receiving FISA information, and Simpson is working on a criminal case against terrorists. If Dell wants to pass any information to Simpson “over the Wall,” he first has to get permission from FBI headquarters in Washington, which then notifies the OIPR. If permission is granted, which is by no means certain, someone from the OIPR has either to come from Washington to New York or monitor all further communications between Dell and Simpson over the phone. This bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine radically chills communication, of course; but the deeper problem is that without Simpson’s expertise, Dell may not even recognize the significance of the information he is receiving, and so it may not even occur to him to request a Wall bypass. And as far as Simpson’s offering suggestions to Dell about other targets that would strengthen both their investigations, forget about it.

The insanities of the Wall don’t end here. Even if Dell and Simpson are working on the same case, they cannot review raw intelligence intercepts—recorded phone conversations among terrorists, for example—in their entirety, lest Simpson start suggesting better avenues of investigation. Instead, a high-ranking FBI official reviews the intercept and segregates the bits that are appropriate for each to see. But no third-party bureaucrat can possibly have the ground-level knowledge necessary to understand the potential significance to each investigator of the various bits. Nevertheless, in a climax of perverse logic, the more important the terror case, the more stringently policed is the segregation of intelligence intercepts.

Analogous to the Wall between FBI agents working in intelligence and those working on criminal cases was another wall, between the FBI and prosecutors, who also are barred from bringing their accumulated knowledge to bear on all intelligence information. According to Kenneth Bass, who helped draft FISA for the Carter administration, none of these Reno-mandated restrictions reflects the law’s original intent. “The Wall is absolutely ludicrous,” he says. “It is not in the national interest.”

No sooner had the ink dried on the Wall guidelines than America’s anti-terror operations suffered a nervous breakdown. Collaboration broke down almost completely. Says Mary Jo White, former New York U.S. attorney and the most seasoned al-Qaida prosecutor before 9/11: “The walls are the single greatest danger we have blocking our ability to obtain and act on [terrorist] information.”

Although the Wall only governs information-sharing, every other FISA-regulated procedure became entangled in red tape after the Reno edict. In 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism reported that the OIPR was imposing impossibly high and statutorily unjustified probable-cause standards. For example, to surveil someone who is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident alien, FISA requires showing that he is a member of a foreign terrorist organization. This is tough enough. But the OIPR started requiring evidence of a crime or specific knowledge of a group’s homicidal intentions before taking the request to the FISA court, and ignored the target’s past activities in determining probable cause. A worried Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in 2000 that the OIPR was taking months scrutinizing FISA applications from the field, even though the nation’s safety depended on swift action against terrorist threats.

The practical effect? “We absolutely were unable to check people out,” reports James Kallstrom, former head of the FBI’s New York office, in anger. “How can you have a proactive agency that protects citizens, if, in order to even start an investigation, you have to show that someone is a member of a known terrorist organization, with the wherewithal to carry out an attack and the intention to do so?”

Intelligence agents thought that things could not get much worse. They were wrong. In November 2000, the chief judge of the FISA court, Royce Lamberth, blasted the Bureau and one of its most respected agents for trivial violations of the Wall. The Reno Justice Department, it had turned out, was unable to abide by the Reno Wall. In September 2000, the Clinton administration had notified the FISA court that there had been over 75 breaches of the Wall since its inception. These included such violations as: disseminations of FISA intelligence to terrorist criminal squads in the FBI’s New York field office and to the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York without court permission; a claim in a wiretap application that the target was not under criminal investigation for terrorism when in fact he was; and misstatements about the existence of a Wall in one particular FBI office between intelligence and criminal squads, when actually all the agents were on the same squad, and a supervisor overseeing both investigations screened the raw intelligence intercepts.

The reasonable response to such revelations is: Big deal. None of these Wall breaches violated anyone’s rights; they represent the most technical of infractions. But the FISA court went berserk at these supposed insults to its authority. It excoriated the FBI’s lead Hamas investigator, Michael Resnick, for innocuous omissions in his FISA requests and forbade him from ever appearing before it again. It ruled that from then on, every last communication between intelligence agents and law-enforcement officials required its approval.

In recoil, the FBI and Justice Department hunkered down completely. FBI headquarters and the OIPR, already a crippling drag on terrorist investigations, became paralyzing weights. Recalls Mary Jo White: “The walls went higher. Nothing could have been worse.” It was as if the Wall had become covered with concertina wire and broken glass, says Kallstrom. Morale plummeted. Agents in the New York bureau put signs on their desks saying: “You may not talk to me.”

Fast-forward to August 2001. Coleen Rowley and other FBI agents in her Minneapolis office were furiously banging their fists against the Wall. A Minneapolis agent had flagged Zacarias Moussaoui as a possible terrorist threat, after a local flight school disclosed that Moussaoui had been acting strangely and had paid cash (nearly $7,000) for simulator training. The Minneapolis office learned from the French Intelligence Service that Moussaoui, now in custody on an INS violation, had connections to radical Islamic groups. Desperate to search Moussaoui’s computer and possessions, the agents sought permission from FBI central headquarters to ask the OIPR to seek a warrant, as per Wall procedures.

They met only resistance. Finally, on August 28, 2001, the FBI’s National Security Law Unit (NSLU)—incredibly, yet another bureaucratic gatekeeper that stymies counterintelligence operations—pronounced that there was insufficient evidence of Moussaoui’s connection specifically to al-Qaida to justify a FISA search. FISA required no such showing: the French Intelligence Services’ linking of Moussaoui to Islamic radical groups in general was sufficient. The NSLU had imported a new, non-mandated roadblock into the act in the mania of risk-aversion that had gripped the agency after the Lamberth outburst. The investigation was over—until September 11, when FBI headquarters decided that maybe it ought to look into that computer after all.

Astoundingly, on August 29, 2001, the day after the National Security Law Unit killed the Moussaoui investigation that would have led to two 9/11 hijackers and to the Hamburg cell that planned the attack, it cited the Wall to rebuff as well a New York agent’s urgent pleas to let him and his subordinates help track down al-Qaida member Khalid Almihdar. According to the Bureau’s paranoid Wall interpretation, because the New York agent was working criminal cases against terrorists, and Almihdar had not been indicted for a crime, the agent and his men could not cooperate with the intell agents searching for Almihdar.

Immediately after the NSLU’s prohibition, the agent sent an angry e-mail to FBI headquarters: “Someday someone will die—and wall or not—the public will not understand why we were not . . . throwing every resource” at terrorists.

On September 11, when his office received the passenger manifests of the four hijacked flights, the agent shouted: “This is the same Almihdar we’ve been talking about for three months.” In a parody of bureaucratic buck-passing, his supervisor responded: “We did everything by the book.”

One cannot understand America’s failure to prevent 9/11 without understanding the history of the Wall. But rather than exposing the truth, America’s opinion elites have failed even to grasp it. In place of relentless investigation and tough-minded analysis, they have adopted a series of mutually contradictory attitudes about intelligence law determined by one goal only: discrediting the current Republican administration.

In May 2002, Minneapolis agent Coleen Rowley released a memo she had written to FBI director Robert Mueller, complaining of the Wall and its role in blocking her office’s attempts to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer and possessions. Had a search request been granted, Rowley speculated, some part of the 9/11 plot might have been foiled.

The media and anti-law-enforcement lobby could not have leaped quicker to turn Rowley into a feminist heroine who had the guts to expose the Bush administration’s failures. “Courageous whistleblower” was the—quite accurate—epithet of choice. But against whom did Rowley blow her whistle? Columnist Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s most knee-jerk feminist and reliable Republican baiter, didn’t need to do any hard reporting to know. Calling Rowley a “woman of ingenuity and integrity in [a] macho organization,” Dowd contrasts her to the lazy and dull-witted FBI men, who were too “inept, obstructionist, arrogant, antiquated, bloated and turf-conscious—and timid about racial profiling” (no, that last phrase is not a typo) to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

None of these newly minted aggressive law-enforcement types bothered to explicate the all-controlling role of the Clinton Wall in producing the Bureau’s ingrained risk-aversion. Too onerous, no doubt, to read through the mountains of reports necessary to uncover its existence and trace its tragic legacy. Instead, the suddenly gung ho press portrayed the Moussaoui struggle in an ahistorical vacuum, as the product of incomprehensible Republican foot-dragging on national security.

But look what happens next. In August 2002, the news breaks that Attorney General John Ashcroft has submitted a request to the FISA court to rescind the 1995 Wall guidelines. Having just lionized Rowley for her assault on the Wall, the media turn around and demonize Ashcroft for his assault on the Wall. This latest gyration—impelled by a mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy—proceeded as follows:

Last March, the Justice Department asked the FISA court to approve new FISA guidelines that would tear down the Wall, allowing full cooperation between criminal investigators, prosecutors, and intelligence agents in international terrorism cases. The department forcefully argued that such cooperation was mandated by the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed in the wake of 9/11 to improve the nation’s intelligence capacity. That meant, if the department was right, that both the executive and the legislative branches demanded the rescinding of guidelines promulgated by Janet Reno’s edict.

In May, the FISA court starchily rejected the Justice Department’s proposed new guidelines. This result is not surprising: a leading Clinton administration architect of the Wall, Allen Kornblum, now advises the court on legal matters, and the new guidelines would strip the court of its fearsome power.

Ordinarily, all FISA proceedings are secret. The court broke with tradition, however, and grandiosely released its May 2002 opinion in August. The anti-Ashcroft media machine ramped into high gear. According to opinion makers, the country had just narrowly avoided becoming a police state, deterring at the last minute the megalomaniacal efforts of Attorney General Ashcroft to crush American freedom under his jackboots. Coleen Rowley was out of sight and out of mind. The media howled over the 75 Wall violations, criticized in the Court’s opinion, while only sporadically pointing out, and then only sotto voce, that those violations had all occurred on Clinton’s watch.

In a typical display of liberal self-righteousness, Jeffrey Rosen, legal-affairs editor of The New Republic and professor at George Washington Law School, warned in the Washington Post that the proposed new FISA guidelines would “resurrect the specter of domestic surveillance by the FBI that Congress specifically ruled out in the 1970s.” This is nonsense. FISA’s strict probable-cause standards for U.S. citizens and the act’s exacting procedural requirements for obtaining a surveillance order are, for better or worse, light years from the pre-FISA era, when the executive could conduct warrantless national security surveillance.

As in the Rowley affair, none of the reinvigorated defenders of American liberty bothered actually to explain the Wall and its fatal consequences. This silence guaranteed that the public could have absolutely no understanding of what was at stake in Ashcroft’s proposal, leaving the commentariat free to mischaracterize it at will. But criticizing the Wall revisions without disclosing the specific problems that those revisions aimed to correct is like criticizing America’s recent war on the Taliban without mentioning 9/11.

If 1960s-vintage paranoia about the imminent American police state created the intelligence paralysis leading up to 9/11, another key component of the elite worldview has dragged down every commonsensical effort to improve national security since the attacks. That is the belief that America stands ever ready to oppress people of color. Scarcely a homeland security proposal has emerged from the Bush administration that the opinion elites have not portrayed as an eruption of bigotry or tyranny.

After 9/11, the FBI investigated hundreds of thousands of terrorist tips and ultimately picked up a mere 1,200 men, mostly illegal immigrants, for questioning. The government detained some for weeks or sometimes months, checking out their backgrounds, before deporting or releasing them.

The vast majority of the men were Muslim. And any investigation of Islamic terror cells worth its salt will turn up . . . Muslims! But so charged and distorted has the debate about policing and race become over the last decade that it is now professional suicide to say that, in hunting Islamic terrorists, one is going to look for and find Muslims.

It is a misnomer to call such an inevitable practice “racial profiling,” as the term is commonly used. “Racial profiling,” as the elites imagine it, takes place when police play the odds about crimes that all groups commit, but at different rates. Looking for Muslims for participation in Muslim jihad is not playing the odds; it is following an ironclad tautology—Usama bin Ladin’s very definition of what it means to be a warrior for jihad. Nevertheless, anti-police and Arab advocates have co-opted the poisonous discourse about racial profiling to tar all rational law-enforcement efforts against Islamic terrorism as an outgrowth of blind prejudice.

Thus, the New York Times reported ominously that the post-9/11 detentions showed signs of “profiling.” According to this stupendous illogic, a non-biased investigation of Islamic terrorism would detain proportionate samples of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Hindus.

If the FBI and police have to defend themselves against charges of bigotry whenever they investigate or arrest Muslims on suspicion of Islamic terrorism, it’s going to be quite difficult, to say the least, to fight Islamic terrorism. But that is precisely what investigators are up against. When three of the 1,200 detainees were indicted in Detroit this August for operating a terrorist support cell that was infiltrating the Detroit International Airport, local Muslim leaders denounced the indictments as just another instance of racist stereotyping. “There is a feeling in our community of being a victim, which is a painful experience after September 11,” complained Mohamad Elahi, imam of the Dearborn Heights mosque.

Complaints of bias also greeted the arrest of members of another alleged terrorist cell in upstate New York, indicted this September. “This is a crime of terror by the FBI on the people of Lackawanna,” explained a protester outside the courthouse where the six men were being charged.

Cracking down on the crimes that make terrorism possible, above all identity fraud, also risks charges of discrimination. This August, the government charged 14 Detroit-area men, including six physicians, with providing phony documents to immigrants. “Is the government only targeting Arab-American doctors?” asked Imad Hamad of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “We truly wonder about the timing of it.” In the strange logic of these advocates, the defendants, arrested and indicted for serious crimes, were more sinned against than sinning.

This inflamed sense of grievance now leads Muslim spokesmen to equate minor inconveniences—such as being questioned at an airport—with major rights abuses. Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini, imam of the Irvine, California, chapter of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, exemplifies the disjuncture between the actual Muslim experience in America after 9/11 and the rhetoric used to describe it. A courteous, round-faced man, with a short dark beard and rimless glasses, who casually drops the names of Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, al-Qazwini has flown 20 times since September 2001, both domestically and abroad, and he has been searched only once. Yet of that one time, he asks heatedly: “Why did they turn me into an animal and deal with me in a disgraceful manner, just because my passport was Iraqi?” The “disgrace” consisted in being interrogated for half an hour about his mosque and whether the congregation was Sunni or Shia.

Al-Qazwini is not willing to cut security personnel any slack. “They should have common sense that not all Iraqis are terrorists,” he asserts. But in 95 percent of his flights, they assumed just that. To expect to fly search-free 100 percent of the time is ludicrous, given the enemy status of Iraq. Nor were the questions asked of him inappropriate, given the role of imams in breeding jihad.

If occasional interrogation before flying is now the equivalent of being “turned into an animal,” it’s hard to see how America can go forward with any rational security measures. But such hyperbole is now standard. A cartoon in Islamic Discourse magazine, a publication of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, shows two doors at an airline gate. The word “White” has been crossed out and “American” written in its stead on one; the word “Colored” has been replaced with “Arab-American” on the other. By no stretch of the imagination are post-9/11 security measures remotely close to Jim Crow laws, but Arab advocacy groups have masterfully usurped the mantle of black victimhood to put anti-terror efforts on the constant defensive.

It would be refreshing (if unprecedented in contemporary American culture) if Arab-Americans and other Muslims stepped outside their sense of grievance to grasp the larger interests of the country. But al-Qazwini, for one, continues to see the security issue only in personal terms: it’s okay if other people get searched for no reason at all, but he or his family shouldn’t be. He was happy that a blond woman was searched on his last flight. “I now know that the security agents are open-minded,” he says. But he is incensed that his own parents were searched before a flight to London. “This has nothing to do with security,” he fumes, “but it’s because some Mexican guy has been brainwashed by the media telling him: ‘When you find these people, search them, regardless of age or stature.’ Let’s have some standards!” Most Americans would agree.

One can’t blame al-Qazwini for his views. When our national leaders are unwilling even to name the enemy correctly, it’s no wonder that the advocates and the media have stepped into the breach with victimology. In speech after speech, President Bush refuses to identify our nemesis as “Islamic terrorism,” preferring instead the vaguer “terrorism,” a generality that won’t offend any religious or ethnic group.

Not giving offense now seems equal in importance to protecting the nation. Following the president’s lead, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, in his now-infamous 60 Minutes interview, said he would “hope” that a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach, Florida, and a young Muslim male from Jersey City would receive the same level of scrutiny when boarding an airplane. And, alas, they do.

Such security procedures have a strong symbolic purpose: to show that our hearts are pure and that we have never ever drawn any inferences from the fact that every anti-American terrorist since 1987—with the exception of Timothy McVeigh—has been Islamic.

President Bush could have put an end to such charades had he explained to the nation that, because Usama bin Ladin has called on all Muslims, not all Protestants or Jews, to kill Americans wherever they find them, we would have to give a little more scrutiny to people from certain parts of the world who seek to enter the country or assume high-security positions. These are minor inconveniences compared with the catastrophe that we are trying to avert, he could have said, and we ask for the patience and understanding of people subjected to greater inquiries about their purposes. Of course such measures do not imply that we think that all Middle Easterners, North Africans, or Muslims are terrorists, but until someone comes up with a method of identifying to a man each individual terrorist, a method that is neither over- nor under-inclusive, we will have to use cruder screening mechanisms.

In the absence of such a public explanation, the elites and the advocates continue to turn every reasonable security measure into another cause for grievance. Last fall, the Justice Department sought to interview about 5,000 young men from Middle Eastern and other terror-breeding countries who had entered the U.S. on short-term visas over the last two years, as had all the 9/11 hijackers. The interviews were voluntary, innocuous, and could be refused without consequence. Every civil liberties and Arab advocacy group rose up against the plan, portraying it, in the words of Islamic Discourse magazine, as “another wave of threats to our civil liberties.” The message: Every Muslim in America should feel offended. Why not an alternative message: This is not a problem. If you can help out the government in any way to prevent further attacks, please do so.

The fear of giving offense also hampers needed changes in immigration policy. American and foreign intelligence still cannot identify Islamic terrorists very well, or understand fully how they communicate with one another, activate sleeper cells, or channel funding for operations. If we were serious about preventing more terrorists coming to our soil, we would impose a moratorium on immigration and visitor visas from the countries most likely to export terrorism, until our intelligence services were capable of detecting our enemies. We would suspend the student-visa program until we had a foolproof system in place for tracking foreign students.

Instead, we have taken half-measures that do not provide any assurance of safety. But those half-measures have generated just as much outcry as real measures would have. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have bemoaned the fact that the State Department is taking longer than usual to process student visas from Middle Eastern and other terror-sponsoring countries. The resulting delays, warns the Times, are “generating widespread hostility” among Muslim men. Perhaps the Times has forgotten a far more lethal “hostility” among Muslim men that killed 3,000 people on 9/11.

The Justice Department has proposed putting the names of visa violators who have absconded following a deportation order into national criminal databases, so that if a police officer comes across an absconder in the course of a routine stop, he can arrest him. Yet even this baby step toward border enforcement—in a reasonable world, all visa violators, not just deportation evaders, would be listed—has produced the usual denunciations. National Public Radio even broadcast a comparison of the absconder program to the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

But what do you know—the opinion elites are just as hypocritically opportunistic when it comes to charges of profiling as they are regarding intelligence issues. Having worked themselves into a lather after 9/11 over the possibility that the Justice Department might use Middle Eastern or Muslim heritage as a factor in anti-terrorism investigations, they turned on a dime when doing so offered them a chance to beat up on the Bush Justice Department.

In May 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams wrote his supervisors that al-Qaida members might be training in U.S. flight schools. He had been observing several Islamists enrolled in an Arizona aviation academy, one of whom had told him that he considered the U.S. government and military legitimate targets of Islam. Another man who attracted Williams’s suspicion, it was later discovered, had associated with 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour and may have screened other al-Qaida pilots. In his memo, Agent Williams requested that the Bureau check out other Middle Eastern flight students for al-Qaida ties.

It is not hard to guess why the FBI ignored Williams’s request. Had word leaked out that the Bureau was investigating Muslim aviation trainees, the nation’s newspapers, networks, and advocates would have burst forth in one mighty roar of “Racism!” For the previous five years, the only law-enforcement topic that had consistently interested the press was the charge that the police were bigots.

So when the Williams memo surfaced in May 2002, the media, the victims’ lobby, and the legal professoriat berated Williams for his prejudices, right? Wrong: they lionized him for his prescience. Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, the organization that has done more than any other to make “racial profiling” the equivalent of “genocide,” wins the prize for the most blatant hypocrisy. “It surprises me that the FBI was worried about racial profiling criticism,” she cooed on National Public Radio. “The Phoenix flight-school memo was good policing.” The ACLU should have fired her on the spot for betraying everything it has argued for the last five years.

The New York Times nearly equals Strossen in shameless self-contradiction. It editorialized that the FBI’s “fumbling” of the Arizona terrorist warning constituted an “egregious failure.” Never mind that before May 2001, and continuing to this day, the Times has been the nation’s most powerful voice berating the police for what it charged was their use of race and ethnicity in investigatory stops.

Such little moments of clarity, even if motivated by bad faith, have been rare since 9/11. The time is past for preening fantasies aimed at boosting the elites’ self-image as a bulwark against imagined American injustice. Yet the guardians of politically correct opinion have held on to their fondest fictions, despite their destructive effects on national security.

The power of the elites’ nonsensical ideology should never be underestimated. In the field of counterterrorism, the elites crippled intelligence-gathering not only by the legal restrictions that they sponsored. They accomplished something subtler but equally dangerous: they broke the agencies’ zeal to protect the country. The fuel for people who work in national security is not money but morale, observes James Kallstrom, former head of the FBI’s New York office. “When you destroy that, people give up,” he says. “The notion that people who come to work every day to protect the country are raked over the coals because they shared terrorist information with criminal investigators is mind-boggling,” Kallstrom observes wearily. “We’ve been frozen in our tracks for decades by extremely vocal people who represent less than 0.01 percent of the country, but who have created totally risk-averse bureaucracies in the FBI, CIA, and the military.”

Here’s a modest proposal that would improve our domestic security by 100 percent: if the elite war on the war on terror continues, we should all just stop listening.

 

 

 
Blame elite beliefs and Clinton-era edicts.
City Journal Autumn 2002.
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