Thursday, April 08, 2004

Does Howard Fineman know his role?

There's an old quote that goes something like "it's too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy shining shoes and pumping gas." Of course this guy hadn't heard of bloggers...

I'm guessing he hadn't met Howard Fineman either. It seems that he knows Condoleezza Rice's role better than she does:
A self-proclaimed expert at understanding "structural" change in large institutions, Rice wasn't aware ? may still not be aware ? that the nature of her job had changed by the time she took over as national security adviser in January 2001. Reared in the Cold War era, she saw herself following in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger. "National security" was largely a matter of global state-to-state diplomacy.

In fact, as her predecessor in effect warned her when he was turning over the keys, the model was no longer so much Kissinger as it was, say, Elliott Ness or J. Edgar Hoover. If, as she said, we had been at war with terrorism for 20 years; if, as she said, the terrorists are determined to attack America, then the NSC chief has to be a ruthless hunter for clues around the world ? and on American soil.
"In effect" warned her? And how was this?

It certainly wasn't by example. Read this to see how the FBI had already been hamstrung by fear of abuse, and how the Clinton Administration proceeded to make things even worse:
In the 1990s, the U.S. tied itself in further knots by treating terrorism as a matter for the criminal-justice system, thus bringing into play all sorts of other restrictions on collecting and sharing information. The CIA is reluctant to provide information for criminal cases out of fear that its sources and methods will be disclosed in open trial. The FBI, meanwhile, was forbidden to share information gathered from grand-jury proceedings. (This changed after September 11.) The absurdity of making the fight against terrorism a domestic legal question reached its height when the Clinton administration was hesitant to accept Osama bin Laden, if handed over by a foreign government, because it couldn't have indicted him.

As long as terrorism in the United States is treated as a criminal matter, a terrorist gets more rights and protections as he gets closer to his target: i.e., if bin Laden is in Afghanistan, we try to bomb him to kingdom come (since there he is an enemy fighter), but if he makes it to Brooklyn, we hesitate even to listen in on his sermons at a mosque (since here he is a domestic criminal). Zacarias Moussaoui -- the alleged "20th hijacker" -- benefited from exactly this dynamic. Whistleblower Coleen Rowley was outraged that FBI headquarters didn't think there was "probable cause" to request a FISA warrant on Moussaoui. But it may well be that the FBI was conscientiously following the letter of the law, displaying the tender regard for Moussaoui's civil liberties that the political culture has demanded. There was certainly evidence prior to September 11 that Moussaoui was a Muslim extremist, but "probable cause" that he was an agent of a foreign power or terrorist group? It was by no means a slam dunk.

What if there clearly was "probable cause" for a FISA warrant in late August? Unless it is determined to be an emergency, the FISA process can be a drawn-out one, as former FBI agent James J. Roth explained in a letter to the Wall Street Journal: "Even assuming that FBI headquarters agreed that there was probable cause, the FISA request still had to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice Office of Intelligence Policy and Review; come back to the FBI for the director's certification, which is required by law; return to Justice for the attorney general's approval, also required by law; and get scheduled on the court docket. . . . Simply put, it is unlikely that the request would have reached the court before 9/11."

All of these legal and procedural hoops existed in the context of a culture of timidity, even fear, at the FBI, as Rowley's famous memo says over and over again. "Our best real guess," she writes, "is that, in most cases, avoidance of all 'unnecessary' actions/decisions by FBIHQ managers (and maybe to some extent field managers as well) has, in recent years, been seen as the safest FBI career course. 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 action/decisions."
Somehow Condoleezza Rice was to effect changes to permit the FBI to be effective in the 7+ months she had before 9/11, from outside the agency, in an environment where people were bitching about the Patriot Act even after 9/11.

Surely it's beneficial to examine what might have been done to prevent 9/11 in hope that it will help us prevent recurrence. But this investigation has become a partisan witch-hunt conducted by people with the brass-balled effrontery to complain that the Bush Administration was "distracted".

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