2001 — the year in review:
Sept. 11 changes the FBI’s fortunes
One could make a compelling argument that there was one FBI before Sept. 11, shaken by scandal and mismanagement, and entirely another after the terrorist attacks, when the nation looked to its premier law enforcement agency to hunt down the men who brought down the World Trade Center and devastated the Pentagon. What remained the same, in the minds of many police chiefs, was the bureau’s continued unwillingness to change a culture that had long kept local authorities on the outside looking in.
“There are some very, very serious management problems at the FBI,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) in July, one day after the bureau announced it could not account for 449 guns and 184 computers that turned up missing after an inventory. The loss of the weapons, which included everything from standard-issue revolvers to machine guns, was attributed by the FBI to sloppy record keeping. Senator Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), called it “simply inexcusable.”
It was one of a number of embarrassing incidents that either occurred in 2001 or were brought to light last year. Others included:
The arrest of veteran counterintelligence agent Robert P. Hanssen in February on charges that he had spied for Moscow for the past 15 years. Hanssen pleaded guilty, as part of an agreement that will spare him from a possible death sentence.
The scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh on May 16 had to be postponed for a month after FBI officials disclosed that 3,000 pages of investigative reports pertaining to the 1997 Oklahoma City bombing had never been turned over to defense attorneys.
A Justice Department report released in December called the FBI’s espionage investigation of nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee “deeply and fundamentally flawed.” Not only did the FBI and the Energy Department fail to restrict the Taiwan-born Lee’s access to classified nuclear weapons secrets during the full investigation, the report said, but the bureau unnecessarily delayed the probe and never gave it the high priority that the allegations warranted.
Corruption was alleged among the bureau’s senior officials, particularly those involved in the 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge. Four current and former agents testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “crucial interviews” following the assault were never done, despite “significant” allegations of misconduct. At the same time, they said, the bureau came down hard on junior agents.
One gun among the hundreds lost or stolen from the agency was involved in a homicide and one missing laptop computer contained classified information from two closed cases and three others possibly contained secret data as well.
John O’Neill, special agent in charge of national security in the FBI’s New York field office, was barred in July from returning to Yemen where he had led the team investigating the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole. State Department officials said Ambassador Barbara Bodine had objected to the large FBI presence in the country and the bureau’s desire to arm its agents with rifles and heavy weapons. O’Neill had sought to return to Yemen to assess the safety of investigators after intelligence reports warned of a threat. [O’Neill was later killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. See Page 18.]
In October, President Bush placed Abdul Rahman Yasin, 41, on the list of the 22 “most wanted” terrorists. The FBI let Yasin leave the country eight years ago even though he had been questioned at length after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and indicted as a co-conspirator that August. “He’s the one the FBI should be embarrassed about. They talked to him in 1993 and then he skipped the country,” said Vince Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief for the CIA. During the interview with Yasin, agents noticed a chemical burn on his thigh. Explosive chemicals were also found on the wall of the apartment he shared in Jersey City with others who were later indicted and convicted in the bombing.
In July, federal prosecutor Robert S. Mueller 3d was nominated by President Bush as the FBI’s new director, following the resignation of Louis J. Freeh. Freeh left the post in May, two years before his statutory 10-year term was up. Freeh’s tenure was bracketed by controversy, having come into the job in the aftermath of Waco standoff in 1993, and leaving amid the renewed controversy surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing case, with thousands of documents pertaining to McVeigh never being delivered to defense attorneys.
Mueller had served as temporary deputy to Ashcroft when he chose his management team. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the two have acted in tandem to a degree not often seen between FBI directors and attorneys general. The former U.S. attorney in San Francisco, Mueller had strong support within federal law enforcement circles. Observers believe that the loyalty he elicits after two decades spent within the Justice Department’s insular world would aid him in implementing change within the bureau’s tradition-bound culture.
Armed guards surround the van preparing to transport convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to the execution facility at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., on June 10, where he spent the last night of his life in a small, windowless cell before being executed by lethal injection the next morning. The execution had been delayed for nearly a month after it was revealed that FBI officials had failed to turn over investigative files to defense attorneys.
Local law enforcement, however, has so far been unimpressed with the FBI’s attempts at outreach. By October, some major-city chiefs were outspoken in their criticism of the bureau’s failure to share data. “They talk an anti-terrorist task force, we’re going to meet…In the meantime, there is no information sharing,” said Portland, Maine, Chief Michael Chitwood.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris complained that the bureau would not even provide him with photos of potential suspects. The watch list distributed to municipal police departments, he said, was nothing but “a ream of papers with names on it,” making it absolutely useless because most of the suspects would be using false identifications.
Efforts by the FBI’s Minneapolis field office to broaden an investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who authorities now suspect was meant to be the 20th hijacker, were halted by bureau attorneys, according to a senior Justice Department official.
In October, the official told The New York Times that requests to FBI headquarters to obtain a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to search Moussaoui’s computer and telephone records was rejected. Despite an Aug. 27 cable from the French intelligence agency that Moussaoui had “Islamic extremist beliefs,” the request failed to satisfy the criteria because it did not specify that Moussaoui was operating at the behest of an overseas terrorist group.
A second request for permission to obtain a grand jury subpoena and search warrants was also rebuffed. Under current law, said the Justice Department official, a criminal investigation would have prohibited a warrant under the surveillance act.
The FBI should not feel alone, though. The Drug Enforcement Administration came under its own share of scrutiny in May, when it was discovered that a confidential informant had lied 16 times in drug cases and was arrested at least 13 times on charges including fraud and assault. The informant, Anthony Chambers, was paid $2 million by the DEA over a 15-year period, according to a report released under the Freedom of Information Act. Some 280 convictions around the country stood in jeopardy last year, with prosecutors in Florida, South Carolina, Missouri and Colorado dismissing charges in at last 26 narcotics cases. Los Angeles authorities were forced to release a five-time felon in return for his agreement not to sue the government.