On September 23rd, twelve days after the terror attacks on America, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Sunday-morning television-news show that the Bush Administration planned to publish a white paper that would prove to the world that Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization were responsible for the hijackings. "We are putting all of the information that we have together, the intelligence information, the information being generated by the F.B.I. and other law-enforcement agencies," Powell said. The information that the White House had available, we now know, included a top-secret briefing, given to President Bush on August 6th, documenting what was known about Al Qaeda's determination to attack American targets. The briefing, prepared by the C.I.A. at the President's request, was reportedly entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It warned that Al Qaeda hoped to "bring the fight to America." Despite Powell's declaration, the Administration never released the white paper. And in October, when the evidence of bin Laden's involvement was made public, by proxyby the British Prime Minister, Tony Blairthere was no mention of the pre-attack warnings. In fact, the white paper stated, incorrectly, that no such information had been available before the attacks: "After 11 September we learned that, not long before, Bin Laden had indicated he was about to launch a major attack on America."
It is now clear that the White House, for its own reasons, chose to keep secret the extent of the intelligence that was available before and immediately after September 11th. In addition to the August briefing, there was a prescient memorandum sent in July to F.B.I. headquarters from the Phoenix office warning of the danger posed by Middle Eastern students at American flight schools (Robert Mueller, the F.B.I. director, did not see the memo until a few days after September 11th), and there was what Condoleezza Rice, the President's national-security adviser, called "a lot of chatter in the system." Congressional hearings will almost certainly take place in the next few months, given the conviction of Democratic Party leaders that they finally have a viable political issue.
What the President knew and when he knew it may not be the relevant question, however. No one in Washington seriously contends that the President or any of his senior advisers had any reason to suspect that terrorists were about to fly hijacked airplanes into buildings. A more useful question concerns the degree to which Al Qaeda owed its success to the weakness of the F.B.I. and the agency's chronic inability to synthesize intelligence reports, draw conclusions, and work with other agencies. These failings, it turns out, were evident long before George Bush took office.
Neither the F.B.I. nor America's other intelligence agencies have effectively addressed what may be the most important challenge of September 11th: How does an open society deal with warnings of future terrorism? The Al Qaeda terrorists were there to be seen, but there was no system for seeing them.
Several weeks before the attacks, the actor James Woods was in the first-class section of a cross-country flight to Los Angeles. Four of his fellow-passengers were well-dressed men who appeared to be Middle Eastern and were obviously travelling together. "I watch people like a moviemaker," Woods told me. "As in that scene in 'Annie Hall' "where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are sitting on a bench in Central Park speculating on the personal lives of passers-by. "I thought these guys were either terrorists or F.B.I. guys," Woods went on. "The guys were in synchdressed alike. They didn't have a drink and were not talking to the stewardess. None of them had a carry-on or a newspaper. Nothing.
"Imagine you're at a live-music event at a small night club and you're standing behind the singer. Everybody is clapping, going along, enjoying the show and there's four guys paying no attention. What are they doing here?" Woods concluded that the men were "casing" the plane. He said that his concern led him to hang on to his cutlery after lunch. He shared his worries with a flight attendant. "I said, 'I think this plane is going to be hijacked.' I told her, 'I know how serious it is to say this,' and asked to speak to the captain." The flight attendant, too, was concerned. The plane's first officer came over immediately and assured Woods that he and the captain would keep the door to the cockpit locked. The remainder of the trip was bumpy but uneventful, and Woods recalled laughingly telling his agent, who asked about the flight, "Aside from the terrorists and the turbulence, it was fine."
Woods said that the flight attendant told him that she would file a report about the suspicious passengers. If she did, her report probably ended up in a regional Federal Aviation Authority office in Tulsa, or perhaps Dallas, according to Clark Onstad, the former chief counsel of the F.A.A., and disappeared in the bureaucracy. "If you ever walked into one of these offices, you'd see that they have no secretaries," Onstad told me. "These guys are buried under a mountain of paper, and the odds of this"a report about suspicious passengers"coming up to a higher level are very low." Even today, eight months after the hijacking, Onstad said, the question "Where would you effectively report something like this so that it would get attention?" has no practical answer.
Throughout the spring and early summer of 2001, intelligence agencies flooded the government with warnings of possible terrorist attacks against American targets, including commercial aircraft, by Al Qaeda and other groups. The warnings were vague but sufficiently alarming to prompt the F.A.A. to issue four information circulars, or I.C.s, to the commercial airline industry between June 22nd and July 31st, warning of possible terrorism. One circular, from late July, noted, according to Condoleezza Rice, that there was "no specific target, no credible info of attack to U.S. civil-aviation interests, but terror groups are known to be planning and training for hijackings, and we ask you therefore to use caution."
For years, however, the airlines had essentially disregarded the F.A.A.'s information circulars. "I.C.s don't require special measures," a former high-level F.A.A. official told me. "To get the airlines to react, you have to send a Security Directive"a high-priority message that, under F.A.A. regulations, mandates an immediate response. Without a directive, the American airline industry was operating in a business-as-usual manner when Woods noticed the suspicious passengers on his flight.
On the evening of September 11th, Woods telephoned the Los Angeles office of the F.B.I. and told a special agent about the encounter. In an interview on Fox Television in February, Woods described being awakened at six-forty-five the next morning by a telephone call from the agent. "I said, 'I'll get ready and I'll come down to the federal building,' " Woods recounted. "He said, 'That's O.K. We're outside your house.' " By then, Woods told me, he was no longer certain of the date of his trip. "The first thing I said is 'I'm not sure which flight it was on.' " But he had a vivid memory of the men's faces. When he was shown photographs, Woods thought he recognized two of the hijackersHamza Alghamdi, who flew on United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the south tower of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Almihdhar, who was on American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon. One of the men stood out because of his "pointy hair," Woods told me, and the other looked like one of the characters in the movie version of John le Carré's "The Little Drummer Girl."
A senior F.B.I. official told me that the bureau had subsequently investigated Woods's story but had not been able to find evidence of the hijackers on the flight Woods thought he had taken. "We don't know for sure," the official said.
Woods's flight was not the only one the F.B.I. looked into after September 11th. The bureau found other evidence that the terrorists from the four different planes had flown together earlier, in various combinations, to "check out flights," as one agent put it. The F.B.I. now thinks that the hijackers flew on perhaps a dozen flights, together and separately, in the summer of 2001.
The hijackers' decision to risk flying together calls into question much of the conventional wisdom about September 11th. The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. have repeatedly characterized the Al Qaeda terrorists as brilliant professionalswhat I. C. Smith, who retired in 1998, after a twenty-five-year career at the F.B.I., much of it in counterintelligence, calls "the superman scenario." In a rare public appearance, at Duke University in April, James Pavitt, the C.I.A.'s deputy director for operationsthe agency's top spymastersaid of Al Qaeda:
The terror cells that we're going up against are typically small and all terrorist personnel . . . were carefully screened. The number of personnel who know vital information, targets, timing, the exact methods to be used had to be smaller still. . . . Against that degree of control, that kind of compartmentation, that depth of discipline and fanaticism, I personally doubtand I draw again upon my thirty years of experience in this businessthat anything short of one of the knowledgeable inner-circle personnel or hijackers turning himself in to us would have given us sufficient foreknowledge to have prevented the horrendous slaughter that took place on the eleventh.
The point of operating in cells is to insure that if one person is caught he can expose only those in his own cell, because he knows nothing of the others. The entire operation is not put at risk. The Al Qaeda terrorists seem to have violated a fundamental rule of clandestine operations. Far from working independently and maintaining rigid communications security, the terrorists, as late as last summer, apparently mingled openly and had not yet decided which flights to target. The planning for September 11th appears to have been far more ad hoc than was at first assumed.
A senior F.B.I. official insisted to me that the September 11th attacks were "carefully orchestrated and well planned," but he agreed that serious and potentially fatal errors were made by the terrorists. Another official said, "We early on thought that people on flight one did not know anything about flights two, three, and four, but we did find that there was cross-pollination in travel and coördination. If they're so good, why did they intermingle?" A third F.B.I. official said, "Are they ten feet tall? They're not."
The fact that the terrorists managed to bring down the World Trade Center may simply mean that seizing an airplane was easier than the American public has been led to believe. The real message of missed opportunities like the Woods flight may be that, even at a time when America's intelligence agencies had raised an alarm, chatter remained chatterdiffuse noise. There were no mechanisms to either dispose of leads, warnings, and suspicious incidents or effectively translate them into a plan for preventing Al Qaeda from attacking.
By 1990, in the wake of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, congressional committees had concluded that the F.A.A. needed more immediate access to current intelligence, and urged that an F.A.A. security official be assigned to the relevant offices in the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the State Department. Leo Boivin, who was the agency's primary security analyst at the time, told me, "I started the program. Getting into the C.I.A. and State was no problem, but the F.B.I. effectively said nothat it wasn't going to happen. The bureau didn't want anybody in there, and we couldn't fight the bureau." In 1996, after the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800, a commission directed by Vice-President Al Gore also called for closer liaison. This time, according to Boivin, who retired last August, the F.B.I. refused to give the F.A.A. security officer a building pass that would permit unfettered access to F.B.I. headquarters. "The problem with the intelligence community is that you didn't know what you didn't know," Boivin said. " 'If there is a problem,' the bureau would say, 'we'll tell you about it.' " The difficulties continued after September 11th. Boivin said that the F.B.I. sought to get rid of the F.A.A.'s liaison man at headquarters, because, in Boivin's words, "he was seen as too pushy about trying to get information." (An F.B.I. spokesman, when asked for comment, said, "Both before September 11th and after September 11th, the bureau shared information with our law-enforcement partners to the fullest extent possible.")
The airlines, always eager to trim operating expenses, successfully lobbied against many of the safety provisions recommended by the Gore commission, such as more stringent security checks on airline employees and tighter screening of passenger baggage. William Webster, the former F.B.I. director, served as the airlines' lobbyist. "The airlines never wanted to spend a lot of money on security," said David Plavin, who was on the Gore commission and is the president of Airports Council International, the lobbying arm of the nation's more than five hundred commercial airports. "They were always concerned that the government would stick them with the bill." Much of that worry, Plavin told me, was alleviated after September 11th with the passage of legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration, which puts the responsibility for security on the federal government, but the new legislation won't solve the most serious problem: bureaucratic infighting. "More than half a dozen federal agencies are involved in airline travel, and their inability to work with each other is notorious," Plavin said. "Protecting their own turf is what matters."
In the late nineteen-nineties, the C.I.A. obtained reliable information indicating that an Al Qaeda network based in northern Germany had penetrated airport security in Amsterdam and was planning to attack American passenger planes by planting bombs in the cargo, a former security official told me. The intelligence was good enough to warrant the dissemination of an F.A.A. Security Directive, and the C.I.A., working with German police, planned a series of successful preëmptive raids. "The Germans rousted a lot of people," the former official said. The F.A.A. and the C.I.A. worked closely together and the incident was kept secret. "While the threat was on, the F.A.A. was getting two or three C.I.A. briefings a day," the former official said. In contrast, in operations in which the F.B.I. took the lead, "the F.A.A. got nothing. The F.B.I. people said, 'If there is a threat, we'll tell you, but we're not going to tell you what's going on in the investigations.' The F.A.A. told them that it had much more information about threats in Hamburg and Beirut than in Detroit, and they said, 'That's the way it is.' They'd come and give a dog-and-pony show."
Long before September 11th, the American intelligence community had a significant amount of information about specific terrorist threats to commercial airline travel in America, including the possibility that a plane could be used as a weapon.In 1994, an Algerian terrorist group hijacked an Air France airliner and threatened to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. In 1995, police in Manila broke up a terrorist operation that was planning to plant bombs with timing devices on as many as twelve American airliners. They also found information that led to the arrest of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who directed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Abdul Hakim Murad, one of Yousef's collaborators, told the Philippine police and, later, U.S. intelligence officers that he had earned his pilot's license in an American flight school and had been planning to seize a small plane, fill it with explosives, and fly it into C.I.A. headquarters. Murad confessed, according to an account published last December in the Washington Post, that he had gone to the American flight school "in preparation for a suicide mission." In 1996, the F.B.I. director, Louis Freeh, asked officials in Qatara nation suspected of harboring Al Qaeda terroristsfor help in apprehending another alleged accomplice of Yousef, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was then believed to be in Qatar. One of Freeh's diplomatic notes stated that Mohammed was involved in a conspiracy to "bomb U.S. airliners" and was also believed to be "in the process of manufacturing an explosive device."
In late December of 1999, a group of Al Qaeda terrorists armed with knives hijacked an Indian airliner and diverted it to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The hijackers maintained control of the passengers and crew by cutting the throat of a young passenger and letting the victim bleed to death, a tactic that the September 11th terrorists are believed to have used on flight attendants. (Shortly after the Indian hijacking, the F.B.I. opened a liaison office in New Delhi, and has since worked closely with Indian security officials.) The F.A.A., in its annual report for the year 2000, warned that bin Laden and Al Qaeda posed "a significant threat to civil aviation." The F.A.A. had earlier noted, according to the Times, that there was a specific report from an exiled Islamic leader in Britain alleging that bin Laden was planning to "bring down an airliner, or hijack an airliner to humiliate the United States."
The attendance of potential terrorists at flight-training schools in America is not a new phenomenon, either. As early as 1975, according to an unpublished Senate Foreign Relations Committee document, Raymond Winall, then the F.B.I.'s assistant director for intelligence, revealed that a suspected member of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group responsible for the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, had explained his presence in the United States by telling the F.B.I. that he had been admitted for pilot trainingthe same explanation for the presence here of a number of the September 11th terrorists. The suspect was indicted but fled the country before he could be arraigned. Since then, according to Bill Carroll, a former district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, thousands of young Middle Easterners have obtained visas to enroll in flight-instruction programs.
Inrecent interviews, three senior F.B.I. officials in charge of responding to terrorism threats did not defend the bureau's past performance, and acknowledged that many of the long-standing complaints had merit. But they insisted that, since September 11th, many things had been done right. The F.B.I. had invested enormous resources in tracking the terrorists' travel activities, and much progress had been made in disrupting the international flow of money to Al Qaeda. The officials admitted that there are still questions about the reliability of some of the information that was collected in the days immediately after September 11th. One unresolved mystery is how many of the nineteen hijackers understood that the mission called for the immolation of all aboard.
The officials maintained that they have correctly established the true identity of all nineteen, by consulting records and going back to their countries of origin. There are, however, lingering questions about at least eight of them. For example, the F.B.I. has identified one of the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, as Nawaf Alhazmi. A Maryland motel he had checked into under this name had a record of a New York driver's license number and a Manhattan address he had given. But the address turned out to be a hotel, which reported that it had no record of him. And the New York Department of Motor Vehicles said that the number was invalid, and that it had never issued a license to anyone named Nawaf Alhazmi. Similarly, Waleed Alshehri, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, was identified by the F.B.I. as a college graduate from Florida whose father was a Saudi diplomat. And yet, last fall, the diplomat told a Saudi Arabian newspaper that his son was still alive and working as a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines.
The prevalence of identity theft has also complicated matters. There are an estimated seven hundred and fifty thousand cases of stolen identity in the United States every year, according to Rob Douglas, a leading privacy expert. Saudi newspapers eventually reported that at least four men with the same names as those listed by the F.B.I. as hijackers had been victims of passport theft. A hijacker identified as Abdulaziz Alomari, who also was aboard Flight 11, was reported by the Rocky Mountain News to have the same name as a graduate of the University of Colorado, a man who did not resemble a photograph of the hijacker. That Alomari had been stopped by the Denver police several times for minor offenses while attending college and had given three different birth dates. One of the dates matches the birth date used by the hijacker. Investigators subsequently learned that in 1995 the Colorado student had reported a theft in his apartment; among the items stolen was his passport.
Another hijacker, who used the name Saeed Alghamdi and was aboard Flight 93, was reported last fall by Newsday to have taken the Social Security number of a Vermont woman who had been dead since 1965. The name is a common one in Saudi Arabia. At least four other men with that name have shown up on records at the flight school in Florida where Alghamdi was said by the F.B.I. to have trained. The school reported that it had trained more than sixteen hundred students with the first name Saeed and more than two hundred with the surname Alghamdi. Social Security officials also said that six of the nineteen hijackers were using identity cards belonging to other people.
In April, police in Milan raided the apartment of Essid Sami Ben Khemais, the alleged head of an extremist group based in Italy that has been linked to Al Qaeda. A prosecutor's affidavit, the Baltimore Sun reported, described what was found: a cache of forged Tunisian and Yemeni passports, Italian identity cards, and photocopies of German driver's licenses. The prosecutor wrote, "One of the most essential illegal activities of the group is the procurement and use of false documents . . . to guarantee a new identity to the 'brothers' who must hide or escape investigation." The prosecutor further said that the police had recorded telephone conversations in which Khemais discussed with Al Qaeda members the mechanics of falsifying documents.
The complaints about the F.B.I. are well known to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, has been urging extensive reform of the bureau for years. "These are not problems of money," Leahy said last July, during confirmation hearings on the appointment of Robert Mueller as the new F.B.I. director. "We have poured a lot of money into the F.B.I. It is a management problem."
The F.B.I.'s computer systems have been in disarray for more than a decade, making it difficult, if not impossible, for analysts and agents to correlate and interpret intelligence. The F.B.I.'s technological weakness also hinders its ability to solve crimes. In March, for example, Leahy's committee was told that photographs of the nineteen suspected hijackers could not be sent electronically in the days immediately after September 11th to the F.B.I. office in Tampa, Florida, because the F.B.I.'s computer systems weren't compatible. Robert Chiradio, the special agent in charge, explained at a hearing that "we don't have the ability to put any scanning or multimedia" into F.B.I. computer systems. The photographs had "to be put on a CD-ROM and mailed to me."
Part of the problem, former F.B.I. agents have told me, is the long-standing practice by the F.B.I. leadership of "reprogramming" funds intended for computer upgrading. I. C. Smith, who was in charge of the F.B.I.'s budget for national-security programs, told me that his department was "constantly raiding the technical programs" to make up for shortfalls in other areassuch as, in one case, the travel budget.
Mueller, who had been on the job for only a week before September 11th, acknowledged in a speech in April that many of the desktop computers at the F.B.I. were discards from other federal agencies that "we take as upgrades." He went on, "We have systems that cannot talk with other bureau systems, much less with other federal agencies. We're working to create a database . . . that we can use to share information and intelligence with the outside world. We hope to test it later next year"that is, sometime in 2003.
Clearly, the agents in the field and their superiors at F.B.I. headquarters did not have the optimal tools to cope with the complex world of Middle Eastern terrorismand the outpouring of intelligence data and warnings about activities inside the United States. (They were not alone. The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies also contributed to the failure that led to September 11th.) The F.B.I. also found it extremely difficult to field undercover operatives inside the Islamic fundamentalist movement. The situation remains the same today, intelligence officials told me. "They're incapable of it," one former intelligence official said, referring to the F.B.I.'s lack of experience in covert operations. "This is much scarier than the C.I.A.'s inability to penetrate overseas. We don't have eyes and ears in the Muslim communities. We're naked here."
In a recent conversation, a senior F.B.I. official acknowledged that there had been "no breakthrough" inside the government, in terms of establishing how the September 11th suicide teams were organized and how they operated. America's war in Afghanistan, despite success in driving Al Qaeda from its bases there, has yet to produce significant information about the planning and execution of the attacks. U.S. forces are known to have captured thousands of pages of documents and computer hard drives from Al Qaeda redoubts, but so far none of this materialwhich remains highly classifiedhas enabled the Justice Department to broaden its understanding of how the attack occurred, or even to bring an indictment of a conspirator. The government's only criminal proceeding filed thus far is against Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was already in jail on September 11th, on immigration charges. "It's kind of obvious that we haven't wrapped anything up," a C.I.A. consultant told me.
One senior F.B.I. official argued, however, that the intensive American bombing campaign in Afghanistan and the dramatically improved coördination with international police forces and intelligence agencies have led to a serious degradation of Al Qaeda's command and control, and, he said, "the over-all structure of Al Qaeda has been disrupted." Referring to the heavy satellite monitoring of the many training camps operated by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, he said, "For years, we watched the graduating classes every year at the University of Terrorism." What's left, he went on, are "those fleasthe graduates of the training classes who are spread out in the world. We are going to have problems with them for years to come. Could there be a flea who strikes this week in Kansas City? Absolutely."
In Senate testimony in May, Robert Mueller emphasized how difficult it would have been to thwart the September 11th attacks, noting that fifty million people entered and left the United States in August, 2001. "The terrorists took advantage of America's strengths and used them against us," he said. "And as long as we continue to treasure our freedoms we always will run some risk of future attacks."
"These guys were not superhuman," I. C. Smith noted, "but they were playing in a system that was more inept than they were. If you go back to the aircraft hijackings of the early nineteen-seventies, I can't recall a single instance where we caught a guy"in advance"who really intended to hijack a plane." But men like Mueller, Smith added, "can't afford to say that the terrorists stumbled through this."
Mueller has one of the most difficult jobs in government today. He is trying to reorganize a bureaucracy that has resisted changesand outsidersfor decades. He does not praise the old days, and the old ways of doing business, in his public statements. "We must refocus our mission and our priorities," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May. "We must improve how we hire, manage, and train our workforce, collaborate with others, and manage, analyze, share, and protect our information." He added, "I am more impatient than most, but we must do these things right, not simply fast."
Mueller's insistence on centralizing decision-making and control of counterterrorism operations at F.B.I. headquarters has provoked discord in some of the F.B.I.'s fifty-six bureaus across the nation. Senior officers with specialized expertise were reassigned to counterterrorism duty after September 11th, and many still find their new jobs bewildering.
Increasingly, the divisions are becoming public. Last week, a letter of complaint sent to the House and Senate intelligence committees by the F.B.I.'s general counsel in Minneapolis was leaked to the press. It accused F.B.I. headquarters of obstructing the local inquiry into Zacarias Moussaoui and accused Mueller personally of misrepresenting the bureau's handling of the case. Mueller quickly announced that he had referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation. A Senate aide told me that Mueller's willingness to air the problemseven at the risk of adverse publicityhad won him few friends inside the Bush Administration. "He's had his hand slapped by the Justice Department," the official said, "and he's having problems with the White House."
Mueller does have the support, thus far, of the often skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee, under Senator Leahy, began extensive oversight hearings into the F.B.I. last yearthe first comprehensive hearings in two decades. "He inherited a mess," Leahy said. "The F.B.I. has improved since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. It doesn't go around blackmailing members of Congress anymore. But it still has a 'We don't make mistakes or admit mistakes' culture." Mueller seems to be committed to changing that attitude, Leahy told me. "I have confidence in him, and it will continue as long as we see a bureau that really wants to correct its mistakes. Mueller's best defenseand his best offenseis to be as forthcoming with Congress as possible." The Senator added, "White Houses come and go, but he has a ten-year tenure."
Since the hijackings, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. have gone to great lengths to improve coöperation, and C.I.A. personnel are assigned to F.B.I. offices. In some basic ways, however, the F.B.I. still doesn't work. The bureau, one of Mueller's aides said, is undergoing an enormous and painful change in its day-to-day approach to investigations. "The mission now is not just to put handcuffs on people and throw them into jail but to stop acts of terrorism in the future. A lot of people here are not prepared to radically change their way of doing business, and it's frustrating for many agents, with their black-and-white way of looking at the world. The F.B.I.'s priority now is to get information to prevent the next eventeven if it means we lose the case." The transition will lead to many forced early retirements. "There hasn't been time to build up a cadre of people with the right skills," the aide said. One inevitable problem is that the most significant of Mueller's changessuch as the recruitment and hiring of experts in foreign languages, area studies, and computer technologywill not pay dividends for years.
A longtime clandestine C.I.A. operative was skeptical about the rival agency's ability to transform itself. "They're cops," he said of the F.B.I. agents. "They spent their careers trying to catch bank robbers while we spent ours trying to rob banks."
The Administration did not respond passively to the recent wave of media reports of warnings gone unheeded. It went on the offensive. Vice-President Dick Cheney warned against "incendiary rhetoric," and said that the criticism from Democrats about the missed messages was "thoroughly irresponsible of national leaders in a time of war." Other Cabinet members issued dire public warnings of increased terrorism threatsbased not on specific information but on more "chatter," in various corners of the Islamic world. In earlier interviews with me, senior F.B.I. counterterrorism officials had made a point of criticizing such vague warnings. "Is there some C.Y.A."cover your ass"involved when officials talk about threats to power supplies, or banks, or malls?" one senior F.B.I. official asked. "Of course there is."
"Puffing up the threat because of a political interest is a disservice," the official added. When such threats are unfulfilled, the result is that "the country lowers its guard. And that kind of flippancy is what we don't need now. The American people are going back to sleep."
Another F.B.I. official depicted the question of when to warn the public as a "lose-lose" situation. "Say we get a report that three Al Qaeda guys are driving up from Mexico to blow up an unspecified mall in Dallas," the official said. "What do you want to be told?" He added, "We know the power of the people. Do we want you calling us if your neighbor is turning in to his driveway at two in the morning?" The bureau responded to three hundred calls about suspicious packages between January 1st and September 10th of 2001. After September 11th, the official said, "we received fifty-four thousand calls and physically responded to fourteen thousand of them." Even now, according to another official, scores of tips arrive every day from overseas, many of them relayed by C.I.A. sources that are known to pay for such information. "And the C.I.A. is happy to forward them to us," he noted. "Then it's not the C.I.A.'s problem."
Stories of supposed terrorist sightings have also become common inside the airline industrya part of its post-September 11th folklore. One widely repeated tale involves a stewardess who flew with a man dressed as a captainhe had hitched a ride, as crew members often dowhom she later recognized as Mohammed Atta. Many in the industry, it seems, know someone who knows someone who saw one or another of the September 11th terrorists in captains' uniforms in cockpit jumpseats.
There also has been a series of jarring alerts from federal health agencies and the Office of Homeland Security depicting the far-reaching threat posed by biological warfare or the possible use of fissile materials by Al Qaeda. One public-health official who has participated in Homeland Security discussions described the group as being overwhelmed by the potential threat to America's water supply, electrical grids, oil depots, and even the wholesale processing of milk. "Where do we start?" he said. "So many threats. We're like deer in the headlights."
"Traditionally, when Americans have had a war, they go and find the enemy, defeat it on the battlefield, and come home to replant," a senior F.B.I. official said. The war against terrorism is a long-term struggle and has no borders. "We need maturity when it comes to protecting our society," the official went on. "We shouldn't profoundly change our system, but we need a balance. Democracy is a messy business." Meanwhile, the terrorists won't go away. Another senior F.B.I. official said, "They'd like nothing better than to regroup and come back."