|Posted: June 5, 2002
1:00 a.m. Eastern
By Paul Sperry
© 2002 WorldNetDaily.com
WASHINGTON - Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy Thursday will take the FBI to task for missing terror warnings before Sept. 11. But it was Leahy, Hill sources say, who in 2000 blocked FBI and other reforms that might have prevented the attacks.
Sen. Patrick Leahy
The amazingly prescient reforms were first proposed in a 64-page counterterrorism report delivered June 5, 2000, to Congress. Hill leaders, in the wake of the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, commissioned the nearly $2 million study, which called for much of the same FBI intelligence-sharing and -gathering reforms announced last week.
"The guidelines the FBI is changing now are ones we said should have been changed and revised two years ago," said former CIA Director James Woolsey, one of the authors of the report, in an exclusive interview with WorldNetDaily.
Yet Leahy and other Democrats bristled at many of the key proposals, which they viewed as too intrusive and discriminatory toward foreigners, and the entire final report - "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism" - collected dust on Capitol office shelves.
Many of the same proposals, however, have been incorporated in anti-terrorism legislation passed since Sept. 11, such as the Patriot Act.
"Taken as a whole, perhaps" the report"s proposals could have headed off the attacks if implemented, said Maurice Sonnenberg, vice chairman of the congressionally sponsored National Commission on Terrorism, in a recent interview.
Sonnenberg, Woolsey and the eight other commission members, along with their staff, spent about six months in 1999 and 2000 conducting some 120 interviews with counterterrorism experts inside and outside government. They also met with officials in Israel and other countries.
Their conclusions about the terror threat and their recommendations for protecting America, as it turns out, were right on target.
The bipartisan panel warned that religiously motivated groups, namely al-Qaida, were hellbent on inflicting "mass casualties on American soil."
They "represent a growing trend toward hatred of the United States," it said, and "may lack a concrete political goal other than to punish their enemies by killing as many of them as possible."
The report even cited the risk of such terrorists slipping into the U.S. as foreign students and then launching attacks here.
Commissioners slammed the FBI, the core agency responsible for investigating terrorism, for throwing "bureaucratic and cultural obstacles" in the way of field agents trying to open probes of terrorist suspects.
"A full investigation may be opened where there is a reasonable indication of a criminal violation, which is described as a standard "substantially lower than probable cause,"" the report advised.
Yet just weeks before Sept. 11, supervisors at FBI headquarters here fought Minneapolis agents seeking a warrant to search alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui"s apartment and computer, claiming they didn"t have enough cause. (Agents cited two criminal violations in their request.)
The commission report, written more than a year earlier, said FBI guidelines contribute to "a risk-averse culture that causes some agents to refrain from taking prompt action against suspected terrorists."
It urged the FBI to ease rules for opening such investigations, and "direct agents in the field to investigate terrorist activity vigorously, using the full extent of their authority."
All told, the panel made more than 40 specific recommendations to Congress, including:
Letting the CIA recruit "unsavory sources" to infiltrate and spy on terrorist cells.
Establishing at the FBI a "cadre of reports officers to distill and disseminate terrorism-related information, once it is collected," to the CIA and other agencies, since "intelligence is the best weapon against terrorism."
Making it easier for FBI agents to get authority from the Justice Department to conduct electronic surveillance on terrorist suspects.
Adding Afghanistan to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, cutting off aid and subjecting it to full sanctions.
Creating a joint task force including Treasury, IRS and U.S. Customs, to track terrorist fundraising in the U.S., and freeze bank accounts of suspected charities and nonprofits.
Creating a national computer database to track the visa status of foreign students on campuses across the country.
Considering designating Pakistan among foreign governments "not cooperating fully" with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Even though "Pakistan has cooperated on counterterrorism at times," the report said, it "provides safe haven, transit, and moral, political and diplomatic support to several groups engaged in terrorism."
The Bush administration made Pakistan its key ally in the war on terror, yet that country allowed Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen refuge after escaping from Afghanistan in December and is once again dragging its feet in helping U.S. forces track them down.
Copies of the report went out to members of Congress, as well as President Clinton and his national security team, and CIA Director George Tenet and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Yet none of the recommendations was implemented.
"It was frustrating," said Suzanne Spaulding, executive director of the National Commission on Terrorism. "We were disappointed."
In a WorldNetDaily interview, she says panel members were particularly surprised that officials didn"t at least adopt their idea to form a task force to crack down on terrorist fundraising, which seemed like an obvious countermeasure.
Monitoring the immigration status of foreign students seemed a logical and relatively easy step, Woolsey says, since a pilot computer program had already been started in 1996.
"We couldn"t imagine them not doing such a recommendation," he said.
Not all members of Congress sneezed at the report.
Sen. Jon Kyl made "a heroic effort" to pass the reforms, Woolsey said.
The Arizona Republican called commission members before his Technology, Terrorism and Government Information subcommittee to testify on their proposals.
And he introduced with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a counterterrorism bill that incorporated many of them.
Opposition to bill
But Hill sources say the measure was blocked primarily by Democrats led by Leahy, D-Vt., at the time the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Leahy objected to, among other things, recommendations making it easier for the FBI to obtain warrants to search suspected terrorists" computers and sniff their e-mail.
"Leahy objected to key provisions in the bill, and held it up," a Senate aide told WorldNetDaily.
"When it finally passed at the end of 2000, it was too watered down and diluted to have much effect," the aide said. "And coming as it did so late in the year, the House didn"t really want to take it up."
Leahy said through a spokesman that Attorney General Janet Reno"s office agreed with some of his objections, and that he supported the bill after controversial provisions were stripped from it.
"At the time, Sen. Leahy was the ranking (minority) member of the (Judiciary) committee, and just as it"s (GOP) Sen. (Orrin) Hatch"s role now, he was taking into consideration concerns by the Department of Justice about this bill," said Leahy aide David Carle in a WorldNetDaily interview.
"Once the Department of Justice"s issues were resolved, the senator worked with the bill"s sponsors - Sen. Kyl and Sen. Feinstein - to help get it passed," he said.
"It died in the House," Carle added, emphasizing that the House was controlled by Republicans.
Spaulding, who also praised Kyl"s efforts, says Democrats were also swayed by media reports that "mischaracterized" the tracking of foreign students as "spying."
The report explained that "thousands of people from countries officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism currently study in the United States," and though many enter on valid visas (as the 19 hijackers did), many overstay their visas and remain here to live.
"Seven years ago," the report continued, "investigators discovered that one of the terrorists involved in bombing the World Trade Center had entered the United States on a student visa, dropped out, and remained illegally."
"Today, there is no mechanism for ensuring the same thing won"t happen again," it said.
Woolsey says universities also fought the proposal.
"From the uproar from university lobbyists, you would have thought we had proposed jackbooted SS agents following foreigners around on campus," he said.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., also frowned on the report, taking exception in particular to its proposal to consider listing Greece along with Pakistan as a country not fully cooperating in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, says Spaulding, chairwoman of the American Bar Association"s standing committee on law and national security.
Read the National Commission on Terrorism"s full report, "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism."