Editorial: Someone must get to bottom of FBI problem

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 25, 2002

The recent disturbing revelations about lower-level FBI agents’ attempts to raise the alarm about suspected terrorists at flight schools highlights a grave problem in the FBI, and Congress should make sure a comprehensive investigation finds out why the information was treated so carelessly.

When agents in Arizona and Minnesota reported the suspicious activities of several people at flight schools, the information was met with apparent indifference. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to understand that the FBI gets millions of pieces of information, most of which turn out to be useless.

But the warnings in Arizona and Minnesota constituted a pattern, and coupled with other intelligence that Osama bin Laden was plotting airline hijackings, the information could have switched on a few light bulbs. That is, if the information was allowed to get to a high enough level; instead, the bureaucracy appeared to squash it. Indeed, when a Minnesota agent tried to go to the CIA in a desperate attempt to alert somebody before it was too late, she was reprimanded for going to the competing agency.

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That agent has written a 13-page letter to the FBI director detaling her grievance. That letter should be made public so that everybody can see exactly what her accusations are. It’s time the FBI is made accountable, not only as a punitive action for what happened before Sept. 11, but more importantly, so the agency can handle future problems differently.

There is tremendous pressure on the CIA and FBI to be our last line of defense against terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 world. It’s best for the agencies and for the country if the chain-of-command problems that were exhibited last year are cleared up in any way possible.