The evidence against Lotfi Raissi seemed pretty damning. The Algerian pilot had allegedly given flying instructions to four of the suspected hijackers in the suicide attacks on New York and Washington. Raissi swore that he was totally innocent, but investigators had video pictures of the man with the hijackers, as well as correspondence and phone records. Yet a few days after Raissi's arrest at his home near London's Heathrow Airport in the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocity, Britain's Scotland Yard was about to let the man go. It seems that British law does not allow the authorities to hold a man in custody merely because American law enforcement believes he might be a material witness to a crime committed in the United States. American investigators had to scramble to contrive a charge against Raissi. The crime? On his application for a pilot's license, Raissi allegedly failed to disclose a minor arrest for theft and an old knee injury.
So, with creaks and groans, do the wheels of justice grind on to fight the crime of the new century. Many frightened Americans would like to hunt down and kill any terrorists--along with their aiders and abettors--as quickly as possible, and worry about civil liberties later. But the fact is that several centuries of the rule of law, as well as long-standing bureaucratic and national rivalries, guarantee that the shadow war against terrorism will be groping, erratic and frustrating. Whether it will be successful ultimately depends on cooperation between spies, both at home and abroad. Trust is not a quality generally associated with espionage. But in its battle against a threat that seems at once global, seamless and suicidal, the American intelligence community is going to need extraordinary cooperation from a patchwork of foreign security services that sometimes seem more devoted to stonewalling or subverting each other than to engaging a common enemy.
First, American intelligence services will have to stop fighting each other. The CIA, which spies abroad, and the FBI, which chases criminals at home and abroad, have only recently begun cooperating better, and their cultures still clash. The United States is combating terrorism with a rickety structure built a half century ago to contain global communism. Generally speaking, the FBI has been better at solving crimes than preventing them. The gumshoes are dogged about dragnets (almost 500 people have been arrested so far in the hijacking investigation). But their intelligence analysts, hobbled by aging computers, are not highly esteemed by the rest of the intelligence community. "The FBI thinks that Islamic terrorists are organized just like the Mafia," says a former high-ranking CIA official. "They pull out their wiring diagram for the Gambino family and substitute the name Al Qaeda." The FBI is notorious for not sharing information with other agencies, while hogging any credit. (Insiders' joke: dogs from the FBI, the DEA, Customs and the Department of Agriculture are sent to sniff a mysterious package. The DEA dog finds drugs, the Customs dog finds money and the Agriculture Department dog finds diseased meat. The FBI dog snorts the drugs, buries the money, eats the meat--and issues a press release.)
President George W. Bush has appointed a special assistant for Homeland Security, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, to make the agencies work together. But unless Ridge is given control over budgets and hiring and firing--highly unlikely--bureaucratic rivalries will continue to undercut investigations and intelligence gathering.
Battered by scandals, the CIA has been struggling with low morale. Former CIA officials and case officers are very doubtful about the agency's ability to penetrate the terror cells of Islamic extremists. "The Company" has fewer Arab-speaking case officers and less regional expertise than it did during the cold war. The agency's best assets have always been "walk-ins," disaffected foreign nationals who offer to spy against their own country. …