The Battle Within: Everything Changed in the Military-Intelligence Complex after 9/11. or So Its Leaders Said. How Fighting in Our Ranks Affects the War on Terror

By Thomas, Evan; Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Battle Within: Everything Changed in the Military-Intelligence Complex after 9/11. or So Its Leaders Said. How Fighting in Our Ranks Affects the War on Terror


Thomas, Evan, Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman

FBI agents don't like to go into mosques. The so-called right of sanctuary was drummed into young FBI agents during their training at Quantico: "You don't chase a thief into the cathedral." The message was reinforced over time by political correctness and the example of careers ruined by rule-breaking. Step on someone's civil liberties, FBI agents learned by rote and by painful history, and you can wind up using your retirement savings to pay for a lawyer at the inevitable congressional inquisition.

But then came the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the strong suspicion that some of the hijackers had done their plotting in mosques. Suddenly the rules changed. Agents were told to be more "proactive," to follow the terrorist trail wherever it led, even into a religious sanctuary. The message from headquarters was: Don't be afraid to take risks. We're behind you. (That is, hedged FBI Director Robert Mueller, as long as the agent was operating in "good faith.") Down on the street, the "brick agents" heard the exhortation to go forth and be bold, but they remained wary. What if an undercover operation got blown? What if an FBI agent was caught bugging a mosque? When the investigative reporters began calling late at night and the subpoenas arrived in the mail, would the higher-ups at headquarters really stand by them? Or would the lowly agents be left holding the bag?

Last winter, a squad of FBI agents, assigned to watch a radical imam in an American city on the East Coast, pondered the risks. The imam had been detected making contact with suspected Qaeda terrorists around the world. In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the case had become one of the bureau's most urgent priorities. President George W. Bush was kept informed at his morning briefing on the terrorist "Threat Matrix." The agents staked out the suspected imam around the clock, sitting in their idling cars, sipping watery coffee and eating sugar doughnuts to stay awake. They eavesdropped on his home phone. But they did not go into his mosque. "We stayed out of there with our people and our technology," said one agent involved in the case, which remains an active investigation. The calculation, one FBI official told NEWSWEEK, was simple: "I'm going to make sure I'm on solid legal ground here. I don't care how much the director wants to report the existence of an Al Qaeda cell to the president in a Matrix briefing. I'm not going to be suspended or fired over this."

Were these agents being a little too careful? Putting the risk to their careers over the risk of a deadly terrorist attack? Or were they merely being prudent, refusing to be swept away by the hysteria of the moment? Would their bosses really back them up if they got caught going over the line? In the months after the 9/11 attacks, these sorts of questions routinely got asked up and down the ranks of the FBI--and not just the FBI but the CIA and the military and the entire national-security establishment.

It has become a cliche by now that the terrorist attacks two years ago changed everything: "9/11 changed what we do forever. Forever," said Jim Pavitt, the CIA deputy director for Operations, interviewed by NEWSWEEK in his seventh-floor office at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The CIA, he says, is hiring more spies, running more risky covert operations, reaching out to more (sometimes unsavory) allies in the war on terror.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told NEWSWEEK that the Bush administration had been itching to take a more "forward leaning" approach to terrorism even before 9/11. On the eve of the Inauguration, Rumsfeld and President Bush had discussed how the United States looked soft to the rest of the world. Terrorists believed that "all you have to do is bloody us in the nose and we'll go away," said Rumsfeld. The night of the 9/11 attacks, Bush told his top advisers that he wanted "boots on the ground" to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. …

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