The stumbling investigation over what went wrong inside America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks may seem irrelevant to firefighters, but the fire-rescue service has a huge stake in this problem because local fire departments are faced with the...
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The stumbling investigation over what went wrong inside America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks may seem irrelevant to firefighters, but the fire-rescue service has a huge stake in this problem because local fire departments are faced with the consequences when those agencies fail to stop terrorists before they strike. In the case of 9/11, they appear to have failed badly and cost the lives of almost 3,000 innocent people; of those, 347 were New York firefighters - 343 active FDNY members, three FDNY retirees working as fire safety directors and one member of the New York Fire Patrol.
No one questions the integrity of the dedicated professionals who work for the CIA, the FBI and other organizations involved in the defense against terrorism. They are just as committed to their jobs as any firefighter. But legitimate questions have been raised about the leadership and competence of these agencies and how they went about doing their jobs in the months and years leading up to the attacks.
A series of limited congressional hearings have only scratched the surface, but what emerges is a picture of poor communication within the agencies and with each other. They also uncovered examples of misguided supervision, bad decisions, insufficient resources and a lack of coordination in the government's effort to prevent terrorist attacks. This combination of weaknesses led to a chain of missed opportunities. The sad truth is that the 9/11 terrorists could have been and should have been stopped at several points along the way.
Bureaucratic bungling at the federal level should not surprise the fire-rescue service. In the years following the Oklahoma City and first World Trade Center bombings, fire chiefs frequently came to Washington to plead for more resources and training while warning that there was confusion and a lack of coordination in planning the response to acts of terrorism. But their warnings were ignored and the Clinton administration denied that there was any problem. What no one knew was that the intelligence and law enforcement sides of the anti-terrorism effort were equally chaotic, uncoordinated and unable, or unwilling, to see that they had a problem.
It turns out that the CIA, which is charged with collecting and evaluating information, often failed to inform the FBI, which is responsible for acting on that information. The CIA, for example, knew that al Qaeda leaders - who had been responsible for previous attacks on Americans overseas - were meeting in Malaysia and other countries, but failed to pass it on to the FBI. Even when the future hijackers entered the United States, the CIA refused to share its information with the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Meanwhile, the al Qaeda killing teams were attending American flight schools, going back and forth to Europe and the Middle East, transferring money to various bank accounts and talking by phone to their co-conspirators around the world. No one knows how much of this activity was picked up by the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for intercepting overseas communications of potential enemies, or how much was shared with the FBI or the CIA. As for the INS, it continued to issue visa extensions to one of the terrorists even after he was under a deportation order!
To the credit of the FBI's field agents, several of them picked up the trail on their own and did the best they could to follow up on tips that suspicious Middle Eastern men were paying large amounts of cash at flight schools around the country to learn to fly commercial jets. But the agents were thwarted by their superiors, who wouldn't allow them to expand the investigations - even when the CIA finally reported that two of the suspected terrorists should be put on a "watch list." That was just 19 days before the hijackers flew the planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field.