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.
They were unwittingly aided by a web of bureaucratic red tape in the agencies that were supposed to stop them. A staff director of the joint congressional committee summed it up by saying, "FBI field offices around the country were 'clueless' with regard to counter-terrorism and al Qaeda and did not make them priorities." This was vigorously denied by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who defended the agency and blamed Congress for turning down his repeated requests for additional manpower and for money to update the FBI's outmoded computer systems.
As for airport security, any traveler could see that the airlines were doing it on the cheap. They hired minimum wage workers, who had little training and lax supervision; security at some American airports had become a bad joke and it's no wonder that the hijackers were able to smuggle weapons aboard the doomed flights. When it comes to assessing blame for what went wrong, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deserve their share.
It's unlikely that the full story of the government's failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks will become known in the foreseeable future. The Senate has voted to create an independent commission that would have the power to investigate every aspect of intelligence and law enforcement actions leading up to the disaster. However, the House Republican leadership and the Bush administration are trying to block it on grounds that a full investigation could compromise national security by revealing too much of what went wrong. It may be left to historians in the distant future to gain access to the documents that will tell the story. Unfortunately, those historians won't be able to question the men who made the crucial decisions and no one will ever be held accountable.
Last month, terrorist attacks by Islamic groups increased around the world and some have been linked to al Qaeda operations. They're still in business and still determined to strike targets inside the United States. Firefighters - and everyone else - can only hope that this country's intelligence and law enforcement agencies have learned the lessons of 9/11 and are more effective today than they were 14 months ago.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.