The Looming Tower

How Does the FBI's Performance Stack Up in the End?
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 9 2006 6:58 AM

The Looming Tower

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Larry,

Very convincing, thanks. One short comment on your exegesis: This notion of takfir, or political excommunication within Islam, that you mention Zawahiri introduced to Bin Laden is crucial, I think, for understanding al-Qaida's rationale for the murder of innocents. I'm sure you're right that Zawahiri had a deeper engagement with the precepts, roots, and modern variations of takfir than Osama does, but it's worth noting that Bin Laden grew up, too, in a Saudi Arabia whose official theocracy, as you know from your long stints in the kingdom, spends an appalling amount of time debating who is a proper Muslim and who is not. (Imagine if America's major television networks devoted hours of prime time to discussions of whether Mormons are true Christians.) Saudi Arabia's official clerics may not think of themselves as takfiris, but that is too often the thrust of their theology. The concept of takfir is an ideal rationalization for violence, because anyone can claim the authority to identify unbelievers; it has within it the same paranoid, circular logic that produced the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. It's an ethos ripe for promoting a movement like al-Qaida, although increasingly there seems to be a recognition among ordinary Muslims, and even on television networks like Al Jazeera, of the dangers takfiris have created.

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But let's move on, as you suggested, to the comparatively simple observation that our government isn't especially competent. One of The Looming Tower's important contributions is its detailed and empathetic account of the FBI's attempts to identify the threat al-Qaida posed to the United States, and then to identify and arrest some of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. In Ghost Wars, I worked hard to piece together a similar account of the CIA and its front-line officers during the 1980s and 1990s, and to a lesser extent at the White House. But I was always aware that a key part of the story was unfolding at the FBI. Until I read your book, I had been influenced by the judgments of the former National Security Council counterterrorism aides Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, who worked for Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism director at the White House. The pair offered scathing assessments of the FBI's work against al-Qaida in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror. I had also been influenced by The 9/11 Commission Report, which echoed Benjamin and Simon in concluding, among other things, that the FBI "did not have an effective intelligence collection effort."

Your reporting sets the balance right, in my view, by documenting the expertise and commitment displayed by the relatively small team of FBI agents assigned to the pre-9/11 investigations and prosecutions of al-Qaida. I was especially fascinated to learn that the FBI had made investigative contact during the mid-1990s with Ali Mohammed, who escorted Ayman al-Zawahiri around the United States on a fund-raising tour in 1993; you call Mohammed "a singular figure in the history of espionage," and your reporting certainly bears that out. (There is yet another pre-9/11 narrative still waiting to be told: one that took place inside the civilian Justice Department and among the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, including the now-famous Patrick Fitzgerald, who helped prosecute the Africa embassy-bombings cases—an important but less sexy story since it involves lawyers. Their internal and often classified debates about how to apply the rule of law to an enemy like al-Qaida would probably strike us as quite relevant today.)

Because you were writing a narrative and not a commission report, I was left with  several scorecard-type questions. In assessing an agency like the FBI or the CIA and its performance prior to a surprise attack like Sept. 11, it seems to me that there are two distinct aspects to consider. On the one hand, there is the agency's tactical performance, involving operations, investigations, interagency communication, and so on. On the other hand, there is the agency's strategic performance—to what extent its leadership and key officers understood the nature of the threat they faced, and to what extent they used the levers of leadership to issue warnings or do something about the enemy they had identified.

One of the most common complaints about the FBI's pre-9/11 performance is that the agency did not tell the White House what it knew about al-Qaida or what it was doing to track and stop the organization—outside of limited, informal, friendship-rooted contacts between Clarke and the legendary FBI agent John O'Neill, who is an important character in your book. Moreover, this line of criticism continues, FBI director Louis Freeh was deeply estranged from Clinton—neither liked the other, and Freeh had a very correct sense of the FBI's independence as a policing agency. As a result, a relationship crucial to national security failed at a leadership level, even as FBI agents were doing good investigative work out in the field. What do you think of Freeh? He does not surface much in your narrative. Was he a good director, in the view of your FBI sources? What were his strengths and weaknesses in the effort against al-Qaida, do you think? Did Freeh's prickly attitude about Clinton inhibit the nation's effort to respond to the al-Qaida threat—or is that aspect of the failure properly attributed to Clinton himself, and later to Bush?

One last quick question: To what extent, in your opinion, was the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks a failure of intelligence (or law enforcement)—a failure to operate successfully in the field, by arresting or killing al-Qaida leaders and cadres before they could kill Americans? And to what extent was it a broader failure of foreign policy and governance—a failure to recognize, for example, that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan had become a safe headquarters for conspirators seeking to murder Americans and then to do something about that difficult problem? Of course, it's not an either/or proposition, but how should this balance be described, in your view, after all the reporting at the FBI you have done?

Steve

Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. He previously worked as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor at the Washington Post.