WASHINGTON – The Clinton administration “de-emphasized” fighting Arab international terrorism to focus on domestic terrorism – namely, white “right-wing” militia groups – which led to the FBI ignoring Arab nationals flocking to U.S. flight
schools, veteran FBI agents told WorldNetDaily.
They say the shift was so dramatic at the FBI that dozens of boxes of evidence that agents gathered in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case were never analyzed – until it was too late. The evidence held valuable clues to al-Qaida’s network and operations, they say.
Some 40 boxes of material left over from the WTC investigation, which lasted through the late ’90s, “were never gone through,” said one Washington-based agent familiar with the probe. Another seven to eight boxes of evidence from the Manila, Philippines, side of the investigation also were never looked at, he added.
“It was data tailor-made for analysis,” the agent said.
The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – now one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, with a U.S. bounty as high as Osama bin Laden’s – is accused of working with Ramzi Yousef in the first bombing of the WTC, which left six dead and more than 1,000 injured. Yousef was convicted in 1998.
While living in Manila in 1995, Mohammed and Yousef, his nephew, were also accused of plotting to blow up several trans-Pacific airliners heading for the U.S. Yousef, moreover, is believed to have planned to crash a plane into CIA headquarters.
Meanwhile, despite evidence of an increased threat to U.S. security from such Islamic terrorist groups, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and his former deputy, Robert “Bear” Bryant, were shifting the bureau’s counter-terrorism efforts to combatting threats from anti-government militia groups, violent white supremacists, anti-abortion groups and other “right-wing extremists.”
“When I left in 1998, domestic terrorism was the No. 1 priority,” said retired FBI agent Ivian C. Smith, former head of the analysis, budget and training section of the bureau’s National Security Division.
“And as far as I know, it was still a higher priority than foreign terrorism on Sept. 11 (2001),” he said in an exclusive WorldNetDaily interview.
Other agents, speaking on condition of anonymity, say pressure to change priorities came from the White House.
After the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, President Clinton made great political hay of the tragedy by drawing parallels between the anti-government extremists behind the plot and the anti-big-government Republican revolution that had swept Congress.
Also, Bryant moved FBI counterterrorism analysts over to tracking right-wing groups. He eventually grouped all analysts together at headquarters, putting them under operations staff in what he called the Investigative Support Division, whereupon agents say analysts were constantly being diverted to areas other than their specialty, such as helping in criminal prosecutions.
Around the same time, he moved the bureau’s counterterrorism programs under its National Security Division, and “de-emphasized” the bureau’s counterintelligence program, agents say.
They say intelligence-gathering on foreign threats suffered as a result.
Veteran FBI agents say intelligence is the best weapon against terrorism – something Bryant didn’t get.
“Bear Bryant had very little appreciation for the whole thing,” said one agent.
Attempts to reach Bryant for comment were unsuccessful.
He also made the mistake of subordinating terrorism analysts to operations staff, agents say, because the analysts ended up just telling their bosses what they wanted to hear, rather than giving them fresh analysis.
“Operations agents working on terrorism leads need predictive, forward-looking analysis, but they weren’t getting that kind of raw data from analysts,” Smith said.
“Operations agents were writing the analysts’ performance evaluations,” he continued, “so the analysts weren’t free to conduct truly independent analysis.”
As a result, “counterterrorism analysts were used more as clerks,” said another agent.
This was the counterterrorism system in place Sept. 11.
About three weeks after Sept. 11, FBI Director Robert Mueller disbanded Bryant’s Investigative Support Division.
However, the bureau’s new chief of counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations, Dale Watson, was a protege of Bryant.
“He was one of Bear Bryant’s favorites,” an agent said.
As one of Mueller’s executive assistant directors, Watson – who agents complain has no real experience outside headquarters (he never headed a field office nor was an inspector) – is now one of the top four officials in the FBI.
The FBI did not return calls for this story.
But former Clinton officials defend the FBI’s counterterrorism shift by pointing to the alarming rise in domestic terrorism cases in the ’90s – from Waco to Oklahoma City to the Atlanta Olympics bombing. They also cite the Unabomber case.
Difference is, agents point out, those home-grown attacks came from different sources, all unconnected, while the foreign threats all came from one source – radical Islam, and mainly al-Qaida.
Indeed, the Clinton administration emphasized tracking home-grown terrorism, despite a clear pattern of al-Qaida terrorism against U.S. and U.S. assets overseas – from the WTC bombing to the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa (1998) to the USS Cole bombing (2000). There were also two attacks on U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996. And while the domestic terrorism for the most part stopped, the foreign terrorism didn’t, culminating in another attack on the WTC and also on the Pentagon.
Agents told WorldNetDaily that the late John O’Neill, the FBI’s lead investigator in the Cole case, was nearly fired by Deputy FBI Director Thomas Pickard for pressing Yemeni officials too hard to cooperate. Pickard, who initially headed the Sept. 11 probe before suddenly retiring just two months later, was earlier this year quoted as saying he was uneasy with agents questioning Muslims in America after the attacks.
“I don’t want to see them feeling intimidated by us,” he told the Washington Post. “Nobody feels good when an FBI agent knocks on the door.”
The Clinton-era emphasis on “right-wing” terrorism wasn’t limited to the FBI. Other federal law enforcement branches also focused on the domestic threat from militia groups over the foreign threat from Islamic groups.