In his radio address last week, Bush justified warrantless wiretaps by invoking the case of two 9/11 hijackers whom the feds failed to trace before the attacks. Bush declared, ”
Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar, communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn’t know they were here, until it was too late.”Bush neglected to mention that the two culprits were renting rooms in the house of an FBI informant prior to the hijacking.
These two known Al-Qaeda operatives were at a summit of terrorist plotters in Malaysia in 2000. The CIA knew that the two already possessed visas permitting them to travel to the United States. Yet the CIA failed to place their names on the “terrorist watch list,” which would have alerted other federal agencies to the danger and blocked them from entering the United States. Sen. Richard Shelby observed in late 2002 that the CIA’s negligence “allowed at least two such terrorists the opportunity to live, move, and prepare for the attacks without hindrance from the very federal officials whose job it is to find them.”On August 23, 2001 the CIA finally placed the names of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi on the terrorist watch list and notified the FBI that the two men were likely somewhere in the United States. As the 2002 report of the Joint Congressional Intelligence committees noted, congressional report noted, “Other potentially useful federal agencies were apparently not fully enlisted in that effort: representatives of the State Department, the FAA, and the INS all testified that, prior to September 11th, their agencies were not asked to utilize their own information databases as part of the effort to find al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. An FAA representative testified that he believes that, had the FAA been given the names of the two individuals, they would have ‘picked them up in the reservations system.’”
Once the CIA notified the FBI of the presence in the United States of two suspected terrorists, the FBI could have quickly run a few Internet searches to snare the San Diego residential address of al-Mihdhar. But this step was not taken until after the 9/11 attacks. Both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi rented rooms in the house of an FBI informant while they attended flight school in San Diego. An FBI case agent was aware that his informant had a couple of Saudis staying with him but had no curiosity about the guests. Al-Mihdhar, who piloted the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, made multiple phone calls to a suspected terrorist facility in the Middle East. (The Bush administration succeeded in prohibiting any testimony from the landlord-informant to the joint congressional committee investigating the 9/11 debacle.)
Perhaps Bush considered these facts and drew the natural Washington conclusion: the more federal agencies screw up, the more entitled Bush becomes to absolute power.
Bush closed his radio address by denouncing the media for disclosing the administration’s warrantless wiretaps: “Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country.” It is illegal to reveal that the federal government is breaking the law. And disclosing government crimes is infinitely worse than anything the government did or could do.
It remains to be seen whether the uproar over Bush’s illegal wiretaps fades away – or is knocked off the radar screen by new terrorist attack warnings or by a fresh sex scandal in Hollywood.