Nation & World 6/10/02
A wasted FBI
The FBI had a chance to infiltrate an al Qaeda training
camp in the months before the September 11 attacks–and
possibly learn about the coming strike–but the proposal was
rejected by top officials, U.S. News has learned.
special agent in an FBI field office was told by a
confidential informant that he had been invited to a commando
training course at a camp operated by Osama bin Laden's al
Qaeda organization in Af- ghanistan. According to two people
with knowledge of the events, the agent relayed the
informant's remarks to supervisors in the field office, who
passed the information to FBI headquarters in Washington,
where it was referred to the Osama bin Laden unit in the
bureau's Counterterrorism Division.
"Otherwise illegal." The field-office communiqué
asked the Justice Department to authorize what is known as an
"otherwise illegal activity," or OIA, to allow the
confidential in- formant to participate in the terrorist
training course without violating Ameri- can law, the two
sources said. They would not say which of the FBI's 56 field
offices made the request or exactly when it was made.
The bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters rejected the OIA
request, the two sources said, and the confidential informant
did not travel to Afghanistan or meet with al Qaeda
operatives; FBI officials therefore didn't do an "asset
validation" of the informant, a routine but critical exercise
to determine whether information from the source was reliable.
The FBI had no comment.
A principal criticism of the intelligence community after
the attacks has been its inability to infiltrate terrorist
groups. "Why do we have such a paucity of [human intelligence]
assets?" asks Florida Republican Porter Goss, the House
Intelligence Committee chairman. "We didn't take all the risks
we should have taken."
Justice Department guidelines regarding the use of
confidential informants allow an FBI special agent in charge
or a "senior field manager" to approve OIAs in domestic
criminal investigations if they meet the necessary criteria,
which include a blanket prohibition on an informant's
participation in any act of violence. Senior Justice
Department lawyers say requests for OIA authorizations in
international terrorism investigations must be approved by FBI
headquarters. "That takes it completely out of the regulations
[for domestic criminal investigations]," a top official said.
"Anything involving international terrorism, it has to be
vetted at the headquarters level." Both sets of guidelines–the
domestic and the classified international rules–authorize OIAs
to "prevent death, serious bodily injury, or significant
damage to property," the sources said.
The individuals who described the confidential informant's
alleged invitation to the al Qaeda camp said they did not know
whether, had it been approved, it would have led to
information that could have shed light on the planning for the
September 11 attacks. "It was just another step not taken,"
one of the sources said. – Brian