Of Zipped Lips and Blown Tips


By Richard S. Dunham Despite howls from civil libertarians on the Left and the Right, Attorney General John Ashcroft has taken the view -- to borrow a propaganda slogan from World War II -- that in wartime, "loose lips sink ships." Soon after September 11, Ashcroft shrouded himself and his department's policymaking in a cloak of secrecy, from the closed military trials he endorsed for suspected foreign terrorists to the Justice Dept. records that he suddenly declared to be off-limits to public scrutiny.

Indeed, the Attorney General was instrumental in a clampdown on the flow of government information, pulling down pages from federal Web sites and instructing executive-branch agencies on how to be even more stingy about the documents they release to the public. Amid a growing scandal in his own department's old crown jewel, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ashcroft is learning the hard way that the converse of the old saying holds true, too. What about tight lips and national security? Trying too hard to control the flow of information can have adverse consequences as well.

ROADBLOCKS. On the surface, the FBI's latest embarrassment seems like an internal matter. Agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix sent warnings to the folks in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, but their words were ignored. The FBI's Minneapolis whistleblower, Agent and General Counsel Coleen Rowley, takes issue with FBI Director Robert Mueller's assertion that no information was available to the bureau that could have allowed it to foresee or avert the al Qaeda plot. Rowley says higher-ups at headquarters erected roadblocks that prevented field agents from pursuing suspicions that Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th highjacker," was part of a larger conspiracy involving flight training and airplanes.

European intelligence services reportedly told the Central Intelligence Agency that Moussaoui was long suspected of being a terrorist. But without the FBI's help, the CIA couldn't put the pieces together. What's more, midlevel Justice Dept. officials apparently rejected the efforts of Minneapolis FBI agents to obtain a search warrant for Moussaoui's computer last summer, reportedly citing a lack of evidence. When the department finally pressed for a search warrant in the aftermath of September 11, it was too late.

There's no evidence to date that Ashcroft was aware of any of this behind-the-scenes drama. The Attorney General says he only recently became aware of the suspicions of the Phoenix and Minneapolis agents. That may be so.

THE BUCK STOPS WHERE? But it's also fair to ask whether Ashcroft bears any responsibility for the FBI's internal culture of secrecy or Justice's reluctance to be aggressive in seeking search warrants. After all, law-enforcement personnel who ultimately report to him had credible, useful information about a potential terrorist threat last summer, and the tips never reached the White House or the President, who could have tied it to theoretical highjacking warnings he received at an Aug. 6 briefing.

The American public seems genuinely conflicted about a possible intelligence failure. A May 19 ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that 53% believe the U.S. government could have done more to prevent the September 11 attacks, while 43% said the feds did all they could reasonably do. An identical 53% thinks the FBI mistakes amount to negligence. (See BW Online's latest reader poll: What's Your Take on Terror Warnings?)

Commentators across the political spectrum are chalking up the FBI scandal to the bureau's insular culture. At a minimum, the Attorney General should have done more to change the culture of the FBI, which resulted in numerous controversies during the tenure of Mueller's predecessor, Louis Freeh. Ashcroft -- not Freeh or Mueller -- is the top guy here. Janet Reno, Ashcroft's lightning rod of a predecessor, took responsibility for FBI actions during her eight years in office. Perhaps Ashcroft, who seems to have been laying low in recent weeks, should search his soul and discuss his feelings about what has gone on.

NEEDED REMEDIES. While few would argue with the proposition that government needs to protect its secrets in wartime, perhaps Ashcroft has his priorities backwards. Rather than working to prevent information from bubbling up, even to the top of the FBI, maybe the focus should be handling such secret information more effectively.

It's not too late for Ashcroft to state in no uncertain terms that the FBI must change its old ways of doing business and offer policy remedies. Who knows? Perhaps the FBI will pass along vital information that prevents future acts of terrorism. It's true that intelligence successes never get the recognition they deserve. But with the wide range of threats being publicized by the Justice Dept., there's no time for the Attorney General to waste. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online


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