On the other hand, agents saw several of Ashcroft's other ideas as being clearly off base. In particular, agents viewed as pointless Ashcroft's directive that U.S. attorneys write five thousand noncitizens from Middle Eastern countries to ask that they come in for interviews by local police. With more than eleven thousand agents, the FBI could have conducted the interviews quickly, quietly, and far more effectively than local police. In some cities like Los Angeles, that is exactly what happened. The initiative produced virtually no useful information, while needlessly raising concerns of Arab Americans who already feared that they might be targeted unfairly.
"Ashcroft wants to show he is doing something," said a Washington Field Office agent.
Ashcroft's practice of acting as the spokesman for the FBI also troubled agents, who thought the attorney general came across as if he were the FBI director while Mueller was his deputy. Four months after the attacks, Webster mentioned to Mueller and to Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general, that Ashcroft should give Mueller more space. It was important that the FBI "have a certain level of independence," Webster said, both because the bureau might have to investigate administration officials and because of the need to have "clarity of responsibility."
"The troops wonder who is the boss," Webster said to me. "It's better to let the director be the director."
Mueller thought that initially, Ashcroft should take the lead. It would reassure Americans that the FBI and Justice Department were no longer fighting with each other and would also show that the problem- plagued FBI was under control. All along, his idea was that he would eventually assume a higher profile. In any case, on a tour of the Middle East and Asia, Mueller suddenly began giving press conferences by himself; Ashcroft was nowhere to be seen.
When the FBI and later Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge began to sound alerts based on fragmentary intelligence warnings of new attacks, pundits asked, "What should people be alert for?" Most Americans had no experience with security issues and threats. But they learned quickly. On December 22, 2001, an observant flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami noticed Richard C. Reid trying to light plastic explosives packed into the hollowed-out heels of his black suede high-tops. Reid turned out to have al-Qaeda connections. Passengers restrained him, saving the plane from destruction. That is what it meant to be on the alert.
As the FBI began distributing information about the hijackers, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he received from the FBI a list of people to watch for but no photographs, dates of birth, or physical descriptions. He implied that the FBI was withholding the information from the police. But the FBI did not provide the information because it did not have it. Even determining the hijackers' real names had been a challenge.