Can the FBI Keep Us Safe?

ByABC News via logo
March 23, 2006, 7:11 AM

March 23, 2006 — -- At the nation's top terror trial this week, the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, witnesses have provided a blueprint of failure before Sept. 11, 2001. Their damning testimony is the story of missed opportunities and a failure to connect the dots before the massive attack.

FBI agent Harry Samit, who arrested Moussaoui -- an avowed al Qaeda zealot -- testified this week that he had tried to tell his bosses on 70 occasions about his fears that Moussaoui was a terrorist intent on hijacking a plane.

"We need to trust the instincts of the good people," said George Terwilliger, former deputy attorney general. "Their superiors need to get out of the way and support what it is that they need to do."

Samit told the jury that he had been largely ignored and that the FBI leadership was guilty of "criminal negligence."

Lee Hamilton, vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, said Moussaoui was a huge opportunity missed.

"Let's suppose, for example, that we publicized the fact that we were arresting Moussaoui," he said. "What might that have done with regard to the hijackers? Would they have panicked? Would they have decided to delay the attack?"

Moussaoui's trial is reopening old wounds, the political fallout growing with embarrassing details spilling out every day.

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote: "We could have cracked the 9/11 plot if the FBI wasn't run by dunces."

It turns out, neither the attorney general nor the acting FBI director was warned about Moussaoui -- even though the CIA director received an August 2001 briefing titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly."

In another bizarre twist, a witness testified this week that Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, had abandoned a plane near a runway -- blocking a commercial jet at Miami's airport. There was little or no follow-up by U.S. aviation officials.

Critics worry that the U.S. government may miss a terrorism lead because of antiquated technology. FBI agents in New York do not have ready access to BlackBerrys. The FBI has yet to put in place a computer system -- or virtual case file -- to help connect the dots.