THE BLOG
03/30/2008 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Skirting the Law Does Not Make Us Safer

FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote the following op-ed almost two weeks ago when an abundance of wishful thinking and the importance and timeliness of the push for FISA changes, investigation of the administration's out-of-control, error-laced terror watch list and other national security-civil liberty issues deluded me into thinking there was a chance of publication in the main stream media. Although one newspaper did apparently give it serious consideration, the op-ed got turned down in the ensuing two weeks by a succession of three different newspapers. So I give up! The blessing in disguise, however, with what would have been otherwise just a waste of time seeking hard print (and the best thing about on-line publication here on the Huffington Post) is that it comes with the ability to insert a couple of links to Glenn Greenwald's expose yesterday of Michael Mukasey's lies. Despite their tears, it's pretty clear that none of the President's men, including this theatrical AG, have any real interest in connecting the dots to make us safer.

Skirting the Law Does Not Make Us Safer

The Bush-Cheney Administration continues to press to gut the FISA law while rationalizing away the erosion of other constitutional protections after 9/11.

The 9-11 Commission, the congressional oversight committees and other national security experts have told us how and why 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were able to successfully attack the United States on 9/11. For those who have forgotten, the general consensus was that 9/11 happened due to "a failure to connect the dots." No expert believed that 9/11 occurred because there were too few dots. Even officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of ample pre-9-11 intelligence, explaining away things like the NSA's failure to translate Al Qaeda conversations (that had been intercepted but not listened to before the attacks) as "like trying to take a sip of water out of a firehose."

The purpose of my (now well-publicized) 12-page memo back in May of 2002 was to better shed light on one of those main clues that had existed before 9/11. Even without a massive electronic monitoring of Americans' e-mails and international telephone calls and without any use of harsh interrogation techniques, FBI investigators had come to possess information about Zacarias Moussaoui which was so probative that it quickly traveled straight up to the highest level of the intelligence community, to the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. He was briefed via PowerPoint entitled: "Fundamentalist Learns to Fly" sometime around August 23, 2001 (or about 2 ½ weeks before 9/11). But for various reasons, the terrorist suspect was not further investigated until after the attacks. The 9/11 Commission subsequently described Moussaoui, as an "Al Qaeda mistake and missed opportunity," the investigation of whom may have led to the center of the Al Qaeda plot if it had been pursued in a timely and effective manner. That's right, we actually found the proverbial needle in the haystack this time but nothing was done with it.

As it turned out, there were other significant pre 9/11 dots that the Bush administration was not eager to share with the public, and which the Senate Intelligence Committee conveniently swept under the rug. The president did not want people to know, for example, that he had been briefed that Osama Bin Laden was "determined to attack" in early August, that his national security advisor Condi Rice had brushed off Richard Clark's warnings in July and that his Attorney General John Ashcroft had ranked terrorism as the Department of Justice's lowest priority in August 2001, scolding the Acting Director of the FBI that summer that he didn't want to hear any more briefings about terrorism. Bush and Cheney fought tooth and nail to keep this truth from being exposed, including opposing investigation by the 9/11 Commission. There were just far too many dots that had been ignored to explain away.

Some things did leak out but it took almost three years for the 9/11 Commission to produce its report. That was plenty of time for the administration to do what they wanted: blindly launch round-ups of innocents; institute illegal monitoring of domestic communications and massive data collection programs about American citizens; conduct torture; launch the unjustified invasion of Iraq (a country with no connections to Al Qaeda); set up the Guantanamo camp where prisoners are detained without even the basic right to habeas corpus; and roll back legal and oversight protections to pre-Watergate times under Nixon.

The oft-repeated mantra took hold that "we have to do something."

All legalities aside, the simple truth is that none of these measures actually addressed any of the pre-9/11 lapses. We have even more intelligence now but no more competence in connecting the dots. Now, rather than a "firehose" of intelligence to get a drink from, we have Niagara Falls. Unsurprisingly, the Justice Department Inspector General's recent audit found the government's "Terror Watch List", reportedly grown to hold as many as 900,000 of us, to be full of inaccuracies. It's mathematically that much harder for analysts to connect any relevant "dots" in the mess of non-relevant (and mostly illegally collected) data and people.

But since the president seems incapable of admitting a mistake (or certainly his own illegal actions), he still falsely seeks to blame the law itself as being the problem. That's what the president's men have done in castigating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), forcing Congress to pass the "Protect America Act" and in seeking immunity for telecommunications companies who followed their illegal orders. Additionally, by dismantling the Intelligence Oversight Board that's been in place since the FISA became law and refusing to appoint qualified persons to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended by the 9/11 Commission, Bush and Cheney hope US citizens will remain none the wiser.

By and large, human errors, not the law, and certainly not lack of pertinent intelligence, were the problem to begin with. It's too bad the American people are being so misled because it is certainly not making them any safer.