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The Gorelick Wall Redux

The dysfunctional communications between our intelligence agencies is the legacy of a pre-9/11 mindset in the bureaucracy.

by
Eric Florack

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January 18, 2010 - 12:00 am
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The similarities in intelligence and interagency failures that led to both the underwear bomber attack on Christmas Day and the 9/11 attacks are striking. They appear to show a particular myopic mindset among appointees in the administrations of Clinton and Obama. One has to work very hard indeed to avoid noticing those similarities.

You may recall that the lack of interagency communication was identified by the 9/11 Commission as being the direct result of an official policy of the Clinton White House. That policy was most closely identified with Jamie Gorelick. Called the “Gorelick wall,” the policy is widely referred to as the biggest reason 19 Islamic terrorists were able to attack us on 9/11. The policy mandated a separation of criminal investigators and intelligence agents. No sharing of info. Gorelick herself proudly asserted in a Washington Post op-ed that she was the one who had erected that wall between the agencies.

The policy, however, was at best flawed, and in reality disastrous.  A 2004 Wall Street Journal article described it thus:

At issue is the pre-Patriot Act “wall” that prevented communication between intelligence agents and criminal investigators — a wall, Mr. Ashcroft said, that meant “the old national intelligence system in place on September 11 was destined to fail.” The Attorney General explained:

“In the days before September 11, the wall specifically impeded the investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. After the FBI arrested Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and sought approval for a criminal warrant to search his computer. The warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall.

“When the CIA finally told the FBI that al-Midhar and al-Hazmi were in the country in late August, agents in New York searched for the suspects. But because of the wall, FBI headquarters refused to allow criminal investigators who knew the most about the most recent al-Qaeda attack to join the hunt for the suspected terrorists.

“At that time, a frustrated FBI investigator wrote headquarters, quote, ‘Whatever has happened to this — someday someone will die — and wall or not — the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’”

The bottom line is that, like the Clinton administration, the Obama administration has approached al-Qaeda’s war on us thinking that it could be contained and dealt with in the civilian criminal justice system. We don’t, in other words, need to treat this as a war. We may or may not have returned officially to the Gorelick policy, but we returned to the attitude which gave us the policy when we put Democrats back in charge of the executive branch.

Granted that two data points may not prove a trend, but there’s one more puzzle piece on this line:  9/11 wasn’t the first attack on the World Trade Center. The first one occurred under Bill Clinton in 1993. Starting a war was exactly al-Qaeda’s purpose then. Despite this, Bill Clinton decided to not treat it as a war. Instead, the perpetrators of that attack were considered to be a band of outlaws to be dealt with by our criminal justice system and diplomacy.

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