Law & the Courts

End the 9/11 Syndrome at the FBI: Terrible Things Happen, and There’s Little Accountability

(Jim Bourg/Reuters)
In the wake of the Florida school shooting, can we now have a real conversation about what is wrong with the FBI?

Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender whose office is representing Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., puts it bluntly:

This kid exhibited every single known red flag, from killing animals to having a cache of weapons to disruptive behavior to saying he wanted to be a school shooter. If this isn’t a person who should have gotten someone’s attention, I don’t know who is. This was a multi-system failure.

Specifically, the FBI admits that it received two separate tips about Cruz. Last fall, a frequent YouTube vlogger noticed an alarming comment left on one of his videos. “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” said a user named Nikolas Cruz. The vlogger alerted the FBI and was interviewed. But the agency subsequently claimed its investigators couldn’t locate Cruz, despite the highly unusual spelling of his first name.

Then, just six weeks ago, a person close to Cruz warned a call taker on the FBI’s tip line that the expelled student had a desire to kill and might attack a school. The bureau said that the information was not passed to agents in the Miami office. Florida governor Rick Scott has called for FBI director Christopher Wray to be fired. So has NRO’s Kevin Williamson in a powerful piece: “Fire the FBI Chief.” Other officials are calling for FBI heads to roll, but at a level below Wray’s. Florida attorney general Pam Bondi told Fox News, “The people who had that information and did not do anything with it, they are the ones that need to go.”

For his part, Director Wray is promising that his agency will conduct a full probe. Congressional oversight committees are skeptical about how complete that will be given the recent evidence of the FBI’s politicized role in the probes of Russia and the Trump campaign, along with the infamous anti-Trump “Steele dossier,” which the FBI relied on without verifying,

“The fact that the FBI is investigating this failure is not enough,” Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said in a statement. “Law enforcement personnel constantly remind the public that ‘if you see something, say something.’ In this tragic case, people close to the shooter said something, and our system utterly failed the families of seventeen innocent souls.”

Nor is the Parkland shooting the first time the FBI has fallen down on its most basic job: assessing threats and acting on them. Look at what has happened just in Florida in the last two years. FBI agents investigated as a suspect the man who gunned down 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, but concluded the agency couldn’t act against him. The FBI also had an unexpected visit from the mentally ill man charged with killing five people at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport last year. He had walked into an FBI field office and made bizarre, though not threatening, statements.

Of course there should be a housecleaning at the FBI. But there is a larger issue. I call it America’s 9/11 Syndrome. I was across the street from the World Trade Center the day the terrorists flew two planes into it. I will never forget what I saw that day, including people holding hands jumping from the burning towers before they collapsed and killed 2,606 people.

I retain a mixture of feelings about that day, ranging from deep sadness to pride that my fellow New Yorkers played against stereotypes and helped each other so much that day and afterwards. But what also sticks in my mind is a simple fact: Not one person in the federal government was fired on account of 9/11.

I’m not the only one who feels that way. During his presidential campaign, Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) noted that the FBI had caught the “20th hijacker” a month before his comrades launched their deadly carnage on 9/11. “The FBI agent who caught him wrote 70 letters to FBI headquarters saying we should look at this guy’s computer — get a warrant — and they never did.” Senator Paul told CNN’s Jake Tapper in 2015. “That was a huge failure, and I never quite understood why no one was fired over 9/11. . . . And there were some mistakes. We also had a report out of Arizona of people trying to fly planes but not learning how to land them.”

As bad as those mistakes were, the Bush administration made them worse. It took 411 days for it to finally agree to form a commission to look into how 9/11 could have happened. Compare that with the six days it took to form the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The 9/11 commission ultimately did a credible job, but it was hobbled early on for lack of money. The government initially allocated only $3 million for its work, later raising it, under pressure, to $11 million. Compare that with the commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 1986. That was a tragedy that killed seven brave Americans, and we spent $50 million to find out what happened.

Since 9/11, we have seen many tragic events fueled by bureaucratic bungling, followed by a complete lack of accountability. The cycle has repeated itself over and over. That’s why I exploded last month when the immediate response of Hawaii officials to a state employee who issued a ballistic-missile alert was so blasé. The alert caused mass panic for nearly 40 minutes.

The initial response of Vern Miyagi, who oversaw Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency, was beyond boneheaded. He told a news conference that the employee who pressed the alert button “feels bad,” and he didn’t know whether any disciplinary action would be taken. Miyagi added, “This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose — it was a mistake on his part, and he feels terrible about it.” As I noted at the time, Richard Rapoza, the official spokesman for EMA, declined to identify the errant employee and added: “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public. This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

It was ultimately the Federal Communications Commission that forced Hawaii officials out of their lethargy. FCC investigators found that the employee, who had worked at the agency for more than ten years, had a history of confusing drills and real-world events. On the day of the alert, he listened to only part of a drill recording and thought a real attack was occurring. The employee had made similar mistakes twice before. He was finally fired, still with no identification by name, and Miyagi resigned as director of the Emergency Management Agency.

When only small fry are let go, the complacency among upper management remains and problems are swept under the rug.

It’s time that something like that happened at the FBI. When only small fry are let go, the complacency among upper management remains and problems are swept under the rug. Only with new blood and a fresh approach can systemic problems within a bureaucracy be addressed.

Even though he has been on the job only six months, FBI director Christopher Wray has already shown a reflexive desire to evade congressional oversight by ignoring House subpoenas to the FBI in the Steele-dossier matter. The FBI turned over the documents, after months, only when the House said it would to hold Wray in contempt of Congress. That attitude shows that Wray has little desire to cut to the heart of the FBI’s problems and may even be an accessory to them.

It’s time for the 9/11 Syndrome to be purged from the FBI.

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