by Teri Blumenfeld
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2013, pp. 13-18 (view PDF)
More than a decade after the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, the U.S. administration seems no closer to identifying let alone repelling Islamist terrorists in the homeland. The 9/11 committee used the term “failure of imagination” to explain why the U.S. government was unable to prevent the catastrophic events of that day. But although the enemy was identified at that time, the Federal government and one of its most important branches, the FBI, have adopted a policy of scrubbing Islamism from public consciousnessthough since bin Laden’s 2011 demise, “at least nine publicly known Islamist-inspired terror plots against the United States have been foiled, bringing the total number of foiled plots as of April 2012, to 50.”
The Obama administration’s response to the 2009 Fort Hood terror attack by U.S. Army major Nidal Hasan offers a vivid illustration of this practice. In August 2012, an independent commission charged with reviewing the FBI’s failure to prevent the attack issued its report, recommending eighteen changes in policies and operations. However, the commission, headed by Judge William H. Webster, upheld the government’s policy of excluding Islamism from the findings, concluding that despite the intelligence failure, FBI personnel had faithfully followed protocols and procedure, and there occurred “no misconduct that would warrant administrative or disciplinary action.”
There appeared to be little appetite for finding the attack’s root causes and its failed detection. Nor was corrective action an apparent priority. Instead, the directive focused on exploring “whether there are other policy or procedural steps the FBI should consider … while still respecting privacy and civil-liberty interests” and “whether any administrative action should be taken against any employee.”
The report scrupulously covers the operational missteps and errors in the FBI’s handling of the Hasan attack, detailing the substandard hardware, antiquated search tools, and inferior communications databases. Failure was exacerbated by lack of procedural clarity between the FBI’s Washington Field Office, the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the Department of Defense, all of which dropped leads and omitted information. It is a frightening read, detailing a course of events within the intelligence communities that should never have occurred post-9/11.
The Webster report ought to have detailed what procedures resulted in Hasan not being flagged as a danger. Instead, it proposed general policy guidelines, some rather obvious and some further expanding chain of command. Of the eighteen recommendations, seven reference policy, five recommend technology and software improvements, and four recommend increasing compliance with the numerous bureaus protecting privacy and civil liberties. Only one proposal suggests operational changes, advising the training of Terrorism Task Force officers on FBI databases. The final recommendation concludes that no administrative or disciplinary action be taken.
Meanwhile, an earlier congressional investigation led by senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, concludedthat the FBI “collectively had sufficient information necessary to have detected Hasan’s radicalization to violent Islamist extremism but failed both to understand and to act on it.” Yet the Webster commission barely mentions Islam in the body of the report.
The underlying justification for omitting this factor is encountered in Part 1, Factual Findings: “The FBI’s report on terrorist acts in the U.S. … identified 318 events … and only 7% of those events were attributed to Islamic extremists.” Statistics such as these are easily manipulated at the D.C.-based Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) site by selecting specific criteria. Moreover, the Webster report undermines this fact when it lists the successes of the FBI’s terrorism task forces: Of the sixteen examples of major terrorist plots foiled, all were planned by Muslims.
One might also look to the selection of the committee members assigned to investigate an Islamist-inspired terror attack on the U.S. military for further explanation of the omission. None of the investigators and attorneys chosen were experts in Islamist extremism: Douglas Winter is an IT specialist; Adrian Steele, an antitrust and regulatory law expert; Russel Bruemmer, a financial institutions professional; Kenneth Wainstein, an expert in corporate internal investigations and civil and criminal enforcement; and William Baker is a criminal and counterterrorism specialist, and was the only member with a modicum of expertise in Islamism. The commission also consulted with “public interest groups that promote and protect civil liberties and privacy interests.” In fact, the only exhibit appended to the report was a lengthy treatise from the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has distinguished itself by frequently contesting counterterrorism measures proposed by the government since 9/11 as an infringement on civil rights.
Thus the word “Islamic” is mentioned a mere thirty times in the 173-page report. Most instances have no significance, including eight referring to proper names while seven refer to “radical Islamic cleric” Anwar al-Awlaki, Hasan’s jihadist mentor. Almost half the mentions, ironically, come from Hasan’s own e-mail correspondence. The Webster report wascriticized by senators Lieberman and Collins who worried the “report fails to address the specific cause for the Fort Hood attack, which is violent Islamist extremism.”
The sad truth is that the bulk of the blame for this sorry state must be assigned to guidelines that handicapped agents in identifying Islamist threats. The report holds no agent accountable for failing to follow FBI protocols since the chain of command and protocol is dictated to the FBI by the appointed attorney general. Implementing the Webster commission’s recommendations cannot prevent a similar, future attack while there is a concerted effort coming from the Attorney General’s office—and ultimately the White House—to obfuscate the main motivation, Islamism.
Read more at Middle East Forum
- Denying Islam’s Role in Terror: Explaining the Denial (counterjihadreport.com)