Monday, December 05, 2005

Domestic terror and the FBI

The Bush administration's incompetence at national security has been bubbling back up to the surface for public display, most notably in the scathing official assessment of the government's response to the 9/11 commission's report announced today.

Another story, in the New York Times, underscored yet another component of this incompetence:
Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation mishandled a Florida terror investigation, falsified documents in the case in an effort to cover repeated missteps and retaliated against an agent who first complained about the problems, Justice Department investigators have concluded.

In one instance, someone altered dates on three F.B.I. forms using correction fluid to conceal an apparent violation of federal wiretap law, according to a draft report of an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general's office obtained by The New York Times. But investigators were unable to determine who altered the documents.

The agent who first alerted the F.B.I. to problems in the case, a veteran undercover operative named Mike German, was "retaliated against" by his boss, who was angered by the agent's complaints and stopped using him for prestigious assignments in training new undercover agents, the draft report concluded.

Mr. German's case first became public last year, as he emerged as the latest in a string of whistle-blowers at the bureau who said they had been punished and effectively silenced for voicing concerns about the handling of terror investigations and other matters since Sept. 11, 2001.

...Mr. German's case dates to 2002, when the F.B.I. division in Tampa opened a terror investigation into a lead that laundered proceeds, possibly connected to a drug outfit, might be used to finance terrorists overseas. The F.B.I. was considering initiating an undercover operation to follow the lead, and Mr. German, who had extensive experience infiltrating militias, skinheads and other groups, was asked to take part.

But in the coming months, Mr. German would alert F.B.I. officials that the Orlando agent handling the case had "so seriously mishandled" the investigation that a prime opportunity to expose a terrorist financing plot had been wasted. He said agents had not adequately pursued leads, had failed to document important meetings with informants, and had tolerated violations of rules and federal law on the handling of wiretaps.

The report, in one of its few dissents from Mr. German's accusations, said it could not confirm that the F.B.I. had missed an important chance to expose terrorism. Rather, it cited two findings by the bureau that the prime informant had misled agents about the terrorism angle in the case and that "there was no viable terrorism case."

I've written about Mike German and the Tampa case previously. This report omits one of German's key charges, namely, that he had urged undercover work commence in the case some months before and was ignored, and when it finally did begin, it was much too late. This mirrored German's experience with a domestic-terror case in Portland: the FBI, it was clear, no longer considered the extremist right's contributions to terrorism to be worth their while.

As German has explained elsewhere:
... Domestic terrorism investigations are regulated by Attorney General Guidelines meant to prevent abusive investigations into unpopular groups. The AG Guidelines required the FBI to initiate investigations of domestic groups only when there is a reasonable indication of criminality. As a criminal investigator this was my focus anyway, but FBI management often overstated the amount of evidence needed to find a "reasonable indication" of criminality and stymied investigations unnecessarily.

Domestic Terrorists are also often underestimated. Their beliefs are so unusual and abhorrent that people mistakenly believe they are stupid, which they are not. They are very organized and very dangerous. Besides, it doesn't take a genius to make a bomb. Again, there's a lack of good intelligence about what these groups are all about.

... Numbers are hard to come by because these are clandestine groups, so most of what they do is secretive. Many people in the movement have military training, and there are a lot of publicly available training materials for terrorists. Especially online. A large part of what these groups do on a day-to-day basis is to train each other, either based on their own experience or these materials. I don't believe the government needs to be spying on these groups. The FBI should be conducting well predicated, proactive criminal investigations like mine. The focus needs to be on the real criminals, not just people whose message we don't like.

... I think it's important to keep the focus on criminality rather than ideology. We all have a first amendment right to speak out, but we don't have a right to force people to listen. Terrorism, whatever the ideology, is about forcing people to listen to your message. There are plenty of legitimate ways for people in this country to get their message out, but violence- for whatever cause- is not one of them.

I've also explained many times before that domestic terrorism has to be considered a significant component of any serious "war on terror," and failing to do so must be viewed as an abysmal failure on the part of the Republicans running our government -- particularly in the White House -- to provide us with real national security:
Here's a reality check for the Department of Homeland Security: After the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, through Jan. 1, 2000, there were over 40 serious cases of domestic terrorism -- some of it realized, some of it thwarted -- committed by right-wing extremists.

These were not petty or mere property crimes. They included the bombing of the Atlanta Olympics and abortion clinics by Eric Rudolph; a plan to attack a gathering of military families in the Midwest; and a plot to blow up a California propane facility. In every instance, the planned or perpetrated act involved serious violence in which potentially many people could be killed or injured.

Since that time, the rate has declined dramatically, but the cases keep occurring with some regularity, and the lethal nature of the threat has if anything become worse. Since 2000, we're talking about an actual anthrax attack; plans to set off cyanide and sarin bombs; more planned bombings of abortion clinics; and threats against federal judges. All emanating from either lone wolves or organized extremists from the far right.

These are not torchings of SUVs and vacant condos or trashing of research laboratories, which are bad enough, and certainly a problem worth confronting on a level deserving the actual threat they pose. But the level of violence, and the lethality of the threat posed, is of another order altogether when it comes to right-wing extremists.

It's all a matter of priorities. If genuine national security were the concern of the people now running the government, they would be pushing through a fundamental reordering of how our law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies do their work.

Instead, their priorities reveal that national security is only meaningful as an electoral strategy -- and can be manipulated accordingly. And someday, we'll all once again pay the price for this.

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