Presidents regularly mount the podium but FBI directors have kept rather quiet on September 11. Last year, Christopher Wray delivered remarks that prove enlightening.
“It’s fitting that we mark this anniversary here, at the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC),” Wray said, “because the TSC is a prime example of the strides we made following the attacks—developing new capabilities and working in concert with our partners to keep people safe. It demonstrates the ingenuity, the dedication, and the spirit of collaboration we’ve brought—as a collective law enforcement and intelligence community—to the fight against terrorism.”
The Terrorist Screening Center, in Vienna Virginia, was established in 2003 to “consolidate the government’s approach to terrorism,” The TSC is administered by the FBI, with support from the Intelligence Community, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Treasury, and Department of Defense.
The impact of 9/11, Wray explained, “profoundly shaped the way we do our jobs, the way we collaborate and communicate with partners, and the way we tackle challenges. Really, it all comes down to one thing—keeping people we will never know, and families we will never meet, safe from harm.” Wray did not put a number to “the people who died that day,” and the only casualties he named were two FBI agents.
“Because of that terrible day, we’ve transformed the bureau in ways that have made us stronger and better, and our country safer. Those transformations have proven critical over the past 21 years—and will remain critical in the face of a continuously evolving terrorist threat. As we carry on this mission to protect Americans from terrorism, we bring to our work the same sense of purpose and resolve that we felt on 9/11 and in the days that followed.”
And so on, with a few significant omissions. The FBI failed to prevent the attack of September 11, 2001, and also slipped up on the prequel.
In 1993, the FBI failed to prevent Islamic terrorists from bombing the World Trade Center, which claimed six victims. The lessons went unlearned. For all its money, power and resources, the FBI failed to prevent terrorists from hijacking airliners and crashing them into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
“Domestic agencies” such as the FBI “never mobilized in response to the threat,” The 9/11 Commission Report concluded. “They didn’t have a plan,” and “the public was not warned.” The FBI Inspector General contributed to the report, so FBI incompetence was doubtless worse than indicated. No word about any FBI bosses being disciplined, demoted or discharged over the failure, which continued.
The FBI’s Terrorism Screening Center established “one federal terrorism watchlist” with “information on people reasonably suspected to be involved in terrorism (or related activities).” One of them was U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan.
The FBI knew Hasan was communicating with al Qaeda terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki about killing Americans. Even so, the FBI’s Washington office judged that Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities and dropped surveillance on the officer. On November 5, 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, Hasan shot dead 13 Americans and wounded more than 30 others.
For the composite character president David Garrow described in Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, it was “workplace violence,” not terrorism or even gun violence. In his fundamental transformation of the United States, the composite character ignored Islamic terrorism and targeted his domestic opposition.
In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security, a partner with the Terrorist Screening Center, released Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1979-2008. This study classified persons judged to be “suspicious of centralized federal authority” and “reverent of individual liberty” as “extreme right-wing terrorists.”
In 2013, Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right, from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, warned about the “anti-federalist movement.” Members of this movement “espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.” That same year marked another FBI failure.
Russian intelligence warned the FBI about Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who managed to escape the efforts of the Terrorist Screening Center. On April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaevs bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 260. Local police, not the FBI, killed Tamerlan and captured Dzhokhar.
The Terrorist Screening Center also failed to flag Islamic terrorists Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. On December 2, 2015, the jihadists gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino California, wounding many others. San Bernardino police, not the FBI, took down the terrorists with no loss of innocent life.
If the Terrorist Screening Center picked up Islamic State supporter Omar Mateen, the FBI did nothing about the deadly threat he posed. On June 12, 2016, Mateen shot dead 49 people and wounded more than 50 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As CNN noted, it was “the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11.” As in Boston and San Bernardino, local police, not the FBI, took down the mass murderer.
For Christopher Wray, the Terrorist Screening Center is “a prime example of the strides we made following the attacks, developing new capabilities and working in concert with our partners to keep people safe. It demonstrates the ingenuity, the dedication, and the spirit of collaboration we’ve brought—as a collective law enforcement and intelligence community—to the fight against terrorism.” Evidence of those strides at Fort Hood, Boston, San Bernardino and Orlando is hard to find.
The Terrorist Screening Center is like a screen door on a submarine. The FBI does not protect the people and does not keep the nation safe from terrorism. The struggle against FBI failure is the struggle of memory against forgetting.