The Battle Within

FBI agents don't like to go into mosques. The so-called right of sanctuary was drummed into young FBI agents during their training at Quantico: "You don't chase a thief into the cathedral." The message was reinforced over time by political correctness and the example of careers ruined by rule-breaking. Step on someone's civil liberties, FBI agents learned by rote and by painful history, and you can wind up using your retirement savings to pay for a lawyer at the inevitable congressional inquisition.

But then came the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the strong suspicion that some of the hijackers had done their plotting in mosques. Suddenly the rules changed. Agents were told to be more "proactive," to follow the terrorist trail wherever it led, even into a religious sanctuary. The message from headquarters was: Don't be afraid to take risks. We're behind you. (That is, hedged FBI Director Robert Mueller, as long as the agent was operating in "good faith.") Down on the street, the "brick agents" heard the exhortation to go forth and be bold, but they remained wary. What if an undercover operation got blown? What if an FBI agent was caught bugging a mosque? When the investigative reporters began calling late at night and the subpoenas arrived in the mail, would the higher-ups at headquarters really stand by them? Or would the lowly agents be left holding the bag?

Last winter, a squad of FBI agents, assigned to watch a radical imam in an American city on the East Coast, pondered the risks. The imam had been detected making contact with suspected Qaeda terrorists around the world. In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the case had become one of the bureau's most urgent priorities. President George W. Bush was kept informed at his morning briefing on the terrorist "Threat Matrix." The agents staked out the suspected imam around the clock, sitting in their idling cars, sipping watery coffee and eating sugar doughnuts to stay awake. They eavesdropped on his home phone. But they did not go into his mosque. "We stayed out of there with our people and our technology," said one agent involved in the case, which remains an active investigation. The calculation, one FBI official told NEWSWEEK, was simple: "I'm going to make sure I'm on solid legal ground here. I don't care how much the director wants to report the existence of an Al Qaeda cell to the president in a Matrix briefing. I'm not going to be suspended or fired over this."

Were these agents being a little too careful? Putting the risk to their careers over the risk of a deadly terrorist attack? Or were they merely being prudent, refusing to be swept away by the hysteria of the moment? Would their bosses really back them up if they got caught going over the line? In the months after the 9/11 attacks, these sorts of questions routinely got asked up and down the ranks of the FBI--and not just the FBI but the CIA and the military and the entire national-security establishment.

It has become a cliche by now that the terrorist attacks two years ago changed everything: "9/11 changed what we do forever. Forever," said Jim Pavitt, the CIA deputy director for Operations, interviewed by NEWSWEEK in his seventh-floor office at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The CIA, he says, is hiring more spies, running more risky covert operations, reaching out to more (sometimes unsavory) allies in the war on terror.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told NEWSWEEK that the Bush administration had been itching to take a more "forward leaning" approach to terrorism even before 9/11. On the eve of the Inauguration, Rumsfeld and President Bush had discussed how the United States looked soft to the rest of the world. Terrorists believed that "all you have to do is bloody us in the nose and we'll go away," said Rumsfeld. The night of the 9/11 attacks, Bush told his top advisers that he wanted "boots on the ground" to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The president "left [CENTCOM commander] Gen. [Tommy] Franks without any doubt in his mind," said Rumsfeld.

No one questions Bush's resolve in the war on terror. Bush's top lieutenants have pushed their troops to take more chances to ferret out and crush the shadowy foe--with some real success. Most of the Qaeda leadership is behind bars or dead, the military has won two swift wars and, most important, the United States has not been attacked again. But, more than most people may realize, the gung-ho, damn-the-torpedoes approach of Bush and his war cabinet has been met with suspicion and pockets of real bureaucratic resistance--from ordinary gum-shoes in the FBI, CIA case officers in the field, generals at the Pentagon, men and women throughout the military and intelligence community.

Some of this resistance may turn out to have been wise in retrospect. It appears, for instance, that Bush's war cabinet just blew past a yellow light on Iraq--warnings from CIA analysts that invading Iraq could make a terrorist attack against the United States more likely, not less. And it is also clear that Rumsfeld was more concerned with winning the war in Iraq than he was with the cleanup afterward. Last week's decision to seek international help from the United Nations was a tacit acknowledgment that the Bushies' go-it-alone game plan was flawed.

There is an unplanned quality to the occupation of Iraq that feels a little too chancy. The administration regards the invasion as just one more battle in the war on terror, a necessary demonstration of American power. Bush and his top advisers were so determined to enforce their will on balky subordinates--reluctant generals, equivocal intelligence analysts, skeptical lawyers--that they may not have fully thought through the long-term consequences of bold action.

But they can't be blamed for thinking that the toughest enemy, at times, is their own bureaucracy. During the 1980s and 1990s, a --culture of risk aversion became deeply embedded in the national-security establishment. "People have long memories around here," said a senior CIA official. They remember the congressional witch hunts after Watergate, when headline-hungry lawmakers exposed years of agency "dirty tricks," failed assassination plots and spying on American citizens. The CIA official recalled an old Navy expression from the days when everyone smoked: "You never want to be the only one at the table without an ashtray," i.e., the man summoned to explain to the brass what went wrong. "That's still the way people here feel," said the senior spook. During Vietnam, military men complained that they had been abandoned, if not stabbed in the back, by civilian politicians. They were determined never to go to war again without civilian backing and a sure exit strategy. For an officer trying to climb the ranks in a "zero defects" culture, taking casualties could be seen as a fatal mistake. In some peacekeeping operations, like Haiti and Bosnia, "force protection"--keeping your men from getting shot--became the No. 1 mission. The troops hunkered down in their armored vehicles and flak jackets and were rarely seen on patrol in the streets.

Perhaps the institution most scarred by the past is the FBI. After a series of scandals going back to the J. Edgar Hoover era, many FBI brick agents thought they could not trust their own superiors. "None of the people on Mahogany Row [the bureau's executive suites] backed up agents down the food chain when we were investigated for doing black-bag jobs [illegal entries] against radical leftists," recalled a veteran G-man. Such a mind-set dies hard. FBI Director Mueller "tried very hard to change the culture of 'you make a mistake and you're dead'," said a senior administration official. Mueller and his top aides began insisting that they be informed whenever agents asked for wiretaps in terror cases, to ensure that the bureau's lawyers weren't putting up unnecessary roadblocks.

It would be a mistake to picture a national-security establishment of swashbuckling politicians and timorous or jaded troops. The Special Operations commandos who joined what Rumsfeld delightedly described as "the first cavalry charge of the 21st century" while fighting on horseback against the Taliban in Afghanistan were as brave and resourceful as can be. Many junior officers welcome the chance to prove themselves in action. Many FBI agents and CIA case officers risk their lives as well as their careers. Nonetheless, NEWSWEEK's reporting suggests that the culture of risk aversion is alive and well post-9/11. It often takes subtle forms, but it is the reality that underlies (and sometimes undercuts) Bush's hard-charging rhetoric.

Rumsfeld insisted that risk aversion was less of a problem in the military than elsewhere in the government. But he acknowledged, from his own sometimes frustrating experience, that changing a bureaucratic culture takes time. Rumsfeld, like many national-security officials, expressed exasperation with the lawyers who have become ubiquitous in government decision-making. In his interview with NEWSWEEK, he vividly described his frustration at trying to get the military to write simple, straightforward "rules of engagement" that tell soldiers when they can open fire.

"I've spent hundreds of hours on this," said Rumsfeld. Tired of legal argy-bargy, Rumsfeld decreed that he would no longer be briefed on the rules by lawyers. "They could sit in the back row and listen," he said. He wanted the rules written "in English. Not legalese." Three times, he had to threaten to grab the first six people he encountered in the Pentagon hallway and admin-ister a simple test: could they understand the rules? And when the rules were finally promulgated, they were made more cautious as they filtered down the chain of command. "At every level, they took a 5 percent tuck to be on the safe side," said Rumsfeld. "I said, 'That's just not acceptable!' "

But in fact, the rules of engagement are difficult to figure out in a war that is not quite like any other. The basic dilemma for the military is that the "war on terror" is a fine political phrase, but it has no meaning in law. The enemy is not a state, and terrorists are not "combatants"; they are merely criminals. The U.S. military is trained to observe the laws of war. But how scrupulously to apply them to terrorists has triggered major tussles between the political leadership and the bureaucracy. Consider the always uncomfortable subject of assassination:

Political assassinations were banned by executive order in the 1970s after the exposure of the CIA's failed assassination plots from the 1950s and '60s. But the president was still free to waive the rule, and in the late '90s, President Bill Clinton signed "lethal findings" that would have allowed the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. The Clinton administration lobbed a few cruise missiles into the Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. But neither the CIA nor the military made a really concerted effort to eliminate bin Laden--and Clinton never pushed them to. At one point, write former Clinton national-security staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in their book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," Clinton approached Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and said, "You know, it would scare the shit out of Al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show those guys we're not afraid." Shelton, "a huge, powerfully built man, blanched," write the authors. Nothing came of Clinton's somewhat whimsical suggestion.

The military has a way of testing the seriousness of the civilian leadership. Asked to do something difficult and dangerous, like putting combat troops into a far-off country like Afghanistan, the top brass will make impossible manpower and logistical requirements: whole divisions, massive airlift and backup, everything including "a bowling alley and a PX," says one White House cynic. After 9/11, Rumsfeld says, he was "impatient" to get troops into Afghanistan. Bush administration higher-ups made it clear they wanted bin Laden, as the president put it, "dead or alive." But that doesn't mean the bureaucracy smartly saluted and set about trying to kill the Qaeda leadership.

Indeed, within hours of Bush's statement, lawyers at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon launched a flurry of e-mails and calls warning that Bush's macho rhetoric could be viewed as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The notion that Bush could be prosecuted as a war criminal was rejected by their bosses as absurd. Still, while a top administration official told NEWSWEEK that there was very little philosophical discussion at the top about "targeted killings" of terrorist leaders, there continued to be legal qualms--and a reluctance to act--down in the ranks.

The CIA and the Air Force had recently developed the perfect execution machine, the Predator, a remote-control unmanned vehicle able to loiter over a target and launch Hellfire missiles with deadly accuracy. On one of the first nights of the Afghanistan conflict, a Predator spotted a convoy believed to be carrying Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The passengers got out and entered a building. The CIA was almost--but not entirely--sure that Mullah Omar was inside. Should the Predator take a shot? At CENTCOM headquarters, General Franks's top military lawyer, a female Navy captain, posed tough questions. What if innocent civilians were killed? And there was a mosque right next door. What if the mosque were damaged?

The strike was aborted; Mullah Omar got away (and is still at large somewhere in Afghanistan). After Rumsfeld and others expressed their dissatisfaction, the rules of engagement were tweaked, and the Predator was used to kill a senior bin Laden lieutenant near Kabul, among others. But once the Afghanistan conflict was over, the debate resumed. Killing a "leadership target" in wartime is not assassination. But is the war on terror open-ended? Under the laws of war, can nations strike pre-emptively at an "imminent" threat? Just how imminent does the threat have to be?

Since Afghanistan, a senior intelligence official says, the Predator has been used only once to eliminate a Qaeda leader, blowing up a car containing Abu Ali--a former bin Laden security guard suspected of plotting the attack against the USS Cole--in the Yemeni desert last winter. Even that attack made the lawyers nervous: one of the passengers in the car was an American citizen. The man was a suspected terrorist; even so, the lawyers asked, was it lawful to execute him without a trial? If so, did that mean the president could order a Predator to shoot at suspected terrorists in Detroit?

Inertia can also get in the way of the administration's go-get-'em philosophy. Mueller hoped to hire scores of language and computer experts among the bureau's thousand new agents. But the majority of new hires were the same old ex-cops and soldiers who have always filled the bureau's ranks. A Justice Department spokesman says the bureau has hired 146 new Arabic and Farsi translators since 9/11. But the FBI concedes that's not enough. "We haven't made enough progress, and we're redoubling our efforts," says Larry Mefford, the bureau's counter terrorism chief. In the case of the imam suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda, the FBI could not afford to send an interpreter to listen to his home-phone conversations in real time. Despite the urgency--the risk that the imam was ready to carry out a plot--the field agents had to FedEx the taped conversations back to headquarters in Washington, where, presumably, they joined the backlog of tapes awaiting translation.

The classic turf battles between the CIA and the FBI have died down somewhat--but new turf battles between the CIA and the Defense Department are springing up. Rumsfeld wants to use Special Operations Forces as his action arm against terrorists. But now CIA officials worry that Delta Force commandos will bump into the agency's spooks or cause a flap because of their relative inexperience in the spy game. Learning that Special Forces was planning an operation to capture a certain terrorist, a top CIA official says he "had a fit" and got the Pentagon to back down. "They weren't even looking in the right country," says the official.

Only in the movies do commandos drop out of the sky, guns blazing, and snatch or kill terrorists. The Pentagon brass has always resisted using the highly trained SEALs or Delta Force on such secret and dangerous missions. "It was very, very frustrating," Gen. Pete Schoomaker, the former commander of Special Operations, once recalled. "I used to say this was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage and nobody wants to race it because you might dent a fender." Schoomaker has a new job: he is now the Army's chief of staff. Rumsfeld put him there to make the Army bolder. But a good many Army officers worry about what will happen if the political winds shift. As one serving three-star general told NEWSWEEK: "Nobody relishes the prospect of appearing before the [Sen. John] Kerry congressional committee of inquiry in 10 years' time."