Reporter Ronald Kessler is a recognizable character around the federal law enforcement epicenter. You can generally find him at Les Halles or Ten Penn or in another of the restaurants near 10th and Pennsylvania, where the FBI and the Department of Justice are located, conferring with an FBI agent who happens to be manning the Public Affairs office shop between job rotations. There is a reason for this. Kessler can be counted on to get the Bureau's story out quickly, direct and unmolested by pundits from the mainstream media and the Congressional overseers. It makes him, among working journalists, non-radioactive. He has unrivaled access, and is generally inclined towards description of the human dimension behind the otherwise anonymous men and women on the front lines against crime and espionage. For people involved in public affairs and counterterrorism, that coziness does not take away from the value of reading his books and articles, even if one has to dig a little deeper for the take-away.
The Washington Bureau chief for Newsmax, formerly a reporter for the Washington Post, Kessler has written some good "Inside the ____" books about such institutions the FBI, CIA and White House. In the early 1990s, his reporting helped bring down one FBI Director, though this did not hurt his bona fides with the FBI brass, some of whom undoubtedly helped him in this task. His latest book, Terrorist Watch contains some criticism of Louis Freeh, the man who benefitted most directly from Kessler's coup a decade ago. This did little harm Kessler's access in the current climate. He is now the closest thing we have to an official FBI scribe, once Bob Woodward turned on the Bush Administration.
Terrorist Watch has a number of revelations that should be of intense interest to future historians, and even to lawyers currently suing the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the latter are so ideological that they will likely balk at the cost of buying the book in hardback form and ignore it because of its obvious breathless tone, even if this decision might hurt their immediate cause. Terrorist Watch may be a collection of articles that in a different era would have run in the Reader's Digest or Saturday Evening Post. Its dearth of dish does not mean it should not be mined for information about what is being disclosed for the first time. It provides some new revelations and additional contexts for cases that have been publicized but seemingly forgotten when critics issue their predictable adverse report card on how the government is fairing in the War on Terror. These critics, unfortunately, will likely choose to ignore these inconvenient truths, so they can continue to argue that the U.S. has no law enforcement successes since 9/11.
Kessler is on absolutely firm footing in describing the details of the various terrorist plots that have been disrupted by FBI spadework. The arrest of Abu Zubaydah stopped the plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Kessler asserts that among Khalid Sheik Muhammed's plans were attacks
on the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building, along with assassination plots on Presidents Carter and Clinton and Pope John Paul. Dhiren Barot planned to destroy the New York Stock Exchange, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Iyman Farez wanted to disconnect the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour. Meanwhile, the concerns about the December 2003 threats – where we were worried about jihadists flying into the U.S. on flights originating from Paris - it can now be said, were largely "hocus pocus." Still, Robert Mueller says that about a hundred attacks have been thwarted since 9/11. It is amazing that there is still so much criticism of the FBI's methods in light of this record, and it is a point Kessler makes powerfully.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Terrorist Watch involves the experience of George Piro, the Arabic-speaking FBI agent assigned to interrogate Saddam Hussein over the course of his seven months in U.S. custody. Piro was recently featured on "60 Minutes," but Kessler had his story first in Terrorist Watch. Among Piro's interesting revelations was that the former dictator, reduced in his captivity to an amateur poet and gardener, intentionally acted as if he had WMDs in order to deter Iranian aggression. Saddam Hussein acknowledged to Piro that he underestimated the fortitude of both Bush presidents, never imagining that they would call his bluff. He had fondness for Bill Clinton.
The FBI charm offensive, as some may know, reflects that it is in a battle for its existence. Too many prominent observers and Congressional critics are in favor of breaking it up and adopting a U.S. equivalent to MI-5. To keep them at bay, the FBI is trying to remake itself into a true intelligence agency.
If the FBI is a quasi-military operation in which the agents follow the chain of command, many of Kessler's sources received the memo and have adopted the current Director's mantra and are effective spokesmen for the notion that the Bureau is now devoted to intelligence-gathering. Here is counterterrorism agent Art Cummings, who has "magnetic blue, power-point eyes," telling his subordinates that they should not even think about an indictment and arrest unless they have sucked all the available intelligence dry. This does not mean that the FBI will resort to questionable interrogation tactics for this purpose. A jihadist in custody? Give him chewing tobacco, which may soften him up. (Cummings makes a point of telling Kessler that he no longer engages in the nasty habit, lest he be considered un-FBI like). Cummings suggests that Jose Padilla should not have been arrested as early as he was, and that they should have followed him some more.
For my prosecutor friends, this is not so obviously a good idea, because it runs the risk of making the FBI into perpetual voyeurs, unable to arrest people until something get well past critical mass. We have sometimes joked that being the subject of an FBI international terrorism investigation is the next best thing in this country to being granted statutory immunity. It means that an enterprising prosecutor will be accused of being a cowboy whenever he has the audacity to suggest that take-down time is overdue, thereby jeopardizing his professional reputation among people carry weight in the current climate. Sure, information may flow more freely now. That does not mean that the people who make operational decisions are any friendlier towards lawyers they need for criminal cases to be initiated. Arrest decisions, made without the benefit of attorneys who will ultimately have to present the case in court, may be short-sighted. Worse, it could result in things going boom before handcuffs are applied.
If the FBI succeeds in remaking itself into an intelligence agency, one hopes that the nation's prosecutors will not be shut out of the equation, as they must be involved in decisions about when to take the violent terrorist plot down. After all, the 9/11 Commission was critical of the information-sharing rules that prohibited the FBI from sharing information it developed with prosecutors. John Ashcroft, in his memoirs Never Again, devotes a dramatic scene to his appearance before the 9/11 Commission, when he pointedly took Democratic Commissioner Jamie Gorelick to task on her short-sidedness in creating and enforcing these rules, commonly known as "the Wall," while she was Deputy Attorney General. Art Cummings is similarly critical of the system that was then in place. Few would argue that Ashcroft and Cummings are not correct.
Ashcroft's story, however, suggests that the FBI, aided by am insular group of lawyers at Justice, may actually have been too intelligence-oriented before 9/11. One of these lawyers, a close friend of Gorelick and Janet Reno, later refashioned herself into a Republican loyalist and emerged as a top counterterrorism officials in the Bush White House, and Kessler interviews her without noting her role in the bad old days. This is one of the problems with Kessler getting so close to his subjects. It is also a little disingenuous for him to give his sources a platform to attack press leaks when he was the beneficiary of so many of them.
Kessler's book suffers from the fact that there is seemingly no desire to pick around the edges. How does one account for the FBI's disturbing tendency to blithely meet with subjects of FBI investigations, after all that has been written about how bad a message this sends to the truly moderate Muslim we really need to impress? In Terrorist Watch, this Muslim outreach is characterized as a laudable effort to win the hearts and minds of American Muslims, and it purportedly reinforces FBI credibility with ethnic enclaves, though Kessler does allow that the FBI has found little receptivity among American Muslims, who remain in denial about the existence of violent radicals in their midst. The unstated cost is in promoting intra-community repression of the truly patriotic American Muslims, like Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, who suffers whenever prominent government officials agree to photo-ops with Muslim radicals who Jasser is fighting. Many commentators believe that Muslim outreach, when undisciplined, does the opposite of what it intends.
Terrorist Watch also suffers from a couple of factual inaccuracies. Legendary FBI agent John O'Neill, who was killed on 9/11, served in Chicago and not New York before he came to FBI Headquarters, and the PATRIOT Act provision that generated alarm among the librarians was not the "sneak and peak" warrant, but rather the FISA business records provisions. Still, on the big things, Kessler has it right, including his observations that – because of the cynicism of the civil liberties and privacy crowd – the FBI will never get credit for making Americans more safe and secure. This makes Terrorist Watch a worthy contribution to the growing literature on how the U.S. fights terrorism.
One can credit the FBI for the lack of any major attacks since 9/11, even while crediting a variety of other factors. I agree with the FBI's Joe Billy, quoted by Kessler, that one of the reasons we are relatively safe is that American is still the land of economic opportunity. We do not have former colonial subjects from South Asia who are third-generation cab drivers because they cannot break out of their socio-economic status where they start as immigrants. I also agree that the big threat of Al Qaida these days is from small cells or lone wolves who may be inspired by Al Qaeda statements but otherwise unconnected to bin Laden, who has been driven into oblivion and cannot personally communicate with his adherents. As Kessler notes, we can and should use immigration and tax fraud tools to disrupt terrorist plans, even if this leaves some observers unsatisfied with the paucity of information that is disclosed in the process. The goal is to save lives, not give the public a show of our gadgets.
The FBI has a ways to go before it truly integrates intelligence into its operations, something that is not mutually exclusive with lawyers being involved in operations. People who are occasionally sources of good geopolitical intelligence still comment that it is hard to pass information to the FBI compared to the CIA, because the recipient FBI agent generally does not know how to file it without numbering a new case, which means dreaded paperwork. The FBI needs to stress what the CIA refers to as the "spaces between the cases" in order to increase their collection of exploitable information, which is sometimes not connected to an identifiable human subject. It might be that this is not possible because of current investigative guidelines which require individual-specific factual predication. I do not like the specter of the FBI turning down information that comes its way because of what the ACLU might say. Hopefully, the hiring of old CIA hands like Phil Mudd (whose brother happens to be a DOJ lawyer and a close friend of mine), to run the National Security Branch is a step in the right direction.
My ultimate take on Kessler's book is that it is well-worth reading, for the important facts its elucidates, even if one had to look somewhat beyond the cheerleader style of its author. Journalists, it can be said, can be trusted with the truth, since not all are convinced that the big news in counterterrorism are the abuses by those Americans in key public safety jobs. Until that is a more widely-held sentiment, we need to rely on people like Ron Kessler to get at the truth, and to tell the accurate story.
Jeff Breinholt is Senior Fellow and Director of National Security Law at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (www.strategycenter.net). The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect those of the Department of Justice.