From 1998 to 2001, the Army Intelligence and Special Operations Command (AISOC) conducted a highly classified intelligence-gathering endeavor known as Able Danger. Its mission was to investigate the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda, both inside the United States and abroad. By 1999, Able Danger had identified, by name, four of the future 9/11 hijackers -- including the ringleader, Mohammed Atta – as members of an al Qaeda cell based in Brooklyn, New York. But the AISOC never informed the FBI about the activities of these suspects, thus leaving them free to continue plotting and preparing for the 9/11 attacks with impunity.
On August 15, 2005, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the first member of Able Danger to speak publicly about his role in the operation, told the press about Able Danger’s findings and detailed the policies that had caused the crucial intelligence to go unheeded. Shaffer explained that when Able Danger had tried to arrange a series of meetings in 2000 with the Washington field office of the FBI to share its information about Atta, military lawyers intervened and canceled the meetings, citing fear of controversy “if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States." At the root of this fear was a clearly defined prohibition against inter-agency intelligence-sharing in terror investigations. This prohibition, commonly referred to as the “wall” blocking such communications, dated back to the Carter administration's 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted to defuse allegations of FBI espionage abuses.
In 1995, while America’s intelligence agencies were still investigating al Qaeda's 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, the Clinton administration strengthened FISA to a degree that was unprecedented. Specifically, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick called for increased restrictions on information-sharing between intelligence (CIA) and law-enforcement (FBI) agencies. In a 1995 memo to then-FBI Director Louis Freeh and U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, titled “Instructions on Separation of Certain Foreign Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations,” Gorelick wrote the following:â€¨
“We believe that it is prudent to establish a set of instructions that will more clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal investigations. These procedures, which go beyond what is legally required, will prevent any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance that FISA is being used to avoid procedural safeguards which would apply in a criminal investigation.”
It should be noted that when Gorelick penned the aforementioned memo, President Clinton was extremely worried about ongoing FBI and CIA investigations into illegal Chinese contributions that had been made to his presidential campaign. Both the FBI and the CIA were churning up evidence damaging to the Democratic Party, its fundraisers, the Chinese, and ultimately the Clinton administration itself. It was also a period when the FBI had begun to systematically investigate weapons-technology theft by foreign powers, most notably Russia and China. Had FBI agents been able to confirm China's theft of such technology -- or its transfer of that technology to nations like Pakistan, Iran and Syria -- Clinton would have been forced by law and international treaty to react (and to thereby jeopardize the future flow of Chinese money into his political coffers).
Gorelick's 1995 memo emphasized Presidential Decision Directive 24 (PDD 24), which Clinton had signed the previous year. PDD 24 placed intelligence-gathering under the direct control of the President’s National Security Council, and ultimately the White House, through a four-level, top-down chain of command set up to stifle information-sharing and cooperation between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. From the moment the directive was implemented, such information-sharing became a bureaucratic nightmare over which the President himself had final authority. Consequently, information lethal to Clinton and the Democratic Party languished inside the Justice Department, trapped behind PDD 24 and Gorelick’s “wall.”
The implications of this policy were enormous. Mary Jo White, a New York attorney and an experienced al Qaeda prosecutor, vehemently objected to the barrier Gorelick had erected between agencies. In a letter to Gorelick and Attorney General Janet Reno, White noted: “The most effective way to combat terrorism is with as few labels and walls as possible so that wherever permissible, the right and left hands are communicating.” White also wrote a second letter in which she warned that Gorelick's policy “could cost lives.”
Testifying before the 9/11 Commission in April of 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft made his own observations about how the “wall” had greatly hindered terrorism investigations:
“In the days before September 11, the wall specifically impeded the investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. After the FBI arrested Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and sought approval for a criminal warrant to search his computer. The warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall. When the CIA finally told the FBI that al-Midhar and al-Hazmi were in the country in late August, agents in New York searched for the suspects. But because of the wall, FBI headquarters refused to allow criminal investigators who knew the most about the most recent al Qaeda attack to join the hunt for the suspected terrorists. At that time, a frustrated FBI investigator wrote headquarters, quote, 'Whatever has happened to this – someday someone will die – and wall or not – the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems.'’’
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate set about to craft legislation that would provide the government with new tools for combating terrorist threats facing America. As a result of these efforts, on October 26, 2001 the USA Patriot Act was passed, finally authorizing criminal investigators and intelligence agencies to cooperate on international terrorism cases.