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Mary McGrory

The Man Behind The Memo

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, May 23, 2002; Page A33

He must be a pretty reprehensible fellow. You saw him leaving a long, black car with tinted windows, heavily chaperoned by FBI Director Robert Mueller and enveloped by escorts who spirited him up the Capitol steps. You'd have thought that Kenneth Williams was some kind of a mobster.

But he is an FBI agent from Arizona, and the only thing he did wrong was to be right last July about the possibility that Osama bin Laden was using U.S. flight schools to train terrorists. It is not a crime to put two and two together, although you can never be sure with Attorney General John Ashcroft.

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Williams had a secret two-hour session with the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening and was on Capitol HIll yesterday for more closed-door sessions. We never saw his face. The Phoenix warning is a profound embarrassment to the intelligence bureaucracy, and Williams is probably lucky to have his job. Let us hope we get the chance to see and hear him. Dot-connectors are hard to find.

Nobody is saying that if his memo had been circulated, the tragedy of Sept. 11 would have been averted. The most dastardly Democrat has not even thought of accusing Bush of dereliction of duty. From the moment the memo surfaced, Republicans have been shrieking that it is unpatriotic to dwell on the past.

President Bush got off a good line about second-guessing being second nature in Washington. But he was pretty steamed that anyone would think he had not done everything in his power to protect the American people.

Vice President Cheney wheeled the heavy artillery through the Sunday television shows and fired warnings that filled the air for the holiday weekend: No one, it seems, is safe -- apartment house dwellers, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, subways, barbecue pits, trains.

Cheney was both stern and matter of fact. His message to a bewildered nation read, "You want warnings? We'll give you warnings." Brutally, he changed the subject from the scary past to the scary future.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did exactly what Republicans would have done in her husband's time in office. She took to the floor and cited a headline in the New York Post, "BUSH KNEW." All she said was that her constituents wanted to know what he knew and when.

The administration landed on her. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer castigated her, and from Budapest came a blast from her successor, Laura Bush, who was on tour.

Nobody was surprised that Williams's warning was not heeded or even shared with other agencies. The FBI is notorious for hiding information: At Boston's Logan Airport, where the World Trade Center assassins took off, the bureau refused to share its watch list with state troopers responsible for airport safety. The bureau pores over its data like a miser in his cave with his treasure. It is a prima donna of government bureaus, accustomed for almost 50 years to a doting press and public.

The CIA, which should have been told and wasn't, is also dysfunctional. Overfunded and undersupervised, it has severe identity problems, which have been aggravated in two Bush administrations. It was Bush the Elder's favorite bureaucracy, and the incumbent is equally fond, striving always to find ways to make the spooks look good and elaborately forgiving them for their colossal failure of Sept. 11.

Republicans point out that it is not George Bush's job to sift through batches of warnings and reports. It isn't; it's the CIA's. But the president made the people who should have been analysts into warriors, and they have turned up all over Afghanistan in combat roles. The first U.S. casualty was a CIA man, who first came to our attention as the interrogator of John Walker Lindh.

I happened to be in New York this week as it was trying to digest the news that it may face another ground zero. The city was immaculate, not a candy wrapper in the streets, and somewhat quieter than before it was called upon to be the wonder of the world for its endurance and resilience. "We were just beginning to relax," sighed a Gothamite.

The new mayor, Mike Bloomberg, fits the new mood. He tends to understatement, which the city finds restful; he's not compulsive like his driven predecessor, who whirled through the city in pursuit of trouble. Bloomberg rides the subway without fanfare and with two security men. Rudy Giuliani's heroic performance is not forgotten, but it is less talked of.

Now, apparently, all's to do again. Says Michael Shapiro, Columbia assistant journalism professor, the timing of the proliferating warnings "discomfits" him. The Bush administration is getting criticism for its handling of past events. That just struck him as "too coincidental," Shapiro said.

People don't know whom to believe. They might listen to agent Williams.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company