NEW YORK – As the FBI reorganizes its structure and mission from law enforcement to preventing terrorism, some analysts charge that fears of being accused of "racial profiling" led the bureau to ignore crucial information which might have revealed the Sept. 11 terror plot.
After the collapse of the FBI's spying case against Wen Ho Lee in early 2001, the agency was labeled with having accused the Los Alamos nuclear scientist of spying for China simply because of his Chinese ethnicity.
Sensitivity to that charge may have made the agency "gun shy" when it came to investigating Arab men training in American flight schools, especially Zacarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman of Moroccan descent who is the only person charged directly in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Maybe there was a bit of subtle psychological backlash that came out of that ... that may have made them stop and blink about looking specifically at Arabs," former assistant FBI director Skip Brandon said.
Limits on the FBI's ability to gather intelligence date back to the early 1970s, when the bureau scaled back its spying activities after being widely criticized for abusing Americans' civil liberties, specifically those of people involved in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
"I believe the FBI for the past 25 years has been operating with one or both hands tied behind its back," said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a former Reagan Administration defense official.
"The arguments for denying the United States internal security capabilities in the 1970's were ill-founded then," Gaffney added, "and are positively dangerous today."
Brandon conceded that concerns about racial profiling may have played a "small" part in the FBI's failure to follow up on reports from field agents, but says a lack of resources was the main reason the requests to investigate Arab flight students in Phoenix and Moussaoui's computer were not acted upon.
A congressional committee is looking into whether the FBI may have been too concerned about political and social sensitivities.
Brandon contends that concerns about civil liberties being threatened by a newly energized FBI are ill-founded.
"I think that we have the right to live, we have the right not be killed," Brandon said. "That's a real basic civil liberty to me."