Is our government doing everything it can in the war on terror? A highly-respected federal agent says no and he's making a troubling accusation. He says the FBI intentionally put the brakes on an investigation into a suspected al-Qaida fundraising operation. Why? The answer, he says, is a flaw exposed by September 11 that still hasn't been fixed.
Three years ago, President Bush gave a directive to succeed in the war on terror, law enforcement agencies need to work together:
Bush: “Information must be fully shared so we can follow every lead to find the one that may prevent tragedy.”
So you'd think that if a decorated federal agent had evidence of suspected terrorist activity, the government would pull out all the stops to follow up. Think again, says this man.
Joe Webber: “My concern is that we have learned nothing from the events of September 11.”
Joe Webber, a 30-year veteran of federal law enforcement, says the government sat on important information about suspected terrorist activity on U.S. soil. He's so outraged, he says, he's willing to risk his career by going public.
Victoria Corderi: “Have you ever done anything like what you're doing today? To come forward to criticize the government?”
Webber: “No. This is probably a very career-limiting move.”
Webber runs the Houston office of the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “ICE” for short.
He says the story begins two and half years ago when his office started investigating a man believed to be raising money for terrorists. Webber doesn't want to jeopardize the ongoing case by revealing too many details, but he will say the suspect was in direct contact with known terrorists.
Webber: “There's clearly probable cause to believe that the target of the investigation was in communication with those involved in international terrorism.”
Corderi: “With Osama Bin Laden?”
Webber: “Those associated with Osama Bin Laden, yes.”
He says the FBI has intentionally impeded the investigation being conducted by his agency, ICE.
Webber: “I was told point blank, they are not going to let ICE pursue this investigation.”
To understand why this hits a raw nerve for Joe Webber, you need to know what happened to him on September 11. Back then, before he took over the Houston office, he was in charge of the New York office of U.S. Customs which was located at number six World Trade Center, right next to the Twin Towers.
He was there when the first plane hit, Webber saw to it that all 500 of his staff evacuated. After the second plane struck he rushed back into his office.
Webber: “I felt an obligation to make sure that the building was empty.”
He was still inside when the first tower collapsed. Part of his building went with it. Debris rained down on top of him and he was trapped.
Corderi: “What were you thinking?”
Webber: “Well there were some private thoughts there, but I recall thinking that was the end. And thought of my family. Said a prayer.”
His prayer was answered when two firefighters came to his rescue.
That day changed him. He says he is haunted by unthinkable images and devastation.
Webber: “Words cannot describe the sight of people jumping from a building. It's difficult to get through a day without thinking about it, very difficult.”
Which is why when one year after September 11 his office zeroed in on that suspect in Houstonwho was allegedly raising money for terrorists, Webber says he and his agents dug hard for two years. He says they collected a lot of evidence of the suspect's terrorist ties, but needed more to build a criminal case. And the best way to do that was a wiretap. To get permission for one, they had to lay out what they'd learned so far in an affidavit.
Webber: “That affidavit referenced terrorism on 49 occasions, referenced bin Laden by name on three occasions, and referenced al-Qaida twice.”
Webber says he made a point of following President Bush's directive about sharing information and he submitted the affidavit to other federal law enforcement agencies.
The local FBI office and federal prosecutors in Houston were on board, he says. And so were Justice Department officials in Washington.
Webber: “And at every level, they said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead, good luck. ICE and FBI working well together in Houston.’ Everything was on track.”
But he still needed approval for the wiretap from FBI headquarters in Washington, where he says his request sat on a bureaucrat's desk for four months. Webber says he kept asking what was happening.
Corderi: “So you'd never experienced this kind of lag before?”
And, he says, what was making his blood boil during the wait, was the news he was hearing out of Iraq: terrorists offering reward money for the deaths of Americans.
Webber: “It was $3,000 for the death of a U.S. Serviceman, $2,000 for the death of an Iraq Serviceman, and $1,000 for a U.S. contractor.”
Corderi: “Without terrorist financing, that wouldn't be possible.”
Webber: “Correct. If they don't have the means of support to carry it out, they can't do it. I was no longer going to wait patiently.”
So, he says, with his terror funding suspect apparently still active, he called FBI headquarters directly last December and asked officials for a meeting to resolve any problems with the wiretap request.
Webber: “And the answer was, ‘We have too many people on vacation due to the holidays, and we'll be there next week.’ I was shocked. We work 7 by 24. It's a fulltime law enforcement operation.”
Webber says he finally got his meeting in January, But, still, no go-ahead for the wiretap.
Webber: “What the Bureau began to allege was, there were problems. There were conflicts. But when pushed for specifics, they couldn't articulate what those were.”
He says friends inside the FBI finally told him the real reason for the delays. It was because the case was not generated by the FBI itself, but came from Customs agents.
Corderi: “You mean a turf battle?”
Webber: “That's correct. That's correct.”
Corderi: “That the FBI would put a turf battle above national security?”
Webber: “That's absolutely my impression. You would think, in a post-9/11 environment, that an event like that wouldn't occur. But it did.”
Webber says he became fed up and wrote to two government offices he hoped could intervene, but didn't hear back. Finally, he contacted Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican with a history of investigating problems with the FBI.
Sen. Charles Grassley: “He's got a great deal of credibility.”
Sen. Grassley says he's been able to confirm key aspects of Webber's account and believes the FBI would have acted differently if the case had come from within.
Sen. Grassley: “They would've jumped on this so fast that you'd see the smoke. And they didn't jump on it. It's quite obvious.”
Corderi: “That seems incredible if you're talking about a terrorism investigation.”
Sen. Grassley: “It's a compromise of our national security. And it's evidence, further, of the institutional disease that the FBI has, that they always want to be in control of everything.”
Sen. Grassley says he discussed Joe Webber's case with FBI director Robert Mueller.
Sen. Grassley: “I don't want to repeat what he told me, but I think that I can conclude that he thought this was a very isolated incident. But it's not an isolated incident. Just that’s clear.”
Sen. Grassley says that because he's looking into other cases that may have been mishandled by the FBI for similar reasons -- turf battles. And, separately, federal agents have told Dateline of yet another terrorism funding investigation they say the Bureau neglected for two years because it didn't originate as an FBI case.
The FBI and ICE declined to be interviewed on camera and said that federal law constrains them from discussing matters under investigation. But they issued a joint statement saying that they "work closely together" on numerous investigations, and share a "spirit of cooperation ... at the highest levels."
They say "any and all terrorism leads are aggressively pursued" ... and though there is often healthy debate about the best.... approach, it's "never at the expense of public safety or national security." And they say they "have an established framework to discuss these issues, make decisions and move forward in the best interests of the American public."
As for Joe Webber's case, he says that between the time he asked for the wiretap and the time Sen. Grassley began asking questions, the government missed intercepting more than 700 communications by the suspected terrorist fundraiser operating on U.S. soil.
Webber: “Seven hundred conversations, never to be recovered. And if one dollar, one dollar has found its way into the hands of a terrorist that impacted the life of a U.S. citizen or a soldier in Iraq or even a citizen of another country, we lost. We lost.”
After four months and only after he complained to Sen. Grassley, Webber says, the FBI finally decided to pursue the case in its own way, but he fears it may be too late.
Corderi: “I can see someone saying it's sour grapes. The FBI has cut them out of the loop. It's sour grapes. Is there anything to that?”
Webber: “I don't believe so. People within the FBI have expressed their displeasure, within the FBI, about how badly this case was treated and how inappropriately the case was handled.”
Webber, who is about to retire, says he has no ulterior motives in coming forward -- that what he wants is to ensure that turf battles will no longer get in the way of a more important war: the one against terrorism.
Webber: “I am not a disgruntled employee. I love my job. I love our system of government. I somehow walked away from a building on September 11 due to two heroes, two firemen. I have a debt of gratitude I can never repay. I can never repay that. But I can't let this happen either. This can never happen again.”
Will we ever know what really happened in this case? Maybe. Sen. Grassley is now pushing both the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security for a formal review.
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