The real scandal of the Phoenix memo isn't that it was ignored--it's why it was ignored.
12:00 AM, May 24, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
GEORGE W. BUSH waited until he was safely in Europe to declare that he wanted no independent investigation into the "Phoenix memo," written in the summer of 2001, which detailed links between al Qaeda and young Arabs enrolled in American flight schools. The congressional intelligence committees are the "best place" for any inquiry, he said. Is the president acting to protect American intelligence? Or to protect his own skin?
Neither, as it turns out.
He's probably not protecting intelligence assets. We can tell because we already know the memo's author: FBI Special Agent Kenneth J. Williams, of "Squad 16." Williams has been described in various news accounts as an "expert," and even a "superstar." Thanks to the crack reporting of Fortune magazine's Richard Behar, we even know the contents of the memo, which had an executive summary that read: "Usama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona."
And clearly Bush is not protecting his own skin. The very smokiness of this gun absolves Bush of the charge that he's covering up his own incompetence. Had this memo reached the White House, no president could have failed to act on it without risking impeachment.
The real scandal of the FBI memo is that it wasn't passed up the line. And we can make a pretty good guess why it wasn't. In May 8 hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein asked FBI director Robert Mueller what had happened. Mueller replied, "There are more than 2,000 aviation academies in the United States. The latest figure I think I heard is something like 20,000 students attending them. And it was perceived that this would be a monumental undertaking without any specificity as to particular persons; the individuals who were being investigated by that agent in Phoenix were not the individuals that were involved in the September 11 attack."
What a load of nonsense. Any small-town newspaper reporter could have narrowed down that 20,000 to under a hundred in an afternoon, just by focusing on names like . . . oh, I don't know . . . try Mohamed, Walid, Marwan, and Hamza. Couldn't the entire FBI have done the same?
As it turns out, no. And the reason is, whoever got Williams's memo would understand that there is one commonsensical way to implement it: Look for Arabs. And given congressional pressure on racial profiling and the president's own outrageous pandering on the subject during the 2000 election campaign, Williams's lead was something no agent with an instinct for self-preservation would want to touch with a barge pole. Mueller's thinking must be taken as representative of the agency's. His invoking of "specificity as to particular persons" sounds like a term of art learned from some diversity consultant.
That's the scandal of the Phoenix memo. And if delicacy about the racial-profiling demagoguery that took root in Washington in the Clinton years interferes with a full accounting of the intelligence failures in the months before September 11, then that would be a bigger scandal still.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.