Skip to comments.WHAT WENT WRONG: The C.I.A. and the failure of American intelligence
Posted on 10/02/2001 6:22:46 AM PDT by Liz
After more than two weeks of around-the-clock investigation into the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American intelligence community remains confused, divided, and unsure about how the terrorists operated, how many there were, and what they might do next. It was that lack of solid information, government officials told me, that was the key factor behind the Bush Administration's decision last week not to issue a promised white paper listing the evidence linking Osama bin Laden's organization to the attacks.
There is consensus within the government on two issues: the terrorist attacks were brilliantly planned and executed, and the intelligence community was in no way prepared to stop them. One bureaucratic victim, the officials said, may be George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose resignation is considered a necessity by many in the Administration. "The system is after Tenet," one senior officer told me. "It wants to get rid of him."
The investigators are now split into at least two factions. One, centered in the F.B.I., believes that the terrorists may not have been "a cohesive group," as one involved official put it, before they started training and working together on this operation. "These guys look like a pickup basketball team," he said. "A bunch of guys who got together." The F.B.I. is still trying to sort out the identities and backgrounds of the hijackers. The fact is, the official acknowledged, "we don't know much about them."
These investigators suspect that the suicide teams were simply lucky. "In your wildest dreams, do you think they thought they'd be able to pull off four hijackings?" the official asked. "Just taking out one jet and getting it into the ground would have been a success. These are not supermen." He explained that the most important advantage the hijackers had, aside from the element of surprise, was history: in the past, most hijackings had ended up safely on the ground at a Third World airport, so pilots had been trained to coöperate.
Another view, centered in the Pentagon and the C.I.A., credits the hijackers with years of advance planning and practice, and a deliberate after-the-fact disinformation campaign. "These guys were below everybody's radarthey're professionals," an official said. "There's no more than five or six in a cell. Three men will know the plan; three won't know. They've been 'sleeping' out there for years and years." One military planner told me that many of his colleagues believe that the terrorists "went to ground and pulled phone lines" well before September 11ththat is, concealed traces of their activities.
It is widely believed that the terrorists had a support team, and the fact that the F.B.I. has been unable to track down fellow-conspirators who were left behind in the United States is seen as further evidence of careful planning. "Look," one person familiar with the investigation said. "If it were as simple and straightforward as a lucky one-off oddball operation, then the seeds of confusion would not have been sown as they were."
Many of the investigators believe that some of the initial clues that were uncovered about the terrorists' identities and preparations, such as flight manuals, were meant to be found. A former high-level intelligence official told me, "Whatever trail was left was left deliberatelyfor the F.B.I. to chase."
In interviews over the past two weeks, a number of intelligence officials have raised questions about Osama bin Laden's capabilities. "This guy sits in a cave in Afghanistan and he's running this operation?" one C.I.A. official asked. "It's so huge. He couldn't have done it alone." A senior military officer told me that because of the visas and other documentation needed to infiltrate team members into the United States a major foreign intelligence service might also have been involved. "To get somebody to fly an airplaneto kill himself," the official added, further suggests that "somebody paid his family a hell of a lot of money."
"These people are not necessarily all from bin Laden," a Justice Department official told me. "We're still running a lot of stuff out," he said, adding that the F.B.I. has been inundated with leads. On September 23rd, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a television interviewer that "we will put before the world, the American people, a persuasive case" showing that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks. But the widely anticipated white paper could not be published, the Justice Department official said, for lack of hard facts. "There was not enough to make a sale."
The Administration justified the delay by telling the press that most of the information was classified and could not yet be released. Last week, however, a senior C.I.A. official confirmed that the intelligence community had not yet developed a significant amount of solid information about the terrorists' operations, financing, and planning. "One day, we'll know, but at the moment we don't know," the official said.
"To me," he added, "the scariest thing is that these guys"the terrorists"got the first one free. They knew that the standard operating procedure in an aircraft hijacking was to play for time. And they knew for sure that after this the security on airplanes was going to go way up. So whatever they've planned for the next round they had in place already."
The concern about a second attack was repeated by others involved in the investigation. Some in the F.B.I. now suspect that the terrorists are following a war plan devised by the convicted conspirator Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who is believed to have been the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef was involved in plans that called for, among other things, the releasing of poisons in the air and the bombing of the tunnels between New York City and New Jersey. The government's concern about the potential threat from hazardous-waste haulers was heightened by the Yousef case.
"Do they go chem/bio in one, two, or three years?" one senior general asked rhetorically. "We must now make a difficult transition from reliance on law enforcement to the preëmptive. That part is hard. Can we recruit enough good people?" In recent years, he said, "we've been hiring kids out of college who are computer geeks." He continued, "This is about going back to deep, hard dirty work, with tough people going down dark alleys with good instincts."
Today's C.I.A. is not up to the job. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the C.I.A. has become increasingly bureaucratic and unwilling to take risks, and has promoted officers who shared such values. ("The consciousness of kind," one former officer says.) It has steadily reduced its reliance on overseas human intelligence and cut the number of case officers abroadmembers of the clandestine service, now known formally as the Directorate of Operations, or D.O., whose mission is to recruit spies. (It used to be called the "dirty tricks" department.) Instead, the agency has relied on liaison relationshipsreports from friendly intelligence services and police departments around the worldand on technical collection systems.
It won't be easy to put agents back in the field. During the Cold War, the agency's most important mission was to recruit spies from within the Soviet Union's military and its diplomatic corps. C.I.A. agents were assigned as diplomatic or cultural officers at American embassies in major cities, and much of their work could be done at diplomatic functions and other social events. For an agent with such cover, the consequence of being exposed was usually nothing more than expulsion from the host country and temporary reassignment to a desk in Washington. Today, in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the Middle East or South Asia, a C.I.A. operative would have to speak the local language and be able to blend in. The operative should seemingly have nothing to do with any Americans, or with the American embassy, if there is one. The status is known inside the agency as "nonofficial cover," or NOC. Exposure could mean death.
It's possible that there isn't a single such officer operating today inside Islamic-fundamentalist circles. In an essay published last summer in The Atlantic Monthly, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who served for nearly a decade as a case officer in the C.I.A.'s Near East Division, quoted one C.I.A. man as saying, "For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing." Another officer told Gerecht, "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen."
At the same time, the D.O. has been badly hurt by a series of resignations and retirements among high-level people, including four men whose names are little known to the public but who were widely respected throughout the agency: Douglas Smith, who spent thirty-one years in the clandestine service; William Lofgren, who at his retirement, in 1996, was chief of the Central Eurasia Division; David Manners, who was chief of station in Amman, Jordan, when he left the agency, in 1998; and Robert Baer, an Arabic speaker who was considered perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East. All left with feelings of bitterness over the agency's procedures for running clandestine operations.
"We'll never solve the terrorism issue until we reconstitute the D.O.," a former senior clandestine officer told me. "The first line of defense, and the most crucial line of defense, is human intelligence." Baer, who was awarded a Career Intelligence Medal after his resignation, in late 1997, said, "You wouldn't believe how bad it is. What saved the White House on Flight 93"the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania"was a bunch of rugby players. Is that what you're paying thirty billion dollars for?" He was referring to the federal budget for intelligence. He and his colleagues aren't surprised that the F.B.I. had no warning of the attack. "The bureau is wonderful in solving crimes after they're committed," one C.I.A. man said. "But it's not good at penetration. We've got to do it."
Today, the C.I.A. doesn't have enough qualified case officers to man its many stations and bases around the world. Two retired agents have been brought back on a rotating basis to take temporary charge of the small base in Karachi, Pakistan, a focal point for terrorist activity. (Karachi was the site of the murder, in 1995, of two Americans, one of them a C.I.A. employee, allegedly in retaliation for the arrest in Pakistan of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef.) A retired agent also runs the larger C.I.A. station in Dacca, Bangladesh, a Muslim nation that could be a source of recruits. Other retirees run C.I.A. stations in Africa.
One hard question is what lengths the C.I.A. should go to. In an interview, two former operations officers cited the tactics used in the late nineteen-eighties by the Jordanian security service, in its successful effort to bring down Abu Nidal, the Palestinian who led what was at the time "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence," according to the State Department. Abu Nidal's group was best known for its role in two bloody gun and grenade attacks on check-in desks for El Al, the Israeli airline, at the Rome and Vienna airports in December, 1985. At his peak, Abu Nidal threatened the life of King Hussein of Jordanwhom he called "the pygmy king"and the King responded, according to the former intelligence officers, by telling his state security service, "Go get them."
The Jordanians did not move directly against suspected Abu Nidal followers but seized close family members insteadmothers and brothers. The Abu Nidal suspect would be approached, given a telephone, and told to call his mother, who would say, according to one C.I.A. man, "Son, they'll take care of me if you don't do what they ask." (To his knowledge, the official carefully added, all the suspects agreed to talk before any family members were actually harmed.) By the early nineteen-nineties, the group was crippled by internal dissent and was no longer a significant terrorist organization. (Abu Nidal, now in his sixties and in poor health, is believed to be living quietly in Egypt.) "Jordan is the one nation that totally succeeded in penetrating a group," the official added. "You have to get their families under control."
Such tactics defy the American rule of law, of course, and the C.I.A.'s procedures, but, when it comes to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices, the official insisted, there is no alternative. "We need to do thisknock them down one by one," he said. "Are we serious about getting rid of the probleminstead of sitting around making diversity quilts?"
Oddly, it is like bank deregulation: you can deregulate banks more if you increase the oversight and inspecitions at an equal pace. You can reduce your military, but you must offset that with increases in intel, snoops, and special ops.
HUMINT was key. Clinton enforced a ridiculous Human Rights Scrub Policy that
would have made PBS's Mr Rogers the only qualified intel asset.....cardigan and all.....
Intel is always responsible for a failure and Ops for a success. Don't buy into it.
Please also note that there may be ALOT more known that is not being admitted to for security reasons?
It isn't good opsec to have your hand tipped to the media, right? I mean, really, OBL watches CNN too. Let's give our guys a little more credit, for all we know it could have been much worse.
Is this not disgusting?
I demand to know when Mary "Joke" White is gonna do her blankety-blank
job and nail Torricelli.....shoulda been done months ago.
The reason that terrorist are free to live among us is because we worship at the alter of diversity and multiculturalism.
The threat was clearly visible to everyone but no one wanted to be branded a racist or a bigot by pointing out behavior of Arab and Muslims in America.
Instead of following their instincts, the cult of political correctness has blinded everyone to the threat of Arab and Muslims. Instead, Americans are taught to question their own biases of why they would suspect Arabs and Muslims in the first place. Everyone is now too afraid of being called a racist to report suspicious people and behavior.
Likewise, our intelligence agencies are hog-tied by charges of racial profiling.
What would have happened to an agent who questioned the large influx of Arabs and Muslims coming into the United States? What would have happened to an agent that suggested that Arabs and Muslims might pose a threat to national security? Would he have been promoted for his foresight or demoted for his racist judgements?
As long as we are ruled by political correctness instead of reason and prudence, we will be vulnerable to any foreign attack.
My opinion precisely. You may have seen network news reports, people have come forward
saying they reported suspicious behavior on the part of the hijackers before it happened.
They were not taken seriously because the pansy Klintoons were afraid of being tagged
politically incorrect.....not supporting "diversity."
What hogwash. 7000 people are dead, missing and wounded.
This we know. The purpose of this thread is to encourage dialogue so that
brilliant analysts like you will come forth to brief us on the insignificance of this article.
Figures. This absurdity seems so rational.....thanks to the Klintoon "legacy" of spin and obfuscation.
Thanks to Klintoons' laid-back (no pun intended, monica blowhard) policies.....
which amounted to total inattention, perhaps out of ignorance, to America's security needs.
Useful analysis form Hirsch.
Intelligent observations & insights from you at #3.
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