One week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the press corps, “This isn’t Pearl Harbor.” No, it was worse.
In 1941, the United States didn’t have a director of central intelligence, 14 intelligence agencies and an overall intelligence budget of more than $50 billion to provide early warning of enemy attack. One day after a Nigerian man nearly blew an airliner out of the sky, Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the media that the system had worked. No, the system was dysfunctional.
In 2009, we had two additional intelligence agencies, a czar for national intelligence and an intelligence budget of more than $75 billion. In all three cases, there was sufficient intelligence available to prevent the attacks. In all three cases, however, our intelligence efforts were unimaginative, divided and diffuse.
A blizzard of warnings went unheeded in all three cases. The United States had broken the Japanese military code, which provided many warnings of a decision to attack the United States. In the case of 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency received warnings from foreign liaison intelligence services, including the French, German, Israeli and Russian services.
The German intelligence service warned both the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli service, in the summer of 2001 that terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft and use them as weapons to attack US targets. The Israelis issued their own warnings to the FBI and the CIA in August 2001 that al-Qaeda was planning to attack US targets. The State Department and the CIA even possessed information that al-Qaeda had decided on targeting American Airlines and United Airlines, prompting some Foreign Service officers to change travel plans.
As early as August 2009, the CIA and the National Security Agency had sensitive information on a person of interest dubbed the “Nigerian,” who was suspected of meeting with terrorist elements in Yemen. The mainstream media are treating Yemen as a new concern, but Yemen has been a problem for terrorism for the past ten years.
Adm. Tony Zinni had been warned in 2000 not to refuel ships off the Yemeni coast, but chose to ignore these warnings. The USS Cole was attacked in October 2000. A prominent Nigerian banker and former senior government official, well known to the international community, relayed suspicions about his son to the US Embassy and the CIA station in Lagos, but there was no effort to approach Yemeni officials to gather information on the banker’s son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
The son was a poster child for the “no fly” list, buying his ticket with cash, checking no luggage, lying to British authorities about his student visa and spending several months in Yemen. The British denied Abdulmutallab reentry, but the US State Department didn’t even bother to check whether he had an entry visa for the United States.
In fact, he had a multiple entry visa and, since all intelligence and law enforcement agencies have access to State’s consular database listing visa holders, this fact was available throughout the community. It’s one thing to worry about due process in dealing with a US citizen; it makes no sense to wait for additional derogatory information in the case of a foreigner who has traveled to Yemen and whose father has provided a warning about his son’s extremism.
The simple fact is that the intelligence community is not a “community”; it does not share intelligence effectively and it fails to make corporate decisions. The NSA had transcripts of al-Qaeda phone conversations in 2001 and sensitive intercepts on the “Nigerian” in 2009 that it didn’t share with the CIA, the FBI or the National Security Council. The FBI accumulated intelligence on al-Qaeda that it hoped to use in a criminal case against Osama bin Laden; therefore, most of this intelligence never left the compartmented areas of FBI headquarters. The CIA withheld information on two 9/11 terrorists, presumably because it hoped to recruit these suspects as sources.
We were led to believe the intelligence situation had improved in the wake of 9/11, but in view of the traditional cultural and professional jealousies of the military and civilian intelligence agencies, we have no evidence of significant change. Various departments and agencies have their own watch lists for limiting travel of terrorist suspects, but apply their own parochial concerns to operational activities and often ignore the intelligence products of rival agencies.
The master list at the National Counter Terrorist Center is too large and unwieldy (more than 550,000 names) to be useful, and the State Department computer network lacks an automatic feedback loop that would link a suspect to a US visa. The Department of Homeland Security never should have been created and should have been abolished in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (remember “you’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie”). If we must have such a superfluous organization, then it should possess a centralized depository of terrorist suspects containing all relevant information.
The analytical capabilities of the CIA, the FBI and the DHS have not been enhanced by the creation of the intelligence czar. Moreover, it is revealing that President Barack Obama made his decision last month to increase troops in Afghanistan without requesting a National Intelligence Estimate from the so-called intelligence community. Perhaps, he understands that there are too many instances where assumptions drive facts in the intelligence process.
Former members of the 9/11 Commission are claiming that their recommendations have not been fully implemented, but it was the 9/11 Commission that helped to create the crazy-quilt intelligence organization that we now have, with too many working parts and a cumbersome bureaucracy. The Commission is responsible for the creation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a sclerotic and bloated bureaucracy that has done little to improve strategic intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is at the center of the Nigerian intelligence failure. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 demonstrated DHS is dysfunctional; the Nigerian failure teaches us that the DNI and the NCTC need reform.
The 9/11 Commission’s creation of an intelligence czar has ensured that diversity and competition in collection and analysis of intelligence will be given short shrift. Truth is elusive within the intelligence process, and there is rarely a single answer to a controversial question or problem. The best intelligence analysis often comes from contrarian thinkers, but the militarized intelligence process rewards consensus and not competition.
In the one area where we need centralization, watch lists for terrorist suspects, we have a redundancy of collections. Homeland Security keeps one list for border crossings; the State Department has a list for visas; the Transportation Security Administration has a no-fly list and a selectee list with 4,000 and 14,000 listings, respectively; and the National Counter Terrorism Center has an unwieldy database of 550,000 names. The criteria for each list differ, and it takes an interagency group to determine whether to place an individual on a specific list.
There is at least one thing we have to be thankful for. In view of the failed efforts of Robert Reid in 2001 and Abdulmutallab, we can be thankful al-Qaeda still has not perfected an effective detonator. We should also applaud the post-9/11 reforms that limited the amounts of liquid that can be taken on commercial aircraft.
The United States may not be so lucky the next time around, so President Obama must take a hard look at his entire national security team, particularly CIA Director Leon Panetta, DNI Dennis Blair, and NSC Deputy Director John Brennan, to make sure they are taking the necessary actions to reform the process. The failure points seem obvious, with bad decisions being made at a relatively low level in the process. The president has not demonstrated an interest in reforming the intelligence community, however, despite his campaign rhetoric.
Ironically, the president has left the CIA without its most effective component for investigating failure because he hasn’t named a statutory inspector general for the CIA to replace John Helgerson, who announced his retirement ten months ago. Helgerson was responsible for the most authoritative investigation of the 9/11 failure, which the Bush administration and the CIA managed to cover up.