Lack of warning highlights spy agencies' shortcomings

High-tech CIA, NSA didn't adapt after Cold War, critics say

Terrorism Strikes America


September 13, 2001|By Scott Shane and Laura Sullivan | Scott Shane and Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

U.S. intelligence agencies failed utterly to give warning of Tuesday's huge terrorist assault, revealing how helpless the world's most technologically advanced spy apparatus can be before terrorists armed with only plane tickets and box cutters.

The obliviousness of the spy agencies, which have a combined $30 billion budget and tens of thousands of employees, drew criticism from some members of Congress and intelligence experts yesterday.

Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after a closed hearing with intelligence chiefs that the failure points to the need for an overhaul of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The Florida Democrat called some of the NSA's eavesdropping techniques ineffective, said the agencies need greater linguistic capabilities and called for the creation of a new post, for a single representative of the intelligence agencies to be accountable to Congress.

Some intelligence experts said the lapse shows that the CIA and NSA have not shed their Cold War orientation and have overspent on technology while neglecting old-fashioned human spying.

Accustomed for decades to operating against hostile nations, the agencies are less adept at tracking loosely knit, low-technology terrorist organizations that cross borders, the specialists said.

"I'm puzzled that we didn't pick up anything at all," said Gregory F. Treverton, a RAND Corp. analyst and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Noting growing evidence linking Osama bin Laden's far-flung terror network to the attacks, he said, "We've been so focused on Osama bin Laden, and there were indications in recent weeks he might be planning a major attack."

Nonetheless, much of the criticism was muted, reflecting a belief that the plotting of the attacks may have left scant clues for American spies to pick up.

"People in the intelligence community are more acutely aware than anyone else right now at how their efforts have failed," said Steven Aftergood, intelligence policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "This is the kind of incident they exist in order to prevent."

Mark M. Lowenthal, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, said: "You have to ask, To what degree was this knowable in advance? Did they have to bring in a bomb? No - the plane was the bomb. That's very, very clever."

Against contemporary terrorists of the kind sponsored by bin Laden, the traditional tools of espionage - chiefly eavesdropping and recruiting agents - have often proved ineffective. And when terrorists are willing to die, their operations can be made far simpler and far less detectable, several specialists said.

In February, CIA Director George J. Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that state-sponsored terrorism was being supplanted by "transnational groups with decentralized leadership" and with terrorist operations "initiated and executed at lower levels."

But despite a keen awareness of such threats, the transition after the end of the Cold War has not been easy, particularly at the NSA, said James Bamford, author of two books on the eavesdropping agency.

"NSA's been geared for 50 years to fixed targets - mostly one huge country, the Soviet Union," Bamford said. "They were very good at finding out whether the Russians were adding fuel to a particular missile base. But now you have a group of terrorists that basically operate without a country. There's no location to focus on."

The adjustment was complicated by the fact that the NSA was downsized by one-third in the early 1990s, at the same time it had to reduce the number of Russian linguists and recruit specialists in dozens of other languages. The agency's manpower in Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages remains inadequate, Bamford said.

While this week's attacks were clearly planned with meticulous care, the plotting would not have been easy for NSA to detect, Bamford said. Money trails of wire transfers and shipping records for explosives and chemicals would not have been required.

"The total cost was maybe an apartment, a few knives and some one-way plane tickets," Bamford said. "I feel sorry for NSA. They must be going through a terrible time, but there may not be a lot they could have done."

Loch K. Johnson, an author on intelligence at the University of Georgia and former congressional intelligence staffer, acknowledged the difficulty of tracking terrorists. But he said the United States is paying a steep price for neglecting human spying.

In recent years, he said, the United States has spent $7 on spy technology, chiefly satellites, for every dollar invested in human intelligence. And satellites can be next to useless against low-tech targets such as these hijackers, he said.

"Our fixation with technical intelligence has really hurt us," he said. "Human intelligence has become the stepchild.

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