Intelligence failure demands a shake-up

September 25, 2002|By Melvin A. Goodman

WASHINGTON -- In Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, there is a minor character, an anarchist called the Professor, whom no one dares to touch because he has wired himself to a powerful bomb.

The book ends with a view of the mad professor walking like a "pest in the street full of men." This grotesque vision, familiar to many in Israel, Colombia and Lebanon, is now a clear and present danger to Americans.

This vision brings home to us that, in the long run, it will be law enforcement agencies and the local police as well as intelligence collection and analysis that will win the war on terrorism.

We now know from the preliminary findings of the joint congressional intelligence committee that the timely use and distribution of intelligence data could have prevented Sept. 11. Many of the charges in the preliminary report are familiar, having appeared in news accounts over the past year, but the additional evidence of the overwhelming intelligence failure is both catastrophic and unacceptable.

We have a director of central intelligence, George Tenet, who declared a war on terrorism in 1998 but allocated no additional funding or personnel to the task force on terrorism.

We have an intelligence community of 14 departments and agencies with a budget exceeding $30 billion a year that never catalogued information on the use of airplanes as weapons, never sent collection requirements to operators in the field, never considered the possibility that al-Qaida would attack the United States or U.S. interests in this way.

Indeed, the first CIA acknowledgment of the possibility of weaponizing commercial aircraft for terrorism took place more than two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It turns out that agents and operators in the field did their job, but that the bureaucrats at headquarters in Washington did virtually nothing. We had human and communications intelligence that linked the hijacking and weaponizing of aircraft and we had solid reporting from the field on Osama bin Laden's modus operandi. But we lacked analytical assessments of the likelihood that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons.

FBI reporting from Phoenix and Minneapolis observed a pattern of behavior and called attention to Arab citizens enrolled in American flight schools, and asked for more resources and wiretap authority. FBI headquarters showed no concern.

The CIA had a report from the Philippine government that placed the CIA building on a list of possible targets, but the nation's leading intelligence agency remained complacent and lethargic. And despite ample evidence of possible attacks, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration as late as December 2000 dismissed the possibility of plans to target domestic civil aviation and the United States itself.

The refusal of the White House and the CIA to declassify the information provided to the president before last year's attacks suggests that important information did make its way to the highest levels of government. This may explain why both the president and the CIA director initially argued against any investigation of the intelligence failure and why, until last week, Mr. Bush adamantly opposed an independent inquiry that could counter the CIA's unwillingness to provide access to sensitive reporting and to working-level analysts and operators in the intelligence community.

The joint intelligence committee, despite its late start and its small staff, has done an excellent job of ferreting out evidence documenting the failures at the CIA and FBI.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama is right in demanding a blue-ribbon inquiry to get to the bottom of the failure and new leadership in the positions of director of central intelligence and director of the CIA.

The agency's failure on the terrorism issue over the past decade is nothing new. The CIA failed to monitor Indian nuclear testing in 1998 and was responsible for the shocking bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

It is long past time for Mr. Tenet to leave his two positions at the top of the intelligence ladder. If we do not immediately strengthen our intelligence agencies at the top, we will be hostage to more acts of terrorism.

Melvin A. Goodman is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former analyst for Soviet affairs at the CIA.

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