Report details CIA's failures ahead of 9/11

Spy agency lacked plan to counter al-Qaida threat

August 22, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The CIA had no documented game plan to fight al-Qaida and failed to marshal its resources fully to counter the threat in the years leading up to the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to an internal CIA report released yesterday.

The long-awaited report highlighted a "persistent strain in relations" between the CIA and the National Security Agency that continued into 2001 and had "a negative impact" on the intelligence agencies' collective effort to fight al-Qaida.

It assigned primary responsibility for the pre-Sept. 11 failures to former CIA Director George J. Tenet; the former head of the CIA's operations directorate, James Pavitt; and the former chief of the agency's Counterterrorism Center, Cofer Black.

CIA officers "did not always work effectively and cooperatively" and failed to follow through with operations and to analyze critical data related to al-Qaida, according to the report.

The report, completed in June 2005, is the first and only one to assign responsibility to specific CIA managers for mishandling their responsibilities with regard to the looming al-Qaida threat. The full report remains classified, but the 19-page executive summary that was released yesterday is relatively free of redaction, though some names of lower-level officials were blacked out.

CIA Inspector General John Helgerson wrote that he found no instance where a CIA employee broke the law, nor did he find "a single point of failure" that would have prevented the 2001 attacks. Many of the problems stemmed from a failure to follow up on al-Qaida-related issues, the report concluded.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who joined the agency in May 2006, had opposed releasing the report. But Congress required that it be made public when lawmakers passed a bill last month implementing many of the Sept. 11 panel's recommendations.

Releasing the report, Hayden said in a message yesterday to CIA employees, would distract the agency's officers from their counterterrorism duties. Its release "will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed," he said, noting that the CIA has been working to improve counterterrorism efforts.

The report recommended that the CIA establish an accountability board to decide whether specific employees should be punished. In 2005, then-Director Porter J. Goss said such a panel was unnecessary; Hayden has said he sees no reason to revisit that decision.

The failed effort to eliminate friction between the CIA and the NSA was a critical problem, said Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's bin Laden Unit until 1999. He added that he believes communication has improved but continues to be an obstacle.

Scheuer recalled a meeting in 1997 with the NSA's head of operations, Barbara McNamara, who brandished the 1947 National Security Act and argued that it gave the NSA complete control over intelligence gathered from eavesdropping on communications. He said the CIA's inability to obtain information from the NSA persisted, even as the NSA shared information with other nations, including Canada and Britain. "Tenet wouldn't do a thing about it," Scheuer said.

Tenet, in a statement yesterday, noted that a CIA inspector general report dated August 2001 had found that the CIA Counterterrorism Center's relationship with the NSA "has improved dramatically since the last inspection."

Other criticisms of the CIA in the 2005 report include:

The agency failed to produce a strategic assessment of al-Qaida and had produced no comprehensive reports on Osama bin Laden since 1993.

Tenet did not use his power to shift money toward fighting al-Qaida and allowed counterterrorism resources to be diverted.

Poor cooperation between agencies led to a failure to place two Sept. 11 hijackers - Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Midhar - on watch lists, even though 50 to 60 people read one or more CIA cables on their travels. There was a "systemic breakdown" in communication, including with the FBI and the NSA.

Managers at the Counterterrorism Center, including Black, left the bin Laden Unit overworked, poorly trained and understaffed.

In a statement defending his leadership of the CIA, Tenet said he had a "robust plan" to counter al-Qaida, as demonstrated by a proposal for invading Afghanistan that he sent to President Bush four days after the Sept. 11 attacks. He also defended his management of the agency's budget, saying that he sought more money for counterterrorism efforts.

The report, he said, "vastly under appreciates the challenges faced and heroic performance of the hard-working men and women of the CIA." But he acknowledged the CIA should have performed better before the attacks.

Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the Sept. 11 commission, said in an interview that the report mirrored many of his panel's findings. He said he wished Hayden had said more, in his message yesterday to CIA employees, about progress the agency has made.

"It's a little disappointing to read the fact that the CIA is not really pointing out how things have changed, but instead saying it's too bad we're revisiting these issues," he said. "Is there a mechanism set up right now so that they follow up on warnings much better?"

Kean said that if progress had been made, Hayden would have emphasized it, adding: "And that worries me."

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano pointed to Goss' statement that all 20 systemic problems identified in the report were being addressed through a series of reforms.

The NSA did not provide an immediate response to the charges of friction with the CIA.

The FBI's deputy director, John S. Pistole, said in a statement: "Today, the relationship of the FBI and CIA has never been stronger."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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