Realigning U.S. Intelligence

What lessons should the U.S. security agencies draw from the terrorist attacks?

May 22, 2002

What lessons should the U.S. security agencies draw from the terrorist attacks?

At the moment, it appears that the primary lesson learned from the al Qaeda attacks on the United States has been a sad truth: Getting specific warning of a terrorist attack is a daunting task. And no matter how well prepared, a nation can still be surprised.

After all, the United States and its intelligence organizations had been focused on al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden since the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

It had a pretty good understanding of the organization. News reports have noted that U.S. President George W. Bush even knew elements of the plot. But that was a far cry from an immediate, tactical warning.

The real lesson that should be learned at this stage is more fundamental. It includes changes in how intelligence is gathered — and how law enforcement agencies cooperate.

The war in Afghanistan suggests that the CIA had an adequate network in that country, even if it didn’t have a spy in al Qaeda’s inner circle before September 11.

It is not likely to have such a spy in the future — even if the CIA were dramatically reshaped. The Middle East is an extremely challenging environment for intelligence gathering. Few Americans — even those fluent in Arabic — are likely to be experts at hanging out in Middle Eastern bazaars and trolling for terrorist recruits.

Other nations — including Syria, which previously has not been friends with the United States — might prove better at providing intelligence. Already, the United States is collaborating intelligence with nations (such as Sudan) that have been U.S. military targets in recent years.

In one sense, terrorism has become a bridge between the old and new worlds of intelligence. Old school methods, such as spying and eavesdropping, remain relevant.

But terrorism is also a part of the new world of intelligence, because it requires cooperating with other states and groups in sensitive matters.

From that perspective, the prevailing U.S. intelligence mindset has failed in at least two senses. The truth is that even those experts who had spent decades concocting scenarios for terrorist attacks could not have predicted the events of September 11.

In this regard, the analogy with Pearl Harbor is apt. One plane crashing into a building would have been a shock — but not a surprise. To have four planes hijacked within an hour came as a surprise — and a shock as well.

Anticipating September 11 would have required shifting mindsets from bombs on planes to planes as bombs. The shock to the system provided by the World Trade Center attacks makes it easier to abandon the previous mindset.

U.S. police and intelligence officials quickly picked up the trail of the hijackers who had taken flying lessons, but had not been interested in take-offs and landings.

America’s intelligence authorities may not anticipate the next attacks, but at the very least, they will discount neither the competence — nor the creativity — of those who perpetrate them. Unfortunately, future acts of terrorism will continue to test the creativity of the U.S. intelligence community.

New links Organizing U.S. intelligence agencies in a way that they will be able to cooperate with law enforcement will not be easy. When I first went to Washington in the 1970s, it was literally true that the directors of the CIA and the FBI weren’t on speaking terms.

That state of affairs has improved. But institutional jealousies are still there. As a matter of fact, the existing institutions were originally separated on purpose — which served U.S. interests well enough during the Cold War.

However, this separation of intelligence roles and responsibilities set the United States up for failure on September 11. When the CIA was created, for instance, President Truman worried openly about creating a Gestapo-like organization. Thus, the CIA was fashioned as a foreign intelligence operation specifically prohibited from engaging in domestic law enforcement.

The violations of Americans’ rights that were uncovered during the investigations of intelligence abuses in the 1970s emerged from a dangerous blend of law enforcement and counter-intelligence. The heyday of these activities occurred during J. Edgar Hoover’s long tenure at the helm of the FBI. Lawmakers subsequently sought to raise the wall between law enforcement and intelligence operations — and not to facilitate any meaningful cooperation across that divide.

The results were all too vividly on display on September 11, 2002. A CIA cable dated August 27 warned of two Bin Laden associates who had entered the United States and two others who were attempting entry. Apparently, the FBI did little with the information and also failed to share it with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — until the INS had already admitted the first pair into the country.

The FBI, in turn, did not tell the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be on the lookout for the four — because the FAA is not a law enforcement agency. And it did not occur to anybody to tell the airlines — presumably because they are private companies.

Governor Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, has suffered the fate of most Washington “czars” who have lots of responsibility — and no authority (or budget). At least he is making a start toward putting intelligence and law enforcement closer together. But the American people and their leaders are just beginning to think about the ramifications. Given the very real concerns about the civil rights of U.S. citizens, that is a very serious issue.