Nation Topics - US Intelligence
News and Features
Resentment of US policies is growing.
A new Defense Department spy office could politicize intelligence gathering.
A spate of recent terrorism events--the bombing of a French tanker, the
destruction of a nightclub in Bali, an FBI warning of a "spectacular" Al
Qaeda action and the surfacing of a new Osama bi
Would-be intelligence watchdogs often lack the knowledge or the will to be effective.
The tax-supported Marshall Center offers more fun and games than war games.
In July the Washington Post, under the headline "Panel Finds No
'Smoking Gun' in Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failures," reported that the
House and Senate intelligence committees jointly investigating the
September 11 attack had "uncovered no single piece of information that,
if properly analyzed, could have prevented the disaster, according to
members of the panel." With an implied that's-that, the committees then
went on to examine broader matters concerning systemic weaknesses within
the intelligence agencies. That was good news for the cloak-and-dagger
set and the Clinton and Bush administrations. Systemic problems tend to
be treated as no one's fault. The committees were signaling that there
would be no accountability for mistakes made by the spies before
In the past year, numerous media accounts have revealed screw-ups,
miscalculations and oversights. The FBI didn't pursue leads on potential
terrorists enrolled at US aviation schools. The CIA had learned that a
suspected terrorist--who would end up on the flight that hit the
Pentagon--was in the United States after attending an Al Qaeda summit,
and it failed to notify the FBI. The CIA didn't act on intelligence
going back to the mid-1990s suggesting that Al Qaeda was interested in a
9/11-type attack. Time magazine noted recently that George W.
Bush's national security team did not respond quickly to a proposal to
"roll back" Al Qaeda.
Hints were ignored and the intelligence system failed, an indication
that reform is vital. To reform effectively, it is necessary to zero in
on specific mistakes as well as big-picture flaws. Yet the
committees--distracted by personnel disputes and a leak
investigation--have not indicated that this sort of comprehensive probe
is under way (the Senate Judiciary Committee did examine the FBI's
handling of its botched investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, an
alleged 9/11 conspirator, and identified numerous incidents of
While the meandering September 11 inquiry is far from done, in recent
months both committees released little-noticed reports (accompanying the
intelligence budget they approved) showing that the systemic stuff is
pretty awful. The Senate committee observed, "it is very difficult to
determine how much money the Intelligence Community has budgeted for
counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterproliferation." It
complained that the CIA, the National Security Agency and other
intelligence bureaucracies are not "able to produce auditable financial
statements"; that thousands of intelligence slots in the military go
unfilled each year, including scores of analysis openings at the US
Central Command, which is responsible for the fight against Al Qaeda;
that the intelligence agencies' terrorist databases are a mess; that FBI
training for counterterrorism agents is inadequate. The committee also
groused that the "community" has repeatedly ignored Congressional
requests for information.
The House intelligence committee offered a grimmer assessment. It
maintained that extra funding is being put "into an organizational
framework that gives little indication of being prepared to produce
intelligence capabilities that can address the national security demands
of the future." The committee noted that "significant gaps in the
Community's analytical capabilities are widening, and present
opportunity for further surprise in national security areas." It
implored Bush to act on the findings of a commission led by Brent
Scowcroft, Bush Senior's National Security Adviser, which last year
recommended placing the Pentagon's three largest intelligence-collection
agencies, including the NSA, under control of the director of central
intelligence. With that plea the committee was urging the reversal of a
decades-long trend in which military imperatives--rather than political,
economic or diplomatic concerns--drive the collection and analysis of
intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, though, has thwarted
such a shift.
And a House intelligence subcommittee put out a brief September 11
report in July that cited fundamental flaws within the intelligence
bureaucracy. "CIA's problems," it said, "require more than just
expressed commitment from senior CIA managers...the subcommittee will be
looking for deeds rather than words." Did that mean that the
subcommittee, ten months after September 11, was still not persuaded
that the CIA was acting vigorously to correct the institutional defects
that led to the surprise of that day?
Those reports, produced by committees traditionally cozy with the
"community," hardly inspire confidence in the spies. They could cause
one to wonder whether the committees are throwing money (the several
billion dollars added post-9/11 to the classified $30 billion-plus
intelligence budget) at a wasteful and disorganized bureaucracy. And the
problems are probably worse than described. For years, the intelligence
community has been plagued with fragmentation and insufficient
coordination and dominated by military concerns as the bureaucratic
rigor mortis that inhibits unorthodox thinking (as in how to better
understand the world, rather than how to be like Bond) has deepened. Mel
Goodman, a senior CIA analyst for twenty-four years, maintains that the
"analytical culture" at the CIA has "collapsed" over time, leaving the
agency without the ability to conduct effective long-term research and
analysis. And Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at the RAND
Corporation and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence
Council, notes that within the CIA "an emphasis to be fast and quick
drives out the ability to think longer and harder" about subjects not in
the day's headlines. He sensibly favors transforming the analytical side
of the CIA into a much more open shop that publicly interacts with think
tanks, academics and nongovernmental organizations. "We need to put
together unconventional sets of people to get a deeper understanding,
one with a more historical foundation," Treverton says. "But how that
gets done is the question."
Indeed. How do you get any bureaucracy--particularly a clandestine
one--to behave creatively and responsibly? Inertia and infighting have
often derailed well-intentioned intelligence reform (see Rumsfeld).
Whatever its chances, fundamental reform--including demilitarizing
intelligence, reshaping the bureaucracy and transforming internal
values--is unlikely in the absence of a thorough, as-public-as-possible
investigation into the errors of September 11, large and small.
Taking on the intelligence community (and forcing a transformation)
appears to be too much for the committees, which have been slow to hold
public hearings. They have politely issued complaints, but they mostly
have eschewed fingerpointing for handwringing. In a slap at the
committees in July, the House approved legislation to establish an
independent commission to examine September 11 intelligence issues. In
the Senate, Joe Lieberman and John McCain have been pushing an
independent review that would also dissect transportation security and
diplomatic and military matters. The less than impressive performance of
the intelligence committees "has made people in both houses look at the
independent commission bill again," says one Democratic Congressional
aide. The Administration opposes such a panel.
In February CIA chief George Tenet testified that the agency had done no
wrong regarding 9/11, and that the attack was not due to a "failure of
attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." The
committees ought to question his grip on reality. Yet they don't seem
eager to disprove Tenet or to probe or challenge the covert bureaucracy.
They show no signs of exploring all the intelligence and policy errors
related to September 11. And so, they are unlikely to fix them.
The National Endowment for Democracy has been busy--and far from
It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism,
but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get
librarians to spy. Under an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act,
federal agents can obtain a warrant to acquire information about library
users. According to a recent survey, agents have been showing up at libraries--a lot--asking librarians for reading
records. Nearly everything about the procedure--from the granting of the
warrants to the search itself--is secret (as an excellent story in the
San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently). But, unlike in the
cold war years, when the FBI last tried to conduct such library
surveillance, this time around, top librarians are on the warpath to
protect reader privacy. And Congress wants Attorney General John
Ashcroft to account for his agents' library conduct.
It wasn't like this back in George W.'s daddy's day.
Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated a secret
counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back
then the Feds were particularly concerned about what Soviet bloc
citizens were reading in the nation's premier science libraries. In the
words of Herbert Foerstel, a science librarian in those years, "Agents
would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash
a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of
'sensitive but unclassified' information."
Today, with Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in hand, law enforcement
agents are at it again. This time, the stated purpose is to gather
information on people the government suspects of having ties to
terrorists or plotting an attack. The act makes it hard to track just
what's going on. Anyone who receives an FBI request is prohibited, under
threat of prosecution, from revealing the FBI visit to anyone, even to
the patron whose records are subject to search.
On April 3 I interviewed Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the
American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, on
Working Assets Radio, and the interview illustrated the problem. To
paraphrase: Flanders: "How many libraries have received information
requests from the FBI?" Stone: "They are not allowed to tell us, and we
are not allowed to say."
But in February one enterprising library sciences professor sent a
survey to 1,503 libraries around the country. Dr. Leigh Estabrook asked
librarians for answers to a set of questions, to which they did not have
to append their name. According to Estabrook's raw data, presented this
spring at a Public Library Association conference, eighty-five of the
libraries surveyed report that authorities (for example, FBI or police)
requested information about their patrons pursuant to the events of
September 11. More worrisome, about one-fifth of the libraries said
staff had changed their attitude toward or treatment of users in some
way. More than 10 percent (118) reported that they had become more
restrictive of Internet use. Seventy-seven said they had monitored what
patrons were doing.
Librarians on the alert aren't necessarily a bad thing. In Florida, an
attentive Delray Beach librarian reported the use of her library by a
group of Middle Eastern men, and they turned out to have connections to
the attacks of 9/11.
But some of this monitoring may be illegal. Since the abuses of the cold
war, almost every state has passed confidentiality laws to protect the
privacy of personal records. Since passage of the USA Patriot Act, the
American Library Association has been busy reminding librarians of their
abilities to question things like federal search warrants and advising
them of the best practices to undertake to protect confidentiality of
patrons and themselves. In January, the ALA released a set of guidelines
to inform librarians of what search warrants were, what subpoenas were
and how they could react if in fact they were presented with such
documents. Then in June, the ALA's governing council passed a resolution
publicly affirming the privacy rights of patrons and implicitly
instructing library staff to do all they can to protect their clients'
"Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and
free association," says the ALA council statement, in part. It wouldn't
be a bad idea for librarians to post the statement in the stacks.
Concerned library readers should also know that one sure-fire way to
keep your reading records private is to take back your borrowed books on
time. The ALA's Stone told Working Assets Radio that the circulation
software most libraries use today automatically erases a reader's
borrowing record once a book is returned and all fines are paid.
Congress is getting interested as well. On June 13 a bipartisan
committee sent a twelve-page letter to John Ashcroft demanding details
on the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Representative James
Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, the staunch conservative chair
of the House Judiciary Committee, and Michigan Democrat John Conyers,
the progressive, ranking Democrat, want to know, among other things,
just how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to libraries,
bookstores and newspapers under Section 215 and what safeguards are in
place to prevent abuse. The letter asked for written answers by July 9,
which at presstime had yet to be received; then Sensenbrenner and
Conyers plan to hold hearings on the response. Are G-men harassing your
librarian? The hearings should make for good, hot summer viewing on
C-Span. Meanwhile, library staff are under a lot of pressure--why not
drop by or write to your librarian and send a message of support?
The $4.4 million damages award in June against FBI agents and Oakland
police for violating the constitutional rights of environmental
activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, wrongly accused of terrorism in
1990, represents more than the culmination of a twelve-year struggle for
vindication. The case also highlights the risks of today's antiterrorism
measures and offers lessons both daunting and encouraging about the
In May 1990, an explosion tore through the car carrying Earth First!
organizers Bari and Cherney. Bari suffered a fractured pelvis; Cherney,
less serious injuries. They assumed the bombing was the work of
antienvironmentalists, meant to disrupt planning for the Redwood Summer
of civil disobedience against the logging of old-growth forest.
The FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force jumped to quite a different
conclusion. As soon as Bari and Cherney were identified, the FBI
informed the local police and leaked to the press that the pair were
terrorists. The authorities claimed that Bari must have made the bomb
herself and that it had accidentally exploded while the two were
carrying it to an unknown target. Bari was placed under arrest in her
hospital bed. Police and FBI agents searched houses in Oakland where
Bari and Cherney had stayed and questioned their fellow activists. Over
the next two months, until the government announced it would not charge
the two environmentalists, the local police and the FBI continued to
call them terrorists.
Only after years of litigation did the truth emerge: The FBI, before the
bombing, had been investigating Bari and Cherney because of their
political activism. When the bomb went off, the FBI shaded the facts to
fit an ideological presumption of guilt. It was also revealed that the
FBI, even after Bari and Cherney had been cleared, collected data
nationwide on hundreds of individuals and groups merely on the basis of
their association with the two Earth First! activists.
The case demonstrates how the truth will come out when the judiciary
fulfills its constitutional role. With patience, skill and funding,
committed activists and lawyers can bring accountability to the FBI.
Just as Bari and Cherney won, just as the secret evidence cases brought
after the 1996 antiterrorism law melted in the face of judicial
challenges, so the material witness detentions and other rights
violations of today will ultimately be held unconstitutional. But the
FBI and the Justice Department will resist oversight and use secrecy and
delaying tactics to evade accountability, prolonging personal and
political damage. Justice was too late for Judi Bari. She died of cancer
The most sobering lesson of the Bari-Cherney case may be this: The FBI's
focus on politics over hard evidence meant that the real bomber was
never captured. In the same way, the Attorney General's recent
announcement that the FBI can monitor meetings and groups with no prior
suspicion of criminal conduct is likely to take the FBI down the path of
investigations based on politics, ethnicity or religion, while real
terrorists escape detection.
The timing of George W. Bush's proposal for a Cabinet-level Department
of Homeland Security--hastily unveiled when revelations about FBI lapses
were hitting the front pages--smacks of high-level damage control. And
it was followed by the announcement of the arrest in May of a
Brooklyn-born Al Qaeda plotter who allegedly intended to set off a
"dirty" bomb. This convenient coup was touted as an example of
cooperation between the FBI and the CIA and used to bolster support for
the Bush plan. Nevertheless, consolidating agencies that deal with the
issues of domestic security and reducing bureaucratic rivalry and lack
of direction make sense, if done right.
To be sure, reorganizing twenty-two agencies with 169,000 employees by
Bush's deadline of January 1, 2003, seems a staggering task.
Eighty-eight Congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the
components of the new department, and the turf wars will be fierce. And
Bush's legislative timetable nicely serves his political one: He'd love
to see the subject monopolize the Congressional agenda in the run-up to
the fall election, eclipsing the Democrats' potent issues.
Politics aside, many questions occur at the outset of the debate on the
new department. How, for example, will it solve the shortcomings of
intelligence gathering and dissemination and the endemic rivalry between
the FBI and the CIA? Will it be charged with coordinating intelligence
collection by other agencies or will it be merely a "consumer" of their
And what of the non-national security functions of some of the agencies
slated to be aggrandized into the new DHS, like FEMA, first responder to
natural disasters? Will those worthy activities be relegated to
secondary importance? As Representative John Conyers Jr. asks, if
immigration is brought under the new department, what happens to the
right of political asylum when applicants are reviewed under the
criteria of national security?
These are a few of the hard questions related to mission and chain of
command that must be dealt with by Congress. Pace Bush campaign
rhetoric, government can work effectively for the public good,
but if this project is to succeed, Congress members should not let
themselves be rushed by a re-election-conscious Administration or
bullied into swallowing criticisms by charges that they're impeding the
war effort. Issues of privacy and civil rights should be vigorously
raised. The Ashcroft Justice Department's heavy-handed immigration
crackdown, for example, should be dropped in the trashcan. Such measures
are both an affront to civil liberties and will alienate the Arab
community--the best source of intelligence on Al Qaeda ops among us.
Homeland security does not mean building a better Fortress America. It
means building a better world. US pressure on Israel and Palestine to
achieve a just Middle East settlement would remove one of the main
irritants breeding hatred of America. Verifiable nuclear disarmament and
deterrence will more surely promote international stability than Bush's
pre-emptive war doctrine. Improving the lives of the world's poor--122
million people will die by 2015 of hunger-related causes--will weaken
terrorist support systems more effectively in the long run than sending
in US Special Forces. Homeland security is a global matter.
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