Despite the headlines, CIA chief George Tenet got off easy.
The day after Tenet testified before the 9/11 commission, The New York Times declared on the front page, “Sept. 11 Panel Cites CIA For Failures in Terror Case.” The Washington Post blared, “Al Qaeda Unchecked for Years, Panel Says: Tenet Concedes CIA Made Mistakes.” The news stories focused on a damning staff statement–one in a series of interim reports–issued by the commission that criticized Tenet’s agency for years of misjudgments and errors related to its perceptions and handling of the threat posed by al Qaeda. But when Tenet sat before the ten commissioners, he was praised by the members and faced not a single round of truly discomfiting questions. Though several of its members have referred to 9/11 as a massive intelligence failure, the panel was rather tame when it had the chance to publicly query the fellow who was (and remains) in charge of the system that failed. More importantly, the commissioners neglected to ask key questions. They were doing what the CIA and the FBI have been accused of: failing to connect the dots.
Before examining the issues that Tenet did not have to confront, let’s look at some of the alarming findings of the commission’s staff statement on the “performance of the Intelligence Community.”
* The report notes, “While we know that al Qaeda was formed in 1988, at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Intelligence Community did not describe this organization, at least in documents we have seen, until 1999. As late as 1997, the [Counterterrorism Center of the CIA] characterized Usama bin Ladin as a financier of terrorism.” This is a brutal assessment. Al Qaeda had been involved in several attacks against U.S. targets years before 1999, and the CIA even had information prior to 1997 that showed that bin Laden was much more than a moneyman for Islamic terrorists. In 1996, according to the commission, a walk-in source told the CIA that bin Laden’s organization had been involved in a 1992 attack in Yemen against U.S. military personnel, the 1993 shootdown of U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia, and possibly the 1995 bombing of an American training mission in Saudi Arabia.
* Although the intelligence community received several reports in the years before 9/11 noting that Islamic extremists were interested in hijacking airliners and turning them into weapons, the CIA did nothing in response. Its Counterterrorism Center (CTC) did not analyze how a hijacked airliner might be used as a weapon. It did not consider how to defend against such an attack. The CIA did not tell its spies and analysts–or those of other intelligence agencies–to look for signs that terrorists were pursuing such a scheme. (One indicator might be that a person linked to terrorist outfits was seeking flight training.) If it had, perhaps the hints that did come in–such as the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspicious flight school student, might have triggered action. In late August, Tenet and other CIA officials received a briefing on the Moussaoui arrest under the heading, “Islamic Extremist Learns To Fly.” Imagine what response could have occurred, had the CIA been primed to pick up on clues that terrorists were interested in a 9/11-like scenario.