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.
* German intelligence in 1999 handed the CIA a lead on a terrorist suspect named “Marwan.” The CTC, which had a phone number for this person in the United Arab Emirates, pursued this lead for a “short time” but failed to develop any further information and dropped the matter, without asking any other intelligence agencies (say, the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping around the world) for help. This person was Marwan al Shehhi, who piloted United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. And he had used that UAE telephone number in the period before September 11.
* The CIA put together a plan–dubbed “The Plan” to improve its efforts to collect intelligence on al Qaeda using human sources and had developed what the commission calls “ingenious efforts” to bolster its collection using signals intercepts. But, the report notes, “there was no comprehensive collection strategy to pull together human sources, imagery, signals intelligence and open sources. Even ‘The Plan’ was essentially a CIA plan, not one for the Intelligence Community as a whole.”
* On December 4, 1998, Tenet sent out a directive to several CIA officials that referred to Islamic terrorists and declared, “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [Intelligence] Community.” The commission reports, “Unfortunately, we found the memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or the Intelligence Committee.” The memo supposedly was faxed to the heads of all the intelligence agencies. But most of them told the commission they had never seen it. The NSA director at the time, Lieut. General Kenneth Minihan, said that he believed the memo only applied to the CIA.
* Though Tenet characterized counterterrorism efforts as a “war,” the commission notes, he “did not develop a management strategy for a war against terrorism before 9/11.” Tenet takes exception to this finding. But, according to the report, in 1998 he called for reforms that would lead to better sharing of counterterrorism data among the CIA, the NSA, the FBI and other agencies. But no plan to do so was developed prior to 9/11.
* Many of the problems the commission identified certainly loom larger after 9/11, but what might be its sharpest criticism concerned an overall institutional failure that stands out as serious and unacceptable without the benefit of hindsight: “we did not find an institution or culture that provided a safe outlet for admitting errors and improving procedures.” While Tenet has defended himself and the CIA against most of the commission’s criticisms by claiming the CIA was short on money and staff in the years before 9/11, such a defense does not work against this charge.
Another commission staff statement, released the day before Tenet testified, examined the CIA’s handling of information on Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, two of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. The basics of this tale have been previously revealed. The CIA learned in early 2000 that these two suspected al Qaeda operatives, after attending something of an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia, were heading toward or in the United States. But the CIA did not place their names on any watchlist for people entering the United States, nor did it tell the FBI about the two. The pair rented homes in San Diego and obtained driver’s licenses using their real names and were in regular contact with an FBI informant. If the FBI had been alerted to their possible presence in the United States, it may well have been able to track the two–who were in touch with at least two of the other hijackers–during the year and a half prior to 9/11. Who knows what that might have yielded? The CIA did not pass this lead to the FBI until late August 2001. At that point, the FBI went looking for the men and did not find them before September 11.
The commission’s latest report on this episode–the most significant screw-up of 9/11–makes the CIA look even worse. It notes that in January 2001, the CIA learned that the suspected leader of the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole had been at the January 2000 Malaysia meeting. This meant that Mihdhar and Hazmi had attended a gathering with the possible mastermind of an attack that had killed 17 American troops. (There even had been speculation within the CIA that Mihdhar and the suspected leader were the same person.) Yet the report says, “we found no effort by the CIA to renew the long-abandoned search for Mihdhar.” In other words, the CIA knew that an al Qaeda operative linked to the al Qaeda lieutenant suspected of engineering the Cole attack had possibly come to the United States, and it did nothing.
There’s more. In May 2001, as threat reporting surged, a CIA official reviewed old cables from early January 2000 that included information that Mihdhar had received a U.S. visa and that Hazmi had come to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. This officer took no action. Then in the summer of 2001, an FBI official detailed to the CIA was asked to review material about the Malaysia meeting–in her free time. As the report notes (in an understated way), “She grasped the significance of this information.” She learned from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Mihdhar had entered the United States with Hazmi on January 15, 2000, and again on July 4, 2001. In late August, she and an FBI analyst initiated a search for Mihdhar, but higher levels of CIA and FBI management were not told about it. The search was assigned, on a routine basis, to a single FBI agent. This was his very first counterterrorism lead. He was given 30 days to open the case. He started the process a week later. He was still looking for Mihdhar on September 11.
Did the commissioners grill Tenet about the biggest missed opportunity of 9/11? After all, what is his explanation for this series of foul-ups? Had anyone been held accountable? Demoted? Fired? Why did it take an FBI official on loan to the CIA to make the right call? Why had CIA and FBI officials in late August not reported the Mihdhar connection to higher-ups?
No such questions were asked. In fact, there were no queries about the entire matter. Tenet, in his opening statement, did say, “We made mistakes” and cited “our failure to watchlist al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.” But this intelligence blunder–perhaps the worst single lapse in the CIA’s history–deserved more than one sentence.
Other obvious areas were left untouched by the commissioners. Here is a sampling of questions that Tenet ought to have been asked.
* The recent release of the August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief–titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US”–caused a media storm regarding whether Bush had been aware before 9/11 that al Qaeda was aiming to conduct attacks in the United States. But the document also raises questions about the performance of your CIA. Why did this short report not refer to other information the CIA possessed indicating al Qaeda’s intentions to hit the United States, such as material that emerged during the recent trial of al Qaeda operatives who bombed the U.S. embassies in Africa on 1998? Some of this information–such as al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire uranium–had been in the newspapers. But Bush has said he does not routinely read newspapers and relies upon his briefers. Also, the PDB reported that the FBI had 70 anti-al Qaeda “full field investigations” under way throughout the United States. That number, according to testimony before the 9/11 commission, was higher than the actual amount. It turns out that the 70 figure had referred to the number of targeted individuals, not investigations, and that some of the targets were involved only in financing activities. How many investigations were there? Why did the CIA get this wrong? Did the PDB present a false impression that the FBI’s anti-al Qaeda efforts were more extensive than they were? Do you believe this short briefing fully conveyed the domestic threat al Qaeda presented?
* What were the nature of your conversations with President Bush about the threat from al Qaeda during 2001? Did he ever instruct you to take any specific steps regarding al Qaeda? Did you tell him there was a “war” going on? Did he agree with this view?
* Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism coordinator, has said that in 2001 he asked you to brief national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on the threat from al Qaeda because he was concerned that Rice was not taking the threat seriously enough. What happened at this briefing? How did Rice respond?
* What did you do after you were told in late August that Moussaoui, a suspicious Islamic extremist, had been trying to learn how to fly a 747? Did you ask for any follow-up action or further reports? Did you make sure the FBI was on top of this (which it was not)?
* Why did the CIA in general fail to respond to the various reports it received over several years indicating that al Qaeda and other terrorists were interested in using airliners as weapons? In 1999, for instance, a public report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, an affiliate of the CIA, by the research division of the Library of Congress noted, “Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft…into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House.” Whatever happened to this particular report? And after Bush said shortly after 9/11 that “no one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft–fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people,” did you inform the president he had been mistaken? After Rice in May 2002 said, “I don’t think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center,” did you tell her that she was wrong?
* When did the CIA conclude that bin Laden and al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing? Did Bush ever want to talk about the Cole in order to consider possible reprisals? Was he interested in the case? Did he ask to be briefed on it?
* Why did your 1998 declaration of war against the terrorists go unheeded throughout most of the intelligence community you oversee?
* You told the commission that you believe that Bush White House officials grasped the urgency of the al Qaeda threat prior to September 11. But why did deputy CIA director John McLaughlin tell the commission that he felt “a great tension…between the new administration’s need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency”? And if the White House was granting the matter sufficient attention, why did two veteran Counterterrorism officials report to the commission that they “were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them…considered resigning and going public with their concerns”?
* Why did the CIA’s internal culture, under your watch (and probably earlier), not provide, as the commission notes, “a safe outlet for admitting errors and improving procedures”?
* In February 2002, you testified before the Senate intelligence committee and said that 9/11 “was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and focus and consistent attention” on the part of the CIA. In light of the al Mihdhar/al Hazmi episode, would you care to revise that remark?
To his credit, Tenet was attuned to the threat from al Qaeda years before 9/11. Still, the agency he directed and the community he oversaw failed. Misjudgments and specific errors of the CIA and the intelligence community made it easier for the mass murderers of 9/11 to succeed. The 9/11 commission staffers have produced stunning indictments of the CIA and the FBI in their interim reports. But during the public hearings the commissioners have gently questioned the government officials who were in charge–such as Tenet–and avoided some of the more disturbing and difficult topics. It’s as if the commission is operating on two separate levels. The staff fires away at the agencies; the commissioners let the responsible people walk away unmussed. No doubt, Tenet, one of the savvier players in Washington, felt the sting of the commission’s staff statement when he read the newspapers the next day. But he probably realized that it could have been a lot worse.
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