Did the CIA Blow the Call?

Did the CIA Blow the Call?

Shortly after Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, the nation’s capital got a second morning newspaper. Eventually, Dr. Ronald Goodwin, formerly the Rev.


Shortly after Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, the nation’s capital got a second morning newspaper. Eventually, Dr. Ronald Goodwin, formerly the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s lieutenant at the Moral Majority, became its publisher. The owner was the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to be the second coming of Christ, the true Messiah devoted to uniting both Eastern and Western civilizations under his South Korea-based Unification Church. Moon was eager to underwrite a conservative newspaper to advance his cause and raise his profile; American neoconservatives needed a vehicle to promote their rigid ideological orthodoxy. Neocons already controlled several magazines and right-wing foundations, but they needed a daily newspaper to help them set the agenda on Capitol Hill.

From the start, it was apparent that the Washington Times would be an unusual paper, a more sophisticated version of the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, where I lived as a young man and so could not avoid reading it. The editorial preferences were similar: fierce anticommunism, tax-cutting, unionbusting, deregulation, dismantling of social welfare programs and particularly strident advocacy of bigger military budgets. Neither allowed dissenting views in its opinion pages. Both specialized in the half-fact and the semi-story.

The Union Leader was primarily a business–a profitable one at that–and its editorial extravaganzas were the work of its archconservative publisher, William Loeb. Loeb was said to relish the national attention accorded him every four years in response to his frequently vicious and wholly unjustified attacks on liberal Democrats and Republicans running in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primaries.

The Washington Times, on the other hand, was primarily a platform for a movement, which included the Christian right, conservative Jews and the radical right wing of the Republican Party. The paper was staffed with ambitious and talented young scribes, many of whom knowingly ignored the basic conventions of American journalism and followed instead the party line laid down at Wednesday-night gatherings of under-30 neocons at the Heritage Foundation. This mixture of politics and journalism has not been a commercial success, even though its news presentation is punchy, well written and often more lively than that in the rival Washington Post. After two decades the Times is still being practically given away. (My annual home delivery cost $20, or less than what the Post charges me per month).

Yet the Times has arguably been a dramatic success in advancing the neocon agenda through Congress. It has kept up a steady drumroll of dire warnings about the mortal threats facing the United States by a disintegrating Soviet Union and later by China, Iraq, North Korea and various other “rogue” states, by the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court, and especially by the continued adherence to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which proscribed the development and deployment of a national antimissile defense system. Relying on a network of neocons inside and outside government, it frequently offers bits of information–scoops–that cannot be found in other newspapers. Its star reporter, Bill Gertz, has built a dazzling reputation with stories on military and foreign policy issues, making the Times a must-read for anyone interested in national security. True, his scoops mostly involve the kind of information that cannot be proved or disproved–stories claiming that Russians are hiding especially dangerous chemical weapons, or that “China apologists” in the CIA are feeding wrong assessments to the President. But they are sufficiently alarming to generate public calls for Congressional inquiries or to clamp a freeze on funds already allocated for the destruction of Russian chemical weapons. Gertz, in short, has become the sword of the right-wing guardians of America’s security, a journalist with “unparalleled access to America’s intelligence system,” as claimed by the publisher of his book Breakdown: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11.

There are no great revelations, no mystery, to be found in this volume. Virtually everything comes from newspaper accounts in which tidbits of information gathered by intelligence agencies before 9/11 suggest in retrospect that a catastrophic attack was coming and therefore could have been thwarted. The shocking revelation is Gertz’s central thesis, which is bound to get considerable attention. He argues that the CIA failed to avert the tragedy; that its inability to penetrate the terrorists’ network has rendered it “next to useless”; that its analytical branch is “the weakest part of American intelligence”; and that the CIA should be abolished, broken up into two parts, each to be merged with other parts of US intelligence in a much needed top-to-bottom restructuring. Unless this is done, Gertz adds, “the war on terrorism will be lost.”

Gertz may well be right, but the arguments he offers are sloppy and far from compelling. One gets the impression that Breakdown was rushed either because 9/11 offered the opportunity to turn a national tragedy into a bureaucratic trump card against the CIA, or perhaps because of the ongoing disagreements over Iraq. We had a foretaste of this a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested reforms that would in effect dislodge the CIA from its pre-eminent position in shaping foreign and security policy. Rumsfeld already controls more than 85 percent of the intelligence budget, which supports the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the facilities for signals intercepts and satellite surveillance. He proposed bringing it all under his control. Under the current system all parts of the intelligence community collaborate to reach a consensus assessment on issues demanding presidential attention. The final product is written by the CIA, which in effect means that the agency presents the President with the fundamental facts on which policy should be based. With respect to Iraq, the current CIA assessments are cautious. Rumsfeld and his neocon hawks give an optimistic spin to the same basic data. The neocons, however, have the President’s ear. He asserted on October 7 that the United States faces an imminent chemical and biological attack from Iraq despite a classified CIA National Intelligence Estimate holding that Saddam Hussein is unlikely to initiate such an attack unless provoked by a US military assault on his country.

But the conflict dates to previous decades and to other issues. In the 1970s, the agency came under a sustained attack from the extreme right over its assessment of Soviet military capabilities and expenditures. The neocons (among them such current players as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz) accused the CIA of providing false assessments in order to support the policy of détente. In 1976 they produced their own assessments, which became the basis for Reagan’s massive rearmament program.

In retrospect, we know that virtually all these assessments were wrong and that the CIA was far closer to the truth. The genesis of Reagan’s multibillion-dollar Star Wars program was a flawed analysis and interpretation of aerial photographs of a Soviet nuclear complex in Semipalatinsk, in Central Asia. The hawks insisted that the Russians were building a particle-beam weapon that could zap American missiles out of the skies and give strategic superiority to Moscow. The CIA argued that it saw no evidence such weapons were actually under development, and it was skeptical that the site was being used for particle-beam research. After being publicly criticized for producing a “left-leaning” analysis, the CIA reversed itself and agreed that some unspecified “evidence” suggested that the Russians were indeed engaged in extensive particle-beam research. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian scientists invited their US counterparts to tour the facility in the hope of generating Western interest in funding the mysterious project. Its goal was a nuclear-powered spaceship to Mars.

When William Casey took charge at Langley for Ronald Reagan, the politicization of intelligence reached its apogee. Casey and his deputy, Robert Gates, simply cooked the books to justify Reagan’s military spending. Senior CIA officers subsequently told Congress that anyone who questioned the doctored assessments or demanded substantiating evidence risked being branded a Soviet sympathizer or “soft” on Communism. This was the equivalent of those who level accusations today against “China sympathizers” or those who question the loyalty of opponents to a war against Iraq.

Perhaps a stronger case for the dismemberment of the CIA could have been made by a professional book writer. With Gertz we are in the hands of a reporter who is ill at ease in a form that requires far more than the hit-and-run approach such as that employed in the CIA “China apologists” story. He seems to think that through the uncritical piling up of all published material he is strengthening his argument. He says that the CIA failure to penetrate Al Qaeda was aggravated by its failure to monitor Iraqi intelligence around the world. Had the latter been done, the CIA “might have identified Mohammed Atta and his 72-hour meeting in Prague” with an Iraqi intelligence agent in the spring of 2001. (FBI assertions that the record shows Atta was in Virginia Beach at the time of the supposed meeting are conveniently ignored.)

In his zeal to overwhelm the reader with “evidence,” Gertz reproduces a multitude of nonsensical statements that may go unchallenged on cable news talk shows but that get a different treatment when appearing in a book. For example, in trying to link Iraq and September 11, James Woolsey, who served for about a year as Director of Central Intelligence under Bill Clinton before resigning from the post, says that “the key indicator of Iraqi intelligence support to al Qaeda is the professionalism of the terrorist group”–its overall success at operating clandestinely. Hello? And what editor would let such source notes go to print? The notes are supposed to help readers and scholars assess and verify the author’s information, but here’s the only entry for chapter one of Breakdown: “1. After military operations were launched against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a senior US intelligence official said the CIA had no comprehensive intelligence on the various Al Qaeda groups and offshoots.”

Speaking of the source notes, the sole entry for chapter seven explicitly contradicts the publisher’s claim that Gertz had “unparalleled access to America’s intelligence system.” It says that the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its senior aides declined to talk to Gertz. And this comes after about eighty pages of documents (some of them so secret that the publisher reproduced them as blank pages stamped “Material withheld at the request of US Government intelligence officials”), which is a rather novel way of bolstering an author’s credibility.

Yet, for all its finger-pointing and flaws, Breakdown brings to the forefront of public discourse an important issue that needs to be aired in a calm and deliberate manner. The matter of intelligence reforms must be set against results of a bipartisan Congressional investigation into the events leading up to 9/11. Its preliminary report, read in its totality, does not suggest the terrorists could have been thwarted. Many omissions of US intelligence appear in retrospect to be serious lapses. We know that in July 2001 senior US officials were warned that bin Laden “will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties…. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.” But US intelligence had nothing specific enough to thwart the terrorists.

The interim report does raise the question of political responsibility. For neither Clinton nor Bush raised alarms within the government despite repeated intelligence warnings and despite the successful attacks on African embassies in 1998 and an American destroyer in 2000. In December 1998 Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet declared war on Al Qaeda in a memo to his staff, and the Secretaries of State and Defense told Congressional committees that the United States was indeed at war with the terrorists. But Clinton’s White House did not go on a war footing. The psychological mindset of a country protected by two oceans–a mindset that has evolved over more than two centuries–may well account for the lack of urgency. And what goes for Clinton and Bush must go for ordinary intelligence operatives. Who could imagine the attack on the World Trade Center before 9/11?

Perhaps because of this, we are now imagining the prospect of even greater catastrophes and yearning to recapture the sense of security we lost forever on that beautiful Tuesday morning in September. We are reacting as a frightened people seeking comfort in our military prowess. But how realistic is Gertz’s conviction that we can have a new clandestine intelligence service that would give us “a unilateral capability to get inside a terrorist group” and destroy it? Virtually all experts say this type of penetration takes decades. What should we do in the meantime?

In the days after 9/11, from the pulpits of churches in my neighborhood, the critical question was raised. “We should ask ourselves,” one minister told his congregation, “what have we done that these people hate us so?” This question, at the root of our conflict with a segment of the Muslim world, is never addressed by Gertz, who doesn’t even take up the reasons the terrorists offered to justify their horrific crime. It is easier to describe them as crazy, as lunatics, than to deal with the issues raised by the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, our support for unsavory dictators in the region and the openly pro-Israel tilt in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

This is a fundamental problem of Breakdown. The perpetrators of 9/11 must be punished. We should use our military to that effect. But our long-term interests require that we do everything possible to reduce the hostility between America and the Muslim world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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