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 September 11.
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 ineptitude).
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.