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.