Monday, December 06, 2004

Thomas Powers has a great article in the recent issue of the New York Review of Books on the role of the intelligence community in the lead-up to 9/11, the lead up to the Iraq war and the CIA's potential future.
"The fate of the agency is no minor matter to intelligence professionals who have spent their careers trying to serve both presidents and the nation; all know that these two masters are often at odds, and many have been forced to hire lawyers, face grand juries, and risk jail for what they did, or for failing to describe truthfully what they did, for presidents unable or unwilling to take the stand themselves. There is no easy way to reconcile these divided loyalties. But there are good reasons for trying to understand what has now brought the stresses to breaking point, especially for the analytical side of the CIA."

Here I think Powers hits on a point that has been often left unmentioned in public discussions, that the CIA and the intelligence community in general was correct in its assessment of the Iraq threat and the threat posed by bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In the rush to lay blame the CIA became the public whipping boy because the lop-level administrators went along with the President's wishes. Public and classified reports have long since backed up the point that the analysts were passing up good information, it just wasn't what the administration wanted to hear.
" But too little in my opinion has been said about what the CIA and Richard Clarke in the White House both got right—the numerous warnings delivered to the President and his national security advisers. Condoleezza Rice has said that these warnings were too vague and the President has said that he would have moved heaven and earth if he had only known when and where the terrorists planned to attack. The White House was paralyzed, the official version goes, because the intelligence organizations of the United States had failed to connect the dots....

But the fact is that the intelligence analysts who provided warnings to the White House connected a great many dots—they anticipated the use of commercial aircraft, they knew that al-Qaeda cells were operating inside the United States, they knew that Ramzi Yusef, the field commander of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had hoped to bring the towers down, and had promised an FBI debriefer after his arrest that another attempt would be made. They knew that al-Qaeda wanted to strike inside the United States, and they knew that al-Qaeda was approaching the operational climax of a new effort. In a sense all the most important dots had been loosely connected except for the last two or three.

The question then is whether an alert administration, anxious to protect the country, knew enough to do something—to give a dynamite charge to intelligence chiefs, or summon the officials responsible for public safety and disaster relief, or prod the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up security at airline gates, or ask the Immigration and Naturalization Service if borders were secure, or suggest to the FBI that suspected terrorist cells should be put on notice that they were being watched. Best might have been an attempt to put all those officials in a windowless room for a day with orders to report to the President personally before the sun went down. Presidents do not normally find it hard to get the attention of government offices, and bureaucrats all know how to put on a show of frantic activity. That, at the very least, is what we should have found when the lights went on after the attacks of September 11."

The difficult truth of the matter is that the administration failed to act on intelligence it was given. A year before Bush's inauguration, an attempted terrorist attack on L.A.'s airport was broken up (the so-called "millennium" plot) through good intelligence and a sharp-eyed border guard. To try and say, as the administration did, that they were unaware of the threat posed by these groups or that the information they did have means they were either unconcerned or incompetent. Deciding which is worse is hard to say. Since the top-level anti-terror specialists were all concerned and tried to make their voices heard, we can conclude that the information was right at their fingertips.

I don't think it would be fair or just to say that the administration's failures allowed 9/11 to happen. There is no way they could have predicted the time and place of the attack. Yet due to the existing threats and compelling intelligence their should have been some sort of plans in action, FAA warnings, greater surveilance, etc. As Powers points out, none of this was the case. Terrorism simply wasn't on the administrations to-do list.

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