Why U.S. Intelligence Stumbled

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The following article from the Los Angeles Times, has been reposted here. It is an article looking some of the issues around hearings on intelligence about 9-11. The original article can be found at http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-intel19oct19.story1.

Why U.S. Intelligence Stumbled
Hearings Portray Overwhelmed Agencies and Suggest 9/11 Could Have Been Prevented.

By Greg Miller
Los Angeles Times
October 19 2002

WASHINGTON -- The monthlong series of congressional intelligence hearings that ended this week produced a detailed and disheartening portrait of the U.S. spy community as it groped its way toward Sept. 11.

It also reshaped thinking about the most basic lingering question: Could the attacks have been prevented?

For months after Sept. 11, the answer, high-level government officials insisted, was no. The new answer is that preventing or disrupting them certainly seems to have been possible.

"It really is impossible to say whether the attacks would have been stopped," Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint inquiry, said in an interview Friday. "But I think we would have had a much better chance" if intelligence agencies had acted on critical clues.

The spy agencies were portrayed as displaying dazzling skill and earnest effort, but in the end overwhelmed by the task and undone by some of their own worst tendencies.

They had breathtaking ability to vacuum up information around the globe. But they often seemed blinded by the blizzard of data, unable to recognize tragic patterns that now -- with the benefit of hindsight -- seem clearly defined.

The CIA, FBI and other agencies were evolving at an impressive rate in their rush to adapt to the modern terrorist threat. But still they were trapped in many of their Cold War ways, jealously guarding secrets that should have been shared, solving cases instead of sniffing out plots.

The agencies also had done much to expand their intelligence-gathering reach, scattering recruits around the world and setting up dozens of terrorism task forces across the country. But when it mattered most, field officers couldn't get Washington's attention. Warnings went ignored, urgent requests were denied and critical overseas cables were left unread.

Finally, in the midst of unprecedented technological transformation, much of the $30-billion spy apparatus was seemingly logged off, unable to move critical pieces of data from one computer to another.

When asked how history might regard the nation's pre-Sept. 11 spy shops, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a telling assessment.

"It was a community struggling without great success to free itself from its own past," he said.

The possibility that the attacks could have been prevented is likely to occupy historians for decades. But intelligence experts said the inquiry already has assembled a remarkably detailed picture.

The questions surrounding Sept. 11 "will never really be at rest," said Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel at the CIA. "People are still digging around in the assassination of Lincoln.

"But the purpose of a congressional investigation like this is to find out what went wrong and then to develop a solution. There is no question the committee and staff have identified the problems."

In many ways, the hearings echoed other historic encounters between Congress and the intelligence community, but with a conclusion that turned history on its head.

The last time the CIA came under such congressional scrutiny was in the mid-1970s during the famous Church committee hearings, presided over by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), when the agency was accused of spying on Americans and other abuses of power, and saw its authority and resources reined in.

This time, the agency and its brethren were often criticized for being too risk-averse. And although reforms could be painful, the community already is being lavished with billions of dollars in new funding, and has been granted expanded authority to pursue clandestine counter-terrorism missions.

As Cofer Black, the CIA's former counter-terrorism chief, said during one hearing: "After 9/11, the gloves come off."

With its findings, investigators quieted a chorus of critics, including several lawmakers on the committee itself, who as recently as a month ago were predicting that the probe would be a bust.

The investigation stumbled badly from the start. Its first director, L. Britt Snider, was forced out last spring after he had tried to hire a CIA employee who had failed an agency polygraph test.

Throughout the probe, lawmakers complained about a lack of cooperation from the CIA and other agencies. Even in recent weeks, Graham was accusing the agency of obstructionism.

Hill, who replaced Snider in June, is widely credited with focusing the inquiry. According to Graham, she was also responsible for an innovation during the hearings that proved very effective.

Rather than let witnesses set the tone of each session, Hill was often the first to testify, laying out damaging details agency officials struggled to rebut.

The probe produced a string of headlines about intelligence failures, undercutting White House claims that Sept. 11-style attacks were inconceivable before they happened, and raising questions about how the CIA had mobilized to confront Al Qaeda.

Much of the committee's energy focused on flushing out damaging new details about missed chances to uncover the Sept. 11 plot.

They include the FBI's failure to heed warnings of a Phoenix agent who, in July 2001, sent an e-mail to headquarters in Washington urging the bureau to open a sweeping investigation of Middle Eastern men training in U.S. flight schools.

Later that summer, FBI agents in Minnesota detained Zacarias Moussaoui after he aroused the suspicions of a flight school instructor. Agents pleaded with headquarters officials to get a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings, but were rebuffed.

But long before either of these breakdowns, the CIA had identified two Al Qaeda operatives who would go on to help hijack the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. The agency even learned that the two men had entered the United States, arriving in Los Angeles in January 2000 and subsequently settling in San Diego.

But the CIA neglected to notify domestic authorities until weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks. By then it was too late.

Surveillance of those two men, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar, "would have been the best shot for uncovering what was going on," Hill said. "But there was no chance to do that because the information didn't come through."

The parade of intelligence officials who appeared before the joint committee rightly complained that funding and resources for their agencies were depleted significantly during the 1990s.

They also stressed the difficulty of the counter-terrorism assignment. Almost every witness offered a metaphor to illustrate the challenge.

Several likened the task to playing goalie in hockey and coming to the public's attention only when the puck gets by. Others compared the assignment to confronting impossibly complex puzzles.

In the months leading up to Sept. 11, there was "a maze of information and a sea of threats," Dale Watson, the FBI's counter-terrorism chief, testified. "It's a lot easier to complete a maze if you start at the end."

As the congressional inquiry winds down, there are some unanswered questions. The inquiry was prevented by the White House, for instance, from disclosing whether key pieces of intelligence were shared with President Bush leading up to Sept. 11.

The White House has claimed releasing such information could have a chilling effect, making advisors less inclined to offer candid assessments to the president. Graham stressed that although the hearings have concluded, the congressional inquiry is not yet finished. It is now largely focused on drafting recommendations likely to include the creation of a Cabinet-level intelligence official to oversee a broad reorganization of the spy community.

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  1. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-intel19oct19.story

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  • Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

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This print version has been auto-generated from http://www.globalissues.org/article/381/why-us-intelligence-stumbled