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9/11's lesson: To discover terror plots we need an intellegence clearinghouse

| Sunday, Aug. 1, 2004

We can all remember how Vice President Dick Cheney was attacked in The New York Times and Washington Post for saying that al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein had ties with one another. The vice president renewed his charge that "the evidence of an Iraq-bin Laden link is overwhelming." At once the furor against him multiplied and became even harsher until the release of the September 11 Commission Report.

With the 9/11 report out from under its wraps, we read of numerous occasions during which al-Qaida sought closer ties with Baghdad. There were times when Hussein tried to restore contacts with Saudi Arabia, in which al-Qaida was quickly shown the door. As Washington's pressure grew on Hussein, he made the terrorist group more welcome, and intelligence reports spoke of "their common themes of hatred for the United States."

In early 1999, the CIA proposed U2-plane surveillance flights over Afghanistan. Bill Clinton's counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke (who now pens "kiss and tell-all" books that avoid this issue), and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, got together to quash even the thought of a U2 flight.

Why• Because Clarke and Berger knew that Pakistan would inform bin-Laden of U2 activity over Afghanistan -- sufficient to prompt him to leave Kabul for Baghdad, where he had been offered asylum and where his terrorist network could flourish. Bin Laden stayed in Afghanistan and apparently did not develop operational links with Iraq. However, when the Bush administration picked up the reins of government in 2001, planning for the attack on America already was under way and al-Qaida's Ayman Al-Zawahiri was the contact man with Baghdad.

Throughout the entire 567-page report, officials of the federal government during the Clinton and Bush presidencies were scored, correctly, for their lack of imagination in anticipating terrorist attacks.

The prime recommendations are to reorganize the structure of our information/intelligence agencies under a new national intelligence director, create a counterterrorism center and make Congress take a much larger oversight role. Ironically, not unlike President Vladimir Putin's ongoing attempts to restructure his similar agencies.

President Bush responded by saying that he already had taken many of the measures suggested by the commission and a task force would study and, with the Congress, implement further necessary measures.

As of now, Congress exercises some control over 15 intelligence-gathering agencies. In reality, this means that a senator or congressman shares the time of a staffer on a committee. Of course, what that staff person gets to read and know depends not on his boss, but on the committee's staff director -- almost always a veteran of the CIA or the FBI. Just like the Russian Slivoki, the friendly name for the former Kinder Gentler Bureaucracy (KGB), some 6,000 of whom now run Putin's uncivil service in Moscow.

The report tells us that Homeland Security spending is successfully and gradually making America safer. But that is where we will have problems.

The president signs off on a multibillion-dollar program to assist states, counties and cities with vital and immediate homeland security measures. Strict time frames are set up, with awesome requirements for disbursement. The money allocated to local recipients has the same rules as buying pens, pencils and paper.

Equipment is either doled out that no one needs or is trained to use or "Requests for Services" have to be written and approved. Bids and proposals must be reviewed with legislative, contracting and legal approvals sought. No work is allowed prior to contract registration, by which time 11 months have passed on a grant with a 12-month life.

Thirty days remain for a year's work, and since quarterly progress reports have not been submitted no money will be disbursed, received or spent. All this lovely money goes back to Washington into a different budget line item. The upshot -- the spending looks good, the money flowed -- but went back, and we are no safer.

The 9/11 Commission introduced magic words suggesting that an Open Source Information Agency be formed.

Open Source material is the basis for this column. A small government agency gathering information from academia, think-tanks, the private sector, the media and, above all, the Internet, could follow up or initiate challenges to the conventional wisdom. This group, with fewer than 300 employees, could be located near the White House, and known as the Executive Research Service.

If we had such an ERS in operation, it would have found at least 68 items in English alone, between 1998 and 2001, detailing connections between al-Qaida and Iraq. Sadly, our intelligence agencies ignored, disregarded or disparaged this treasure trove, which nothing stopped them from seeing.

The 9/11 Commission tried to write a good report showing that our government and nation still are highly vulnerable to terrorist attack. Their failure was to identify those who caused the disaster of 2001 -- the legislators of the Watergate era, led by Democrats Otis Pike and Frank Church. Both truly, guilty men who placed the FBI and CIA under senseless restrictions.

Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer.

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