'A failure to recognize a failure'
By now everyone realizes that America's intelligence services should have seen 9/11 coming. But Bill Gertz, The Washington Times' crack defense and national security reporter, has come out with a new book that spells out why the CIA, the FBI and others were unable to stop it.
"Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to Sept. 11" details who knew what and when — and why a combination of internecine turf fights, bureaucracy, political correctness, Clinton administration intelligence policy and an over-reliance on high-tech gadgetry let Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida foot-soldiers operate for nearly a decade.
I talked to Gertz by telephone on Wednesday, when "Breakdown" was No. 5 on Amazon.com's best-seller list.
Q: Are you saying that 9/11 could have been thwarted if our intelligence agencies had done their jobs?
A: Well, it's a little more complex. I think the pieces were there, and were missed. But more importantly, in a more macro sense, there was a strategic intelligence failure. At its core, the failure of 9/11 was a failure of our human intelligence gathering capability, or “UMINT,” as the spies like to say.
Since the '70s, our capability to conduct spying operations on the street level has seriously eroded. There's been an over-emphasis on technical spying, through intercepts and photography, and also an over-reliance on foreign liaison intelligence cooperation. We've basically farmed out our human spying in what they call the “hard-target” areas – the Middle East, China, places like that – to these other services.
Now that's deficient. We're a superpower but we don't have a superpower- level intelligence service. Part of the reason is that we've allowed our “UMINT” capability to deteriorate, both for the CIA and especially the FBI.
Q: Apparently there's plenty of blame to go around for 9/11. Let's start with the FBI. What didn't they do right?
A: Their problem was that they had the wrong approach. They've basically taken themselves out of the intelligence business. They only focus on law enforcement. Intelligence is very different. It requires specialization, patience, working the streets, developing informants and the normal tools of the intelligence trade. They didn't have that.
As I point out in the book, in late 2000 the FBI reported to the White House that there were no al-Qaida cells in the United States. That turned out to be wrong. Now the estimate is that there are upwards of 5,000 al-Qaida cells. It shows you that the FBI didn't have the coverage.
It's mostly a management problem. … They couldn't decide whether counterterrorism should be part of their efforts to track to foreign spies or if it should be part of their criminal side.
That's always been a problem in the FBI – the division between those two sides. The other problem is the poor communication between the FBI and the CIA, which only spies abroad.
Q: What didn't the CIA do right – most of all?
A: The CIA didn't understand quickly enough the kind of threat al-Qaida posed, and didn't do enough to go after al-Qaida until after it was too late.
Osama bin Laden in the early '90s issued several lengthy statements – I wrote about them back then for The Washington Times – and he made very clear that he was telling his followers it was OK to kill Americans, both military and civilian. The CIA was aware of this.
In the following years he began acting on that threat. He began blowing up Americans in Saudi Arabia, in Africa, in the Middle East. There was not enough done to react to that.
Clearly, we saw a series of escalating attacks, and as I highlight in the book, they simply just did not do enough. The CIA had almost no agents inside Afghanistan on Sept. 11. Yet they knew that that was where bin Laden lived and that that was where he was training hundreds of terrorists and organizing what eventually became the Sept. 11 plot.
Q: What didn't President Clinton do right?
A: The problem with the Clinton administration was that their motto was not “It's the national security, stupid.” They made a conscious decision that they were going to focus on the economy and domestic issues. That had a detrimental effect on our national security.
That was really the problem. They did not invest in intelligence. In the technical agencies, they cut funding. They saw that restrictions were imposed.
In a lot of ways, many of the senior Clinton administration national security officials carried this anti-intelligence bias — that was a carry-over from the Church and Pike committees of the 1970s — into government.
Basically, they didn't trust intelligence. They had a very negative view of it. And they thought that the less that was done with intelligence, the better.
Q: What has President Bush not done right?
A: The problem with the current administration is that they have yet to recognize that there is a problem with accountability in intelligence, starting at the top. In February, the CIA director, George Tenet, went before the Congress and basically said that there was no intelligence failure, that he was proud of the CIA's record, and so on.
This kind of highlights the bureaucratic culture within the intelligence community – this notion of what I call “no-fault” intelligence: that whatever you do, there's no accountability for what you say or do.
So the first step is to recognize that there was an intelligence failure. So far, we have a failure to recognize a failure.
Q: By the Bush administration?
A: Well, by the head of the CIA, at the least. The president has been reluctant or unwilling to recognize that as well. Some weeks after Sept. 11, he went to the CIA and praised the CIA people there.
And he has brought in a number of intelligence officials from the intelligence bureaucracy and they've kind of been resistant to change as well.
Q: Was there anyone sounding the alarm and calling for action about the threat of al-Qaida in the '90s who today looks like a prophet?
A: No. And I think the reason is that, as former CIA Director Jim Woolsey put it to me, during the '90s the country was on kind of a decade-long beach party. We had economic prosperity and that really made the United States to let its guard done.
Q: Did we know much about al-Qaida and bin Laden during the '90s•
A: We did not. The intelligence community didn't even have a clear picture of bin Laden. The FBI, as well, had no clear picture of al-Qaida until after Sept. 11.
The view of bin Laden was that he was primarily a financier of terrorism, a kind of behind-the-scenes person, more of a patron that an actual operations chief or inspirational leader.
Q: Did anyone in other countries have a good knowledge of al-Qaida• Were there Sudanese or Somalians or somebody saying, “Hey, you guys, wake up”?
A: Well, that's a good question. As you mention, the Sudanese offered up intelligence on al-Qaida in the late 1990s and that offer was turned down by the Clinton administration.
Instead, they told the Sudanese to turn bin Laden over to the Saudis. The Saudis, for their own domestic political reasons, decided not to take bin Laden and that was when it was suggested that bin Laden go to Afghanistan, where he set up his operation.
Q: Do you have any confidence that things have improved in the intelligence community?
A: I think they've made some improvement, but structural reform is urgently needed. I don't think the intelligence community is capable of reforming itself. It's too entrenched in the stifling bureaucratic culture that has, in a lot of ways, forced it to lose sight of its overall purpose and mission.
They've made some improvements, but I think they need radical reform and I think the president has to step in and take action to fix the problems.