The failure to head off the attacks of 9/11/2001 is probably the CIA’s greatest intelligence failure, so analyzing the events that lead to that tragic September morning reveals the fundamental flaws of the CIA. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, in the summer of 2001, “The system was blinking red” (254), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) even had a man named Zacarias Moussaoi in custody (273). Moussaoi would later be convicted as the twentieth 9/11 Hijacker. However, at the time of his arrest, the CIA didn’t reveal that Moussaoi‘s association with key Al Qaeda figures, thus the FBI was unable to present an urgent enough case to search his lap-top computer. Had the CIA been forthcoming with vital information the FBI could have at least had a clearer picture of the coming attacks (Wright 397).
The CIA’s unwillingness to share information with the FBI was only matched by its unwillingness to share information between different offices, or provide resources within the CIA itself. The Agency’s hierarchy is inter-competitive often to the point of endangering national security. In April-May, 1998, the CIA’s dedicated Bin Laden unit “Alec Station” was ordered to be shut down and consolidated. This was done without the knowledge of the Director of Central Intelligence’s (DCI) knowledge, and when he found out about it he countermanded the order. However, this created confusion within the unit, and while they continued to do their jobs they were distracted as uncertainty prevailed. This may have contributed to the successful bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a few months later on August 8, 1998 (Scheuer)
One would think that after the deaths of eight Americans and over 450 African civilians that the CIA would have poured resources into Alec Station so that it could better, and for about a month the leadership complied with many of the requests for Alec Station. All too soon, assistance like complete transcripts of recorded communications between Al Qaeda operatives instead of summaries dried up. Direct assistance from the U.S. military to plan strikes against Al Qaeda targets, never materialized; while the Armydid send two officers to Alec Station, neither had special operations experience, and both were experts on Iran. In fact after 1999, Alec Station was run by Directorate of Operations (DO) personnel who had had little or no knowledge of Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda (Scheuer).
It’s not that the CIA was doing nothing. In his testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004, George Tenent listed a number of successful CIA counter-terrorist operations against Al Qaeda:
The third period of peak threat was in the spring and summer 2001. As with the Millennium and Ramadan 2000, we increased the tempo of our operations against al-Qa‘ida. We stopped some attacks and caused the terrorists to postpone others.
We [the CIA] helped to break up another terrorist cell in Jordan and seized a large quantity of weapons, including rockets and high explosives.
Working with another foreign partner, we broke up a plan to attack US facilities in Yemen.
In June, CIA worked with a Middle Eastern partner to arrest two Bin Ladin operatives planning attacks on US facilities in Saudi Arabia.
In June and July, CIA launched a wide-ranging disruption effort against Bin Ladin’s organization, with targets in almost two-dozen countries. Our intent was to drive up Bin Ladin’s security concerns and lead his organization to delay or cancel its attacks. We subsequently received reporting that attacks were delayed, including an attack against the US military in Europe.
In July, a different Middle East partner helped bring about the detention of a terrorist who had been directed to begin an operation to attack the US Embassy or cultural center in a European capital.
In addition, in the summer of 2001, local authorities, acting on our information, arrested an operative described as Bin Ladin’s man in East Asia.
We assisted another foreign partner in the rendition of a senior Bin Ladin associate. Information he provided included plans to kidnap Americans in three countries and to carry out hijackings.
We provided intelligence to a Latin American service on a band of terrorists considering hijackings and bombings. An FBI team detected explosives residue in their hotel rooms
The problem is that none of these actions brought the CIA closer to the inner circle of Al Qaeda, and none of these successful operations prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reform would be needed and that meant that Congress would have to step in. The attacks of 9/11/2001 and the subsequent failure to capture bin Laden as of this date should not be a surprise to anyone. This should be especially true for Congress, who can produce a long list of committee and commission reports and recommendations on how to reform the CIA dating back to the 1970s
After September 11, 2001, the House and the Senate intelligence committees began work on legislation that would lead to the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). After a hard fight, a compromise was reached in December, 2004, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was created. While this is viewed as a step forward for national security it is also an acknowledgement of the failure of the CIA.
The DNI’s mission is to be a central clearing-house for intelligence, intelligence collection, and intelligence policy which then reports to the President and the National Security Council (NSC). In short, the DNI is a central intelligence agency, which has the same task that the CIA was supposed to control, and for the most part still has. Lost in the debate of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to create the DNI was the question of weather the CIA was still up to the job of keeping the United States safe from attack. The National Security Act of 1947 called for the creation of the CIA with the purpose of preventing another Pearl Harbor style attack. The eleven-story deep hole between Liberty and Vesey streets in Manhattan, New York, is mortal proof that the CIA failed to do its most basic mission. The war in Iraq was based solely on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) intelligence gathered by the CIA. This intelligence turned out to be as much an estimate about Iraqi WMDs based on a formula (60 Minutes) as it was traditional intelligence collection procedures. The Bush Administration’s rushed to invade Iraq, which put off or diluted any immediate short-term reforms.
This has become apparent with the revelations that the CIA was sending captured Al Qaeda operatives in secret to foreign prisons to be tortured by the local intelligence entity. Also the “Water Boarding” of suspects directly by the CIA, and other interrogation techniques that were traditionally viewed as torture. The torture issue was emblematic of an Agency that still refused to share information and tactics with other intelligence
The U.S. Army Intelligence and Naval Intelligence had amassed years of doctrine on interrogation dating all the way back to the Civil War. Their tactics had been honed and refined after each war or conflict, and was the most up-to-date as far as Islamic extremists were concerned based on their experiences in Somalia and the Balkans. Although the CIA had a reliable doctrine via the Army, it instead chose to bow to pressure from the White House to use more questionable methods to extract information from suspected Al Qaeda fighters. The revelation of torture has lead to calls that the CIA be abolished. In an editorial in Slate online magazine, Christopher Hitchens argues: “The next stage, very often, is that certain inconveniently damaged secret prisoners have to be made to "disappear," as in the death-squad regimes of Latin America…” (Yet Another).
This is not to say that the CIA is completely useless, since the “War on Terror” began in October, 2001, the CIA has seen many success stories. Most of these stories come out of Afghanistan, where the CIA spearheaded the counter-insurgency movement to drive the Taliban out of power. Afghanistan had been the scene of the CIA’s greatest Cold-War triumph; it had organized Afghan freedom fighters, called Mujahedeen, into a cohesive fighting force which they trained, and equipped with modern Soviet weapons the new “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles. With the CIA’s backing, the Mujahedeen were able to defeat the Soviet army, and retake the country.
So almost fifteen years later, many of the same CIA veterans from the first Afghan war returned to duty, some even coming out of retirement to strap on boots and operate in the high mountains of Afghanistan (Bernsten 72-74). Their number being less than twenty, they secretly infiltrated Afghanistan on helicopters, and then linked up with old friends in the Afghan “Northern Alliance”. They set up introductions between local warlords and members of U.S. Army Special Forces “A-Teams”, these A-Teams would then train, assess, equip, and assist the various warlords and their tribes so that they could better defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda(Bernsten 79).
This turned out to be a winning combination for the defeat and overthrow of the Taliban. Northern Alliance tanks rolled into the capitol city of Kabul in November, 2001, less than seven weeks after the beginning of the U.S. lead drive to defeat the Taliban. At the same time, Al Qaeda along with its leader, Osama bin Laden, found themselves cornered at a mountainous region called “Tora Bora.” During the Afghan War against the Soviets Tora Bora had been a Mujahedeen strong-hold and hideout. Bin Laden had designed and built many tunnel systems within the mountains here, and the Soviets found it to be impenetrable. The U.S. special operations teams did not.
On the Pakistan side of the border, the CIA began working with the Pakistani Government to hunt senior Al Qaeda leadership. Within 14 months of the September attacks, the CIA would capture or kill:
Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, al-Qa‘ida’s operations chief and the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
Nashiri, the senior operational planner for the Arabian Gulf area.
Abu Zubayda, a senior logistics officer and plotter.
Hasan Ghul, a senior facilitator who was sent to case Iraq for an expanded al-Qa‘ida presence there.
Harithi and al-Makki, the most senior plotters in Yemen, who were involved in the bombing of the USS Cole.
Hambali, the senior operational planner in Southeast Asia. (Tenent)
However, there was a four year gap void of CIA “Predator” drone action within Pakistan, and it was not until the appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense in December, 2006, that U.S. covert activity on the Pakistan side of the border escalated. Secretary Gates had worked at the CIA for 27 years, and would become the only career CIA officer to ever serve as DCI (1991-1993). Since August of 2008, the CIA has conducted over 55 attacks on Al Qaeda safe-houses in Pakistan using “Predator Drones” that fire guided missiles (Hammond). These constant attacks have affected the surviving Al Qaeda Leadership to the point that they have begun to flee to Yemen and Somalia (Maclean).
In a way, Gates embodies everything that the CIA needs in it leadership, he is willing to take risks and is prone to deal with problems directly. Former Alec Station Chief Michael Scheuer wrote in an open letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees complaining:
In the CIA's core, U.S.-based Bin Laden operational unit today there are fewer Directorate of Operations officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than there were on 11 September 2001. There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise among Directorate of Operations officers since 11 September ... The excellent management team now running operations against al-Qaeda has made repeated, detailed, and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the al-Qaeda—and have done so for years, not weeks or months—but have been ignored ...
The U.S.-based Bin Laden unit, Alec Station, was deactivated for good in late 2004. Former CIA agent Robert Baer sites that much of the CIA’s senior leadership lacks and foreign experience whatsoever (Getting the CIA), and that since the end of the Cold War, the Agency has shifted away from recruiting new assets overseas. Baer says that instead, the Agency relies too much on technical data and foreign intelligence services.
All of this draws into question weather the CIA can ever be fixed so that it becomes more effective. The Agency has demonstrated that it can collect intelligence when it wants to, and that it can conduct proactive covert action, again when it wants to. The problem is that too often, senior officers don’t want to do anything. At least not anything that would jeopardize their careers. The senior case managers at the CIA are largely risk-averse, which protects their own careers but does little to protect the country.
I would argue that the smart move would be to dismantle the CIA altogether, and create a new spy agency. It would be an agency that would be much smaller and somewhat less reliant on electronic or technical intelligence gathering, and focus more on human intelligence (HUMINT). The CIA has never had the ability to directly infiltrate an enemy’s strategic center to obtain vital intelligence. The CIA never penetrated the Soviet Politburo, the leadership of Cuba, or other enemies of the United States. Instead, the CIA relied on luck, a chance encounter or the defection of a key foreign leader to the west. Both the U.S. Army and Navy’s special operations units have long practiced infiltration of enemy installations. The Navy has detailed bathometric maps of harbors in North Korea, Russia, Iran, Libya and Venezuela. These maps are all hand-drawn by Navy commandos. The U.S. Army successfully infiltrated southern China during the Vietnam War, to kidnap or assassinate Chinese military advisors who were training North Vietnamese army officers (Pearson). This new agency would draw upon this country’s rich immigrant population, and the military as the backbone of the operational arm for intelligence gathering.
With the creation of the ODNI, there is no need for supplemental covert action policy development as there is now at the CIA (which used to be the principle developer of policy), so this new Agency would have a flexible operational doctrine since would not be directly intellectually invested in a set doctrine. This way the new agency could more rapidly adapt to changing world threats to the United States. The CIA is weighed down by its middle and senior management. It is operationally inbred. A new agency would not be handicapped by outdated operational policies that no longer make sense. The new agency could take the things that worked at CIA, and discard the things that did not.
The CIA has many talented, gifted and dedicated people who work hard to protect this country. Unfortunately, because of weak policies that promote the inexperienced to key management positions, the CIA is restrained from doing everything within its capability to gather information. Worse, this leadership has proven that when the White House suggested illegal (or questionable) interrogation practices, they were reluctant to say “No”. Inter-departmental games denied Alec Station vital intelligence assets even after the catastrophic attacks on the US Embassies in east Africa. The CIA dragged its feet on drone attacks in Pakistan for almost four years. Even after the CIA’s extreme caution have proven to be fatal to innocent Americans, they are still constricted by a pre-9/11 mind-set. The country would be better served, and in safer hands with an all new intelligence agency.
“At the Center of the Storm”. 60 Minutes. CBS News. New York. April 29, 2007
Bentsen, Gary. Puzzulo, Ralph. Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander. Crown. 2005.
Baer, Robert. “Getting the CIA Back in the Game”. Foreign Policy. New York.
Fessenden, Helen. ”The Limits of Intelligence Reform”. Foreign Affairs; Nov/Dec2005, Vol. 84 Issue 6, p106-120. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mth&AN=18680595&site=ehost-live
Hammond, Jeremy R., “Pakistan: Half a Million Refugees as Fighting Continues in Swat”, Foreign Policy Journal. May 13, 2009.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Yet Another CIA Failure”. Salon.com. April 27, 2009.http://www.slate.com/id/2217002/
Maclean, William. “Pakistan Instability Draws Foreign Militants”. Kuwait Times. May 10, 2009.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2004.
Pearson, Roger. Major. US Army Retired. Personal interview.
Scheuer, Michael. “How Not To Catch a Terrorist”. Atlanic Monthly. New York. 2004.
Tenent, George, Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. 2004. CIA.gov.