The Failure of U.S. Intelligence

The question is not what went wrong, but what didn't.

A year later, during the Yugoslav air war, the failure to consult clandestine operatives familiar with Belgrade resulted in the Agency mistakenly having the Chinese embassy bombed, thereby setting back Sino-U.S. relations for years. Other embarrassments included the failure to forecast India's nuclear tests in 1999 or the progress made by North Korea's missile program. The clandestine service was viewed as risk-averse and anemic.

Linguistic needs, too, went unfilled, particularly for Arabic and other languages of a region identified as a breeding ground for terrorists. (The richest pool of native speakers—those in the Arab American community—was largely alienated by the U.S.'s post-9-11 crackdown and the spectacle of mass detentions.)

Those entering the clandestine service during the '80s and '90s, even as terrorism metastasized—including the first twin towers attack ('93), the bombings of two U.S. embassies ('98), the assault on the destroyer Cole ('00)—were still enslaved to Cold War models. Most covert operatives were based in capitals at U.S. embassies, a carryover from when the Soviets and the U.S. engaged in a form of espionage too easily parodied by Mad magazine's cartoon Spy vs. Spy. U.S. intelligence clung to the paradigm that terrorism was state-sponsored, a vestige of the days when all mischief was attributed to Moscow or its proxies. The notion that a state could be sponsored by terrorists, as were the Taliban by Al Qaeda, was inconceivable. "The biggest danger is inherited assumptions that get handed down from generation to generation," Jami Miscik, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence, recently observed.

illustration: Mirko

Nor would such a bias be corrected by those around President Bush. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was an acolyte of just such a world vision, having been trained as a Soviet scholar. On September 11, 2001, she had prepared to deliver a national security speech in which there was to be no mention of Al Qaeda or bin Laden, reflecting the mindset of an administration about to be blindsided.

Meanwhile, the terrorists were in the countryside, not the capitals, recruiting, constructing training camps, and studying how to turn Western technology against itself. It was almost gospel that U.S. operatives could not penetrate terrorist cells, a presumption shaken by the capture of John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old Californian snared in Afghanistan and known as "the American Taliban."

Langley's weaknesses, the unwillingness of Tenet to resist political pressures, and the predilection for invading Iraq—finishing the job, in the parlance of some hawks—fused with all too familiar results. Without an embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. became overly reliant on Iraqi exiles and minorities who had vested interests in exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam and in spurring America to depose him, thereby greasing their own futures. (Journalists like The New York Times' Judith Miller also fell under their sway, trumpeting Saddam's forbidden arsenal.)

As for terrorism, there was a certain smugness at Langley. Tenet, while identifying Al Qaeda as a threat, hinted to Congress only months before 9-11 that bin Laden was beleaguered by the CIA and absorbed in self-preservation. Until the morning of the attacks, the CIA's "elite" Counterterrorist Center could still proudly invoke its slogan, "to preempt, disrupt, and defeat terrorists." At the White House, security adviser Rice remembered reading some reference to sleeper cells in the U.S., but not whether she discussed the matter with the president. The Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Within the United States" but was not a warning, only a "historical" assessment, Rice told the 9-11 Commission last week. "No one could have imagined using planes as missiles," she said. Wrong.

Even after 9-11 and the bogus reports of WMDs, the intelligence community and the White House did not own up, but blamed others—the budget was too small, the restrictions too great. Among the constraints cited was that of "agency scrub," which in the aftermath of human rights violations and torture, had required that CIA field operatives get approval from headquarters before recruiting particularly unsavory characters. Agency scrub is now gone. (To go after the rats, say operatives, one must go down into the sewers.) Then there was that noisome ban on assassinations, as if the cruise missiles of 1998 were not aimed at bin Laden's head. It was not the ban that spared bin Laden but inadequate intelligence. Truth is, when it comes to assassination, the CIA has always been the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The man most targeted for "executive action" would become the longest-serving sovereign in the Western Hemisphere: Fidel Castro. Then too there were all those sticky civil liberties and privacy concerns that got in the way.

Bush's security adviser Rice places the fault with "structural and legal impediments" that prevented the CIA and FBI from working together, and hints that America's "allergy" to domestic spying was also to blame. Accountability has never beenthe Agency's strong suit, and presidential deniability—plausible or otherwise—hardly began with Bush. John F. Kennedy withdrew critical air support for those sent to overthrow Castro in 1961, then sulked and blamed the Agency for a debacle in which he also played a role. He is even reputed to have said he would like to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds." Historically, on matters of intelligence, the buck stops nowhere.

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