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Able Danger, Etc


Since Angleton’s taking some vacation, let me just remind everyone about his basic points regarding Able Danger. There are many such stories, documented to a fare-thee-well. Many people–invariably “little people,” worker bees, not famous names–in the Intelligence Community tried to get the policy people to pay attention to al Qaeda, including activities inside the United States. Their warnings ranged from reports about people learning to maneuver an aircraft in flight (but not how to take off or land) to connections between the first World Trade Center terrorists and Iraqi intelligence, to information about terrorist sleeper cells here. Able Danger is one more such case. It is part of an alarming pattern in which the superiors in the Intelligence Community did not act on the information they had, but instead for the most part quashed it. Why?

There is a long section in The War Against the Terror Masters, in which I address this subject, arguing that the explanation is political. For two generations, policy makers did not want to hear about such things, because they had no intention of taking vigorous action. Thus, the information was annoying (since it implied that they SHOULD be acting). The bureaucracy learned the lesson. Don’t forward this kind of stuff, as it only gets your boss angry and is bad for your career.

I don’t believe that “the wall” is the root cause of the failure to act on the information provided by all these people. As I understand it, “the wall” restricted what the FBI could do; namely, it was forbidden to circulate certain kinds of intelligence that might be used in criminal prosecutions. I don’t thnk there was a legalistic, formall “wall” that prevented Army Intelligence from telling the FBI anything. The legalistic excuse used by Shaffer’s superiors, on his account–which makes total sense to me–was that they might be accused of domestic spying. And one can well imagine some Torricelli type making such accusations, can’t one? Over the years, lots of intelligence officers got crucified because they found something they thought important, and sent it up the lne, and Congress endlessly added new restrictions, and Executive Branch lawyers interpreted the restrictions very broadly. After a while…well, you know the rest of the story.

It’s politics, which creates a self-defeating culture. The Rabb-Silverman Commission describes this exceptionally well, and properly insists that this is the central problem. Yes, the lawyers did their part, and the 9/11 Commission looks pretty bad (I mean, three different “explanations” in three days is right out of the old Yiddish joke book–the lady accused of stealing her neighbor’s pot says to the judge “I never took the pot. And it was a very old pot. And it was cleaner when I returned it.”) because they, too, had a highly politicized agenda. Their recommendations–a new intel czar, an even more cumbersome bureaucracy, greater centralization instead of more competitive intelligence–do not address this central problem, and, parenthetically, they make it harder to fix the central problem. I think they spiked the Able Danger story for many reasons, but one of them is that it didn’t fit their story.