Politics & Policy

A Memo to The 9/11 Commission

Advice from an intel vet.

Like every American, I offer you my prayers and best wishes as you go about the business of figuring out why we suffered the worst intelligence failure in our country’s history, and of recommending what we now must do to assure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but — since none of you has actually worked at the CIA — may I offer a piece of advice?

Drill fast, drill deep. By doing so — and only by doing so — will you be able to pinpoint precisely where the failure lies.

Before explaining what I mean by drilling, allow me to set the stage by outlining just what it is our country’s intelligence service actually does and how precisely it works: To really grasp this, for a moment forget about the CIA, the FBI, and the other agencies. Just think about what it is that makes human beings so different from other species. Simply put, we have foresight — the ability to see into the future and to take action that changes the future before it happens. For example, imagine that you are standing outside a supermarket, chatting with a friend. Nearby a toddler is bouncing a rubber ball. Out of the corner of your eye you see him lose control of the ball and watch it bounce into the road. Almost without thinking, you run over and grab that little boy’s arm. Why? Because you realized that child probably would run into the road after his ball, and possibly be hit by a car. Did you know for sure he would bolt? No. And if he did bolt, were you certain he would be hit by a car? Of course not. But if you waited to be sure, it would have been too late. So you followed your instinct — which is the combination of experience and judgment — to project the probable future and change it before it happened. We humans do this sort of thing all the time.

Our government does precisely the same thing, only on a larger and more-complex scale. It looks into the future at those trends and developments relevant to our security. And if it doesn’t like what it sees, it acts to change the future before it happens. The individual responsible for projecting the future is the director of Central Intelligence, who also heads the CIA itself. Most people don’t realize it, but these are two separate jobs. Let’s take them one at a time: As director of Central Intelligence, the DCI has oversight responsibility for the whole alphabet soup of agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. This includes the CIA itself, the various Defense Department agencies, the National Security Agency, the FBI, and several others. To the DCI, the CIA is merely one of these agencies. The DCI’s analytic staff is the National Intelligence Council, whose members are the government’s senior intelligence analysts. They are the ones the DCI relies on to connect the dots into a pattern that projects the future of key trends and developments relevant to our country’s security.

These patterns are outlined in the form of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), which are the top-secret interagency projections that go to the president and his top advisers. This means they include the best thinking not just of the CIA’s own leaders but of those officials who lead all the agencies charged with our security. An NIE may look at the possibility that China will attack Taiwan, at Latin America’s economic problems, at the prospects for war between Israel and Syria, at Iran’s stability — or at the outlook for anti-U.S. terrorism. Each NIE is drafted by an analyst at one of the other of the agencies, under the direction of whichever National Intelligence Officer is responsible for that issue or country. Part of the NIO’s work is to coordinate that draft among the various agencies, and to make sure that each agency contributes whatever raw intel it has. The actual meeting at which each Estimate is finalized is attended by a senior representative of each agency that is part of our Intelligence Community, and chaired by the director of Central Intelligence himself. (And since the DCI also is director of the CIA, that agency is represented separately, by its deputy director.) These meetings often are lengthy, highly contentious, and utterly fascinating.

Some DCIs have preferred that estimates reflect a consensus, in which case the final drafts tend to be watered down to the point where everyone can agree. What you get, of course, are judgments that are so vague as to be worthless to policymakers. (“We judge that in the coming years several Latin American economies will falter and thus increase the likelihood of political instability on that continent.“) Other DCIs prefer to actually highlight differences, in which case you trade consensus for specificity. (“We believe that economic instability in Latin America will force the collapse of several governments in the coming year, including those of Venezuela and Brazil. However, the Director of Naval Intelligence dissents and believes that both the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments will emerge intact from their current difficulties. Please see Attachment B for a more detailed explanation of his position.“)

During the Reagan administration, when William J. Casey was DCI, the NIEs were very specific and filled with dissents. Casey thought the president had a right to know when his various intelligence agencies were at odds, and he went out of his way to assure that dissenting opinions not only were included, but written out as clearly as possible so the president could see not only where the agencies disagreed, but why. (I know this, because it was part of my job to actually help write those dissents for Casey, even when they ripped his own position to shreds.)

Now, the DCI is also the CIA director, which means he has direct operational and management control of that agency. Under his leadership, the CIA produces its own range of products, including the President’s Daily Brief, the Intelligence Assessments prepared by the agency’s own analysts, and raw intelligence collected by the CIA’s clandestine service. (Keep in mind that the “C” in CIA stands for “Central,” which means that to produce its various reports the agency is supposed to have access to raw intel not just from the CIA’s own clandestine service, but from throughout the Intelligence Community.)

Broadly speaking, the NIEs provide an overview of looming trends and developments, while the various CIA products are more narrowly focused and more “operational.” It is this combination of high-altitude and ground-level intelligence that comprises the Intelligence Community’s “deliverables” — its total output for the president and his advisers. And this leads to the first question you must ask: What intelligence reached the president in the months prior to 9/11?

Get your hands on everything the DCI delivered during this period, or at least that part of its output relevant to terrorism. (Good news here: The DCI’s office keeps meticulous records of just which pieces of intelligence went to which officials, and on what dates. If anyone tries to block your request for the “deliverables” by insisting they aren’t able to put together a complete package of what went to the president or any of his key advisers, they’re lying.) Read through the estimates, the PDBs, the CIA’s assessments, the memos, the DCIs personal talking points, and whatever raw intel might have been delivered, and find out precisely what the president and his key advisers were told.

What you are looking for is any evidence that our intelligence service did in fact provide the kind of early warning that the administration could have acted upon to prevent the attacks. For instance, there might be an NIE delivered four months before 9/11, entitled “Prospects for Terrorist Activity in the Coming Year,” whose key judgment was that

Al Qaeda now has the strength, the organizational sophistication and the financial acumen to plan and launch massive terrorist attacks within the US itself in the coming months.

There might be an assessment from the CIA’s Intelligence Directorate dated July 2001 warning that

Al Qaeda now has operatives within the US who are planning operations, possibly involving the use of hijacked commercial airliners

There might have been a private briefing for the president and vice president in August at which the DCI revealed raw intelligence — intercepts, for example — pointing to a big operation in early September against major U.S. landmarks, perhaps involving hijacked airplanes.

In other words, you want to find out if the DCI gave the president enough information, early enough, that in the judgment of reasonable people should have enabled him to take actions that would have thwarted the attacks. If so, you have made a major discovery. Namely, that there was no intelligence failure at all, but rather a failure of political leadership. I am not suggesting this is the case, but merely pointing out its possibility and urging you — begging you — to deal with it. If the president was not given sufficient warning to thwart the attacks, you owe it to him, and to history, to make this clear. There are still scholars who insist that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor before December 7, and that Churchill had advance word of the air attack on Coventry. Please don’t let President Bush suffer the same fate if he’s not at fault.

Let’s just assume that after getting your hands on all the relevant intelligence, you conclude that, in fact, the DCI did not provide the kind of intelligence the President would have needed to prevent the attack. In this case, you know for sure there really was a failure of intelligence. And now you can turn your attention to the intelligence service itself and ask the next question:

Was the intelligence failure one of output, or of input?

Get your hands on the raw intelligence the CIA’s analysts, the National Intelligence officers, and the senior analysts at the other agencies used to produce whatever they did produce on the subject of terrorism in the months prior to the attack. This includes electronic intercepts, reports from spies (I’m just assuming we had some at the time), field reports from other U.S. government agencies, such as the FBI, and from friendly foreign-intelligence services. Did the analysts do a good job with what they had to work with? Or were the reports they wrote less valuable than they should have been in light of what they had on hand? In other words, was “two-and-two” sitting on their desks, and they failed to see that it equaled “four”? Or did they not have “two-and-two” at all, in which case it isn’t their fault that they failed to see “four.”

If the raw material was there and the analysis was faulty, what you have identified is a failure of output. In other words, the analysts blew it. But if the raw material wasn’t there to work with, then it’s an input failure. It means our analysts weren’t given the raw material they needed to see the looming danger and thus be able to warn the President.

And if it is an input failure, go on to the next question:

Why did our analysts not get the raw material they needed to see the looming danger?

It could be that the raw material was on hand somewhere in one or another of the agencies that comprise our intelligence community, but not made available to the analysts who needed to know. If so, then you have identified a major management failure. Or, it could be that the raw material just wasn’t there at all; that our intelligence collectors — the CIA’s clandestine service, the NSA, the FBI, and so forth — were working very hard to get that information, but lacked the financial resources to succeed. In this case, whose fault is it that they were under funded? It could be they had enough money, but were hobbled by rules and regulations that prohibited our collectors from going where they wanted to go and talking to whomever they needed to talk with. If so, why?

On the other hand, if could be that the CIA’s leadership put too much of its money and manpower on issues other than terrorism, for instance on issues of economic stability and environmental damage. Perhaps the CIA had remained too focused on Russia, even though the Cold War was over, and had failed to reorient toward the new threat of terrorism. If so, then who was responsible for the agency’s failure to reorient?

Drill fast, drill deep. And let me tell you, it won’t be easy and it won’t be pleasant. To be sure, you will find throughout the intelligence community some of the nicest, smartest, hardest-working and patriotic people you will ever meet. But you also will find some of the most mediocre, obstructionist, bureaucratic games-players anywhere in our government. Especially at the CIA, these guys play rough, and they fight dirty. Remember, espionage is their business. They will block you, lie to you, mislead you, and not hesitate to smear you through leaks to the press. (Bob Woodward is not — repeat, not — their only contact.) In short, you are in for a vicious, nasty fight, and the sooner you understand and accept this, the better.

I don’t want to carry this analogy too far, but as members of the 9/11 Commission you are in somewhat the same position as the U.N.’s Iraq weapons-inspection team. Your job is to find stuff the people who have it don’t want you to find. It’s going to be a mess, and as members of the commission you will have to get your hands dirty to succeed. Forget about sitting in your offices, thinking big thoughts about intelligence, while sending members of your staff out to Langley to sift through reports or rifle through hard drives. They’ll get creamed. Only you — members of the commission — have the weight, the muscle, and the political oomph to knock down doors, shove people aside and get your hands on the real stuff. If you aren’t willing to give some very important people some bloody noses — and to suffer a few yourselves — you won’t get to the bottom of it. You will wind up as hapless, and as worthless, as Hans Blix.

Seriously, this has got to be a helicopter-raids-at-dawn, break-down-the-doors, kick-their-rear-ends sort of operation. Nothing less than that will work. Among other things, you will need to find those analysts and collectors who really, really know what went wrong and who’s to blame. They are there, waiting for you and desperate to tell you what they know. But don’t expect them to spill the beans just because you ask. They have to live there, and long after the commission’s report is published and you are basking on the talk-show and lecture circuits, they will still be there — getting their brains kicked in and their careers destroyed. Just as the Iraq inspection teams must get that country’s key scientists and their families to safety, so too must you bring to safety, and then protect, those men and women in our intelligence service who know what you need to know. You had better figure out how you plan to do this even before you start.

Do all this, and you will have rendered our country a great service. You will have figured out why, precisely, we suffered such a costly failure of intelligence. And then, with your collective experience and judgment, you will be able to make the kind of recommendations that will protect us from another such horrific blow.

One last point: When you have finished drilling down, climb back up and get yourselves to an altitude high enough to let you see the big picture. Here’s why: Back in 1915 Europe was at war but the U.S. was neutral and hoping to remain out of it. But in May of that year a German U-boat sunk a British luxury liner — the Lusitania. More than 200 Americans on board were killed — commentators at the time said it was the worst intelligence failure in our history — and we found ourselves in the middle of a world war. In 1941 much of the world again was at war, and again we were neutral. Then we got hit on December 7, with about 2,000 Americans killed. This became the worst intelligence failure in our history, and for the second time we found ourselves in the middle of a world war. The September 11 failure cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans, and for a third time we find ourselves in a world war.

Do you see a pattern here? Three times in a row we have been caught with our pants down, which is at least two times too many. And each time the number of casualties has risen sharply. Clearly, there is something very wrong about the way we Americans do business with the world; about the way we ignore threats to our survival until we get hit so hard we cannot help but notice that someone out there wants to kill us. In an age of nuclear weapons, biological agents and deadly chemicals, we cannot let this happen a fourth time.

That’s why it is no exaggeration to say that our lives are in your hands. Good luck, and Godspeed to you all.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He is president of Real-World Intelligence Inc., which designs intelligence systems for companies worldwide.


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