Politics & Policy

No Surprises

Congress reports on pre-9/11 intelligence.

The report of the joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks is an extended case study in the workings of bureaucracy. Those who believe government is efficient; that information is shared; that lines of communication are clear; that communiqués are always read, and once read are clearly understood; that strategies exist and are followed; that agencies work cooperatively towards common goals; that people are responsive to the commands of superiors; that those who hold positions of responsibility are generally qualified to hold them; and that talent, aggressiveness and creativity are rewarded in government work — well, did anyone believe that anyway?

When the joint congressional investigation into the intelligence failures preceding the 9/11 attacks were gearing up in the spring of 2002, I was skeptical that the committee would produce much of substance. At the time, the public debate had taken a highly charged tone — administration officials were pressed on why they had been unable to “connect the dots” of the conspiracy, which seemed so clear in retrospect, and it was alleged that that president could have or should have known an attack was coming, based on an August 6 Senior Executive Intelligence Brief that indicated that al Qaeda might hijack aircraft. The partisan tone of the debate and the manic search for a “smoking gun” helped sensationalize what should have been a process of rational inquiry geared not towards assigning blame but reforming what everyone agreed was an inadequate system.

But the report released Thursday was a much tamer document than one might have expected. It still suffers from the hindsight predicament discussed here in May 2002. But the tone is objective, and the political treatment (it covers both the Clinton and Bush administrations) is evenhanded. The narrative section is particularly interesting, covering details of the planning and execution of the attacks; and it also gives a decent summary of the context of the rise of the new form of transnational terrorism, and U.S. responses before 9/11. The report identifies many shortfalls in prewar intelligence, but there is nothing like a smoking gun. Information had been known that was relevant to the coming attack, but not specific enough to take preventive action. It was recognized that a strike was planned, but not when or where it might come. Aircraft might be involved in the attack, but so might other means. And the aircraft might be used as weapons, or as more traditional bargaining chips, as the August 6 SEIB indicated.

The bulk of the report was finished by December 2002, and most of the controversial material had already been reported, either during the testimony of the witnesses in the summer of 2002, or attending the release of the summary report last winter. For example, the new report recounts the problems the Phoenix FBI office had conveying the severity of the threat of Middle Eastern flight students it was watching, and the communications failures of the Zacharias Moussaoui investigation. The most important new revelation concerns the San Diego FBI informant who was in contact Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who both wound up on Flight 77, and the failure of law enforcement and intelligence to watch list them in a timely manner. The FBI takes several hits for not putting together evidence in its possession; but Former National Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke notes that the FBI might have had the information, but did not have the mission. The bureau operated as a law-enforcement agency, not a counterterrorism force. Furthermore, the restrictions placed on the FBI in the ’70s and ’80s had contributed to a culture of timidity and political correctness that the terrorists exploited.

The CIA was more willing to accept the challenge, at least at the top. In 1998, DCI George Tenet literally declared war on al Qaeda, which by then had declared war on the United States twice. “We must now enter a new phase in our effort against Bin Ladin,” he wrote in a December 1998 memo, “We are at war. . . . I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the Community.” Yet, even though word was sent through the CIA network, it was either ignored, underestimated, or dismissed as rhetoric by many departments outside those tasked directly with the counterterrorism portfolio. The CIA did take some “creative” action against al Qaeda, but unfortunately the sections dealing with covert attempts to take out bin Laden from 1998 to 2001 were mostly sanitized. The overarching problem for the intelligence community was not a dearth of information, but a lack of direction. “For much of the Intelligence Community, everything became a priority since its customers in the U.S. Government wanted to know everything about everything all the time” (p. 49). This brought drift, and because resources were scarce, inability to focus. This exacerbated the structural problems of the decentralized intelligence community, which the report calls “a large distributed organism.” (Note that language like that is part of the problem.)

One doubts that the report can easily be exploited for partisan purposes. It is simple, of course, for critics to question why the 9/11 attacks could not have been prevented, and imply that they reasonably should have been; but that argument cuts both ways. One could as easily ask the same of the former members of the Clinton administration (remember when, in the Spring 2002 round of finger-pointing, the “what if” debate spiraled into a mutual-blame stalemate). Some of the more ambitious presidential candidates have tried to link the report to the African uranium issue, but recent statements by former President Clinton asserting the reasonableness of the Bush administration’s analysis will blunt that line of attack — and probably deter another round of the self-defeating debate we went through over a year ago. The upshot is that apart from some typical sensationalizing by the press (“Who is to blame for 9/11?” ABC News Nightline asked. My answer: Osama bin Laden) the report has a chance of being used to promote intelligence-community reform rather than being a political football.

Yet, one may ask to what extent large-scale reform is needed. Since 9/11 the government has done an excellent job combating international terrorism. The report relates a statement by a senior al Qaeda operative that ten major operations were planned against the U.S., to be executed either simultaneously or sequentially. This is in line with John Walker Lindh’s assertion that there were to be three waves of multiple attacks against American targets, the four on 9/11 comprising only the first wave. The fact that none of the follow-on attacks were successfully carried out is a good indication that many of the problems identified by the report have been overcome. As noted above, the main shortfall was a lack of direction, of purpose, of perspective. The threat was not understood, or underestimated. This has not been a problem post-9/11. In the years before the attack, there was a general lack of will, from the leadership down, to take the action necessary to deal effectively with international terrorism. The political conditions were not ripe, either domestically or internationally. After the attacks, all that changed. Al Qaeda became the top priority, the fact that we were at war was unmistakable, and actions became politically possible that would have been unthinkable beforehand.

The potentially explosive aspect of the report is the omission of pages 395-422, the section dealing with foreign support for al Qaeda, particularly from Saudi Arabia. This raises a number of questions, such as why the discussion was redacted, what level of support al Qaeda enjoyed from Saudi sources, and why the United States has not taken more forceful action to resolve this national-security issue. The extent of the links implied by the sheer bulk of the redaction is the kind of thing the administration would gladly have exposed were Iraq the country in question.

There are some telling unredacted sections that discuss the Saudi connection. For example, with respect to the above noted San Diego-based terrorists:

Shortly after their arrival in the United States, future hijackers Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi moved to San Diego at the suggestion of [alleged Saudi intelligence agent] Omar al-Bayoumi, who had previously been the focus of an FBI counterterrorism … inquiry. In San Diego, they stayed at al-Bayoumi’s apartment for several days until he was able to find them an apartment. He then co-signed their lease, paid their security deposit and first month’s rent, arranged a party to welcome them to the San Diego community, and tasked another individual to help them become acclimated to the United States. [long redaction] The second individual served as their translator, helped them obtain bank accounts and drivers’ licenses, and assisted them in locating flight schools. (p. 27)

The report also notes links between these men and Saudi national Osama Bassnan, though with less specificity. A passage on international counterterrorism cooperation notes that “According to a U. S. Government official, it was clear from about 1996 that the Saudi Government would not cooperate with the United States on matters relating to Usama Bin Ladin. [4 line redaction], reemphasized the lack of Saudi cooperation and stated that there was little prospect of future cooperation regarding Bin Ladin” (p. 110). Saudi officials have claimed that lately they have been taking strong steps against terrorists — particularly those making attacks in Saudi Arabia — nevertheless, the 27-page gap is the most intriguing part of the report. I would lay bets on how soon it will be leaked, but this being Washington that may be a moot point by press time.

James S. Robbins — James S. Robbins is a political commentator for National Review and USA Today and is senior fellow for national security affairs on the American Foreign Policy Council. He is a ...

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