by Austin Bay
July 30, 2003
"Intelligence" -- an intelligence failure with catastrophic
consequences -- is Donald Rumsfeld's nightmare, and during Senate
confirmation hearings in mid-January 2001, he admitted it.
When asked to name the "one thing" that "kept him up at night,"
more than any other specific threat the Pentagon confronts, Rumsfeld replied
with no hesitation: "Intelligence."
I was in the gym at Ft Monroe, Va., pulling a reserve tour.
C-SPAN, with Rumsfeld in the hot seat, was on the TV screen. Sweat and watch
public affairs programming -- welcome to the modern U.S. Army gym.
After toweling down, I outlined a column, "tossing and turning
over intel, why Don loses sleep," which ran the week of Jan. 21, 2001.
Less than nine months later, 9-11 occurred, a tragic
To lay all the blame on our intelligence and police agencies,
however, is foolish. A shared political failure also rates condemnation. We
must also acknowledge our enemies' cleverness. Al Qaeda, with brutal clarity
of purpose, exploited security gaps in America's open, hi-tech society.
The congressional inquiry into FBI and CIA actions before and
after 9-11, issued last week, examines that
nightmare in 858 pages of detail. What I've read strikes me as a fair and
honest effort, though redacting material covering Saudi Arabia's role in
those events is a huge mistake. The historical import of that alleged
malfeasance demands we see it.
The report addresses the Clinton administration's political
failure "sotto voce," but the tracks are there, beginning with the 1993
World Trade Center attack. The report says: "Whether and when the
intelligence community as a whole recognized that bin Laden was waging war
on the U.S. . . . is an important factor in assessing the community's
response to the threat . . . " Key Clinton staffers pointed to the August
1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa "as the moment" they knew bin
Laden was at war with America.
Credit President Clinton -- he acknowledged the hard fact. The
report's myriad analyses of bureaucratic tangles, however, indicate a
continuing lack of focus. This strongly suggests a major disconnect between
presidential rhetoric and effective executive action.
The report harps on "the absence of a comprehensive strategy."
U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis is often fragmented, in part
because the intelligence community is intentionally fragmented. Yet there's
wisdom behind the fractures. Splitting CIA, FBI, and other intelligence
organizations chops a potential Big Brother into a competitive gang. The
sleight of hand defends the Bill of Rights, protecting us from our
The open society wants it that way -- except in war, when
agencies must fuse capabilities. A terror war, with a demonstrated domestic
threat, further disturbs an open society's balance of freedom and security.
The report's recommendations are a commendable attempt to find a
balance point. "Unauthorized disclosure" of information must be weighed
against "excessive classification." "Standards of accountability" relating
to "personal responsibility, urgency, and diligence" must be implemented.
Are we implementing? I'm told American intelligence
organizations use inter-agency liaison teams much more effectively now,
resolving "disclosure and classification" bugaboos more quickly. (The report
notes that prior to 9-11 there were "limits to the practice" of liaison.)
Technology offers possibilities for sharing data and analysis. One proposed
software "fix" provides multi-database "channels" for critical information.
I suspect "authorization" (i.e., who can use it and how quickly) may still
be an issue.
The biggest problem is one that forever bedevils spies and
analysts, and it's why I'm afraid a 9-11 attack will always remain a threat.
In the column on Rumsfeld's nightmare I wrote: "'Putting the puzzle
together' (the intel picture) is an art, and government bureaucracies are
tough on artists. The facts may also fit several patterns, and the struggle
then becomes which interpretation is the most accurate."
Infiltrating a terror clique to obtain detailed planning
information, "the truly accurate information -- is extremely difficult. We
do information technology without peer, but in the dirty, gray world of
James Bond cloak and dagger deception, we're Joe Average. America's gravest
intelligence weakness is a lack of HUMINT, human spies, capable of
penetrating al Qaeda.
Until that changes, the president should be tossing and turning.