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On Point

An Intelligence Failure with Catastrophic Consequences

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 intelligence failure.

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 protectors.

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.

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