On Point: An Intelligence Failure with Catastrophic Consequences

by Austin Bay
July 30, 2003

"Intelligence" -- an intelligence failure with catastrophicconsequences -- is Donald Rumsfeld's nightmare, and during Senateconfirmation 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 repliedwith 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 watchpublic affairs programming -- welcome to the modern U.S. Army gym.

After toweling down, I outlined a column, "tossing and turningover intel, why Don loses sleep," which ran the week of Jan. 21, 2001.

Less than nine months later, 9-11 occurred, a tragicintelligence failure.

To lay all the blame on our intelligence and police agencies,however, is foolish. A shared political failure also rates condemnation. Wemust also acknowledge our enemies' cleverness. Al Qaeda, with brutal clarityof purpose, exploited security gaps in America's open, hi-tech society.

The congressional inquiry into FBI and CIA actions before andafter 9-11, issued last week, examines thatnightmare in 858 pages of detail. What I've read strikes me as a fair andhonest effort, though redacting material covering Saudi Arabia's role inthose events is a huge mistake. The historical import of that allegedmalfeasance demands we see it.

The report addresses the Clinton administration's politicalfailure "sotto voce," but the tracks are there, beginning with the 1993World Trade Center attack. The report says: "Whether and when theintelligence community as a whole recognized that bin Laden was waging waron the U.S. . . . is an important factor in assessing the community'sresponse to the threat . . . " Key Clinton staffers pointed to the August1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa "as the moment" they knew binLaden was at war with America.

Credit President Clinton -- he acknowledged the hard fact. Thereport's myriad analyses of bureaucratic tangles, however, indicate acontinuing lack of focus. This strongly suggests a major disconnect betweenpresidential 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 partbecause the intelligence community is intentionally fragmented. Yet there'swisdom behind the fractures. Splitting CIA, FBI, and other intelligenceorganizations chops a potential Big Brother into a competitive gang. Thesleight of hand defends the Bill of Rights, protecting us from ourprotectors.

The open society wants it that way -- except in war, whenagencies must fuse capabilities. A terror war, with a demonstrated domesticthreat, further disturbs an open society's balance of freedom and security.

The report's recommendations are a commendable attempt to find abalance point. "Unauthorized disclosure" of information must be weighedagainst "excessive classification." "Standards of accountability" relatingto "personal responsibility, urgency, and diligence" must be implemented.

Are we implementing? I'm told American intelligenceorganizations use inter-agency liaison teams much more effectively now,resolving "disclosure and classification" bugaboos more quickly. (The reportnotes that prior to 9-11 there were "limits to the practice" of liaison.)Technology offers possibilities for sharing data and analysis. One proposedsoftware "fix" provides multi-database "channels" for critical information.I suspect "authorization" (i.e., who can use it and how quickly) may stillbe an issue.

The biggest problem is one that forever bedevils spies andanalysts, 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 puzzletogether' (the intel picture) is an art, and government bureaucracies aretough on artists. The facts may also fit several patterns, and the strugglethen becomes which interpretation is the most accurate."

Infiltrating a terror clique to obtain detailed planninginformation, "the truly accurate information -- is extremely difficult. Wedo information technology without peer, but in the dirty, gray world ofJames Bond cloak and dagger deception, we're Joe Average. America's gravestintelligence weakness is a lack of HUMINT, human spies, capable ofpenetrating al Qaeda.

Until that changes, the president should be tossing and turning.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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