Near the end of a congressional hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked the witnesses if anyone had yet been held accountable for the government’s failure to prevent the 9/11 disaster. Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet replied, “No one.” FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “It depends on what you mean by ‘accountability.'” Levin said he thought that was “deeply troubling.” Levin was right, but what is even more “deeply troubling” is how U.S. foreign and domestic intelligence capabilities have become the Achilles heel of our national security.
The effects of a decade of political interference and outright neglect became apparent as the Congress wrapped up its investigation of the failures of the intelligence community and FBI prior to 9/11. Congress found “no smoking gun,” but congressional investigators said the “story of September 11 is one replete with failures.”
The findings are a stinging indictment of the Clinton administration’s stewardship of U.S. intelligence and the FBI. Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, co-chairman of the joint committee investigating 9/11, blamed Clinton directly for lacking the political will to root out al Qaeda at its training camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
After it assumed office in January 2001, the Bush administration did not clean out the CIA and other key intelligence agencies of Clinton appointees. Many of these, like George J. Tenet and his staff, are still in place, even after the failures of 9/11.
In fact, hardly anyone has lost their job over the failures of 9/11. Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow asked White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card why people hadn’t been fired “for what seems to have been incompetence on the job or looking the other way at any level” after 9/11. Card said, “People have been moved out during this administration because they haven’t done the job?” Card didn’t say who, but it was later learned that Cofer Black was removed as head of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center after 9/11. He was simply transferred to the State Department where he became the chief counter-terrorism coordinator.
In retrospect, it is evident that the new Bush administration failed to devote sufficient attention to the threat of international terrorism after it came into office. Bush admitted as much to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. One nagging question concerns just how much President Bush was told about al Qaeda’s threat to attack the U.S. homeland in the days and weeks prior to 9/11.
CIA Director Tenet and his patron, former Senator David Boren, convinced Woodward that Tenet had been warning anyone who would listen in Washington about the threat from al Qaeda. But Tenet is a seasoned and skilled manipulator of the media and has been waging a persistent campaign to protect his reputation from blame for the 9/11 intelligence failure.
Tenet’s success in that campaign is evident in Woodward’s book, Bush at War. Woodward wrote that Tenet and his director of operations, also a Clinton appointee, had warned Bush before he took office about bin Laden’s “immediate” and “tremendous” threat. Woodward charged that, nine months into the new administration, “they did not have a plan in place to do something about somebody the CIA director said is an immediate and tremendous threat.” But the mistakes made by the CIA prior to 9/11 should raise questions about Tenet’s account. The Congress’s inquiry found the intelligence community was poorly prepared to meet the threat and pinned much of the blame for that squarely on Tenet’s leadership of the community. And Tenet’s refusal to release copies of information delivered to the President and the White House has fueled media speculation over what Bush was told prior to 9/11.
For example, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Advisor, seemed genuinely surprised that terrorists would use airliners as weapons of mass destruction. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon.” The Congress, however, found that starting in 1994 the intelligence community issued at least twelve intelligence reports and two National Intelligence Estimates that referred to the use of airplanes as terrorist weapons. The question remains as to who, if anyone, told Rice about these reports. More likely, the reports were filed and forgotten.
Not once, moreover, did the intelligence community produce a technical threat assessment of the potential use of airplanes against such high-value targets. But when the Clinton White House wanted to blame the crash of TWA 800 on a fuel-tank explosion, Tenet’s CIA produced a phony “technical assessment,” complete with a cartoon-like video, to support the absurd claim that every witness who had claimed to see a missile had actually seen only burning fuel coming down from the plane after it had lost the entire fuselage in front of the wings, while ascending 3000 feet.
It was hardly a secret around Washington that the Bush administration opposed any investigation into what went wrong before 9/11. But Congress forced the president’s hand by launching its own probe through the combined efforts of the intelligence oversight committees of the House and Senate. A Joint Inquiry Staff (JIS) was set up that limited its investigation to the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA). The guidance to the JIS was simply to follow the facts and wrap up its work by the end of the year.
Tenet and the CIA tried to stall the inquiry by withholding requested intelligence documents and then fighting the declassification and public release of the investigators’ findings, especially on Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, the reputed mastermind of 9/11. Until the very end, the CIA refused to allow any publication of information relating to his role in the 9/11 attacks.
The JIS findings were finally released on Dec. 10, 2002, but the CIA forced the Congress to withhold several on “national security grounds.” Nevertheless, the findings represented a sweeping indictment of five Clinton appointees: Tenet, his predecessor John Deutch, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, and a current and former director of NSA. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, co-chair of the JIS probe and a long-time critic of Tenet, charged that more massive intelligence failures occurred on Tenet’s watch than any other DCI in history.
The FBI also stonewalled. Sen. Graham said there were 13 outstanding requests for information to the FBI alone. Several senators urged the bureau to declassify information that will show that foreign governments “may have been facilitating all this and it is continuing.” Sen. Shelby urged the FBI to “follow the money” behind 9/11 and strongly implied that the trail would lead to Saudi Arabia.
But the Congress can’t claim it wasn’t warned about problems in the U.S. Intelligence Community. Three times in the late 1990s, outside experts found serious flaws in the performance of the intelligence community. In 1998, for example, they cited the community’s failure to warn of nuclear weapons testing on the Indian subcontinent. They said Tenet had failed to insure maximum coordination among analysts and that analysts were becoming too “risk averse.”
In 1999, the Rumsfeld Commission found that analysts tracking foreign ballistic missile and weapons-of-mass-destruction developments were relatively inexperienced and lacked language skills and science and technical training. Another panel that included Gen. Brent Scowcroft, assembled by Tenet to evaluate the damage done by Chinese nuclear espionage, reached a similar conclusion.
The JIS found missed opportunities, analytic failures, bureaucratic inertia, incompetence, and inattentiveness of senior managers. It said counter-terrorism analysts were often untrained, underqualified, and inexperienced. Information sharing among agencies with counter-terrorism responsibilities was a particular problem. It also found that potentially significant information was overlooked and “lay dormant” at CIA and elsewhere for as long as eighteen months while the 9/11 plot was building.
JIS learned that Tenet had “declared war” on al Qaeda in early December 1998, after the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Tenet’s declaration, however, was determined to be an ineffectual gesture as “most of his troops didn’t hear or didn’t respond.” The JIS could find no evidence of any “massive shift” of resources within the intelligence community to combat terrorism. Many terrorist communications were never even translated.
The JIS found that Tenet’s budget requests for counter-terrorism “rose only marginally” after his declaration of war. He told Congress that with his budget request for fiscal year 2000 “the Agency as a whole is well positioned” to go after al Qaeda. Congress disagreed and consistently appropriated more funding specifically marked for counter-terrorism than Tenet had requested. The JIS found that Tenet had counter-terrorism funding left over unspent at the end of FY 2001. Yet Cofer Black, chief of the CIA’s Counter-terrorist Center (CTC), told investigators that “before 9/11, we did not have enough people, money, or sufficiently flexible rules of engagement.”
The JIS also found serious deficiencies in U.S. intelligence collection capabilities. It is commonly understood that our ability to collect human intelligence (HUMINT) was greatly impaired by restrictions imposed on the CIA during the Clinton years. Agency officials repeatedly complained that presidential advisors like Tony Lake and Sandy Berger were too “risk adverse” to authorize covert activities. It is also true that the Aldrich Ames spy case had a devastating effect on CIA’s clandestine intelligence-collection programs.
Not surprisingly, the 9/11 investigation determined that the CIA had failed to produce significant human intelligence on al Qaeda. Sen. Shelby said, “the distinguishing feature of anti-terrorist HUMINT three years after the [East Africa] embassy bombing and the DCI’s declaration of war against al Qaeda was our lack of HUMINT penetration of the organization, especially its central operations.”
The near simultaneous decline of our technical intelligence collection capabilities is not as well known to the public. The National Security Agency, whose mission is to protect U.S. information infrastructures and gather foreign signals intelligence, was particularly hard hit during the Clinton years. In the name of restructuring government, Clinton-Gore human resource policies had a devastating effect on NSA’s personnel and contributed directly to the loss of many of the agency’s most talented managers. That loss occurred against the backdrop of the digital revolution in communications. As that revolution accelerated, NSA fell further behind in its ability to keep pace with developments in fiber optics and computer-to-computer communications.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh first revealed NSA’s problems in a December 1999 New Yorker article. Dozens of current and former intelligence officials told Hersh that NSA desperately needed to “retool” and “start all over again” or risk “going deaf” in ten years. Hersh reported that Tenet had become alarmed when he learned of NSA’s problems, but had been unable to halt the negative trends at the agency. Congressional critics blamed NSA’s decline on a “failure of intelligence management.”
Hersh interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey, D-NE, who attributed some of the problem to the lack of media attention. Kerrey told Hersh, “There are no editorials in the New York Times, no advocates. Does the public know that the nation might be more secure if more was invested? Out of sight, out of mind.”
The House Intelligence Committee has persistently complained of the NSA’s failure to solve its personnel and technical problems. A post 9/11 congressional review found that NSA had failed to devote sufficient resources to counter-terrorism targets and had failed to reverse shortfalls in its language skills. NSA responded that it lacked resources for a “comprehensive, focused, counter-terrorism target development effort.” The congressional probe found that NSA’s “cautious approach” to collecting intelligence in the U.S. and “insufficient collaboration” with the FBI hindered the war on terrorism. But complaints about the lack of funding and resources by NSA managers cast doubt on Tenet’s claims that he had prepared the intelligence community to cope with the threat of international terrorism.
Members of Congress are skeptical of the ability of the leadership of the intelligence community to bring about meaningful reform. This explains the idea of a new “intelligence czar” who would sit at the president’s right hand and would be independent of the CIA. But Tenet still has Bush’s confidence. He and his senior staff don’t think they have failed. One recently told AIM, “How could anyone have known that hijackers were going to board those airplanes that day? ” They learned nothing from the JIS findings.
On May 30, 2002, FBI Special Agent Robert Wright appeared with Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman at a Washington news conference and tearfully apologized for the bureau’s inaction before 9/11. One of Wright’s investigations led to the seizure in June 1998 of $1.4 million in terrorist funds linked to a Saudi businessman. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration designated the businessman, Yassim al-Kadi, as a financial supporter of Osama bin Laden.
Klayman said that if Wright’s investigation had been pursued, “the money to fund terrorist operations, such as 9/11, would have been cut off.” He said “these monies were moving through some powerful U.S. banks,” affected “some very powerful interests in the U.S.,” and that resistance to taking the investigation forward stemmed from conflicts of interest because top officials were “tight” with Saudi Arabia. Klayman said FBI officials had to be nervous “when the rich and powerful in Washington, D.C. are doing business with some of these entities” that could be coming under investigation. Klayman said that when he went to the Justice Department after 9/11 offering Wright’s expertise, he was told by Michael Chertoff, head of the Criminal Division, that they were not interested in conspiracy theories.
Wright’s news conference was covered by C-SPAN, but it was ignored by many in the major media. On December 19, however, ABC World News Tonight broke with the pack, airing a dramatic story about the Wright allegations. It noted that a federal prosecutor, Mark Flessner, had backed them up. Flessner was trying to build a strong criminal case against al-Kadi and others, but he saidthat “There were powers bigger than I was in the Justice Department and within the FBI that simply were not going to let it happen. And it didn’t happen.”
Flessner added, “I think there were very serious mistakes made. And I think it perhaps cost?people their lives ultimately.” Flessner said he had been working on the case with Wright and another FBI agent, John Vincent.
Wright told ABC News correspondent Brian Ross, “Sept-ember 11th is a direct result of the incompetence of the FBI’s Inter-national Terrorism Unit. No doubt about that.” Wright added, “You can’t know the things I know and not go public.” Wright further indicated that only a fraction of what he knows about the Saudi connection and its cover-up has been made public. He said, “There’s so much more. God, there’s so much more.”
It is significant that Ross, who has slavishly followed the FBI’s lead in the fruitless and heavy-handed pursuit of Steven Hatfill in the anthrax letters case, went against the FBI bureaucracy in this matter. Ross noted that, on December 6, U.S. Customs agents, as part of their own investigation, conducted a midnight search of Ptech, a Boston-area company believed to be secretly owned and controlled by al-Kadi. The computer firm’s clients include the Naval Air Systems Command, NATO, Congress, and the Department of Energy, which handles security for nuclear weapons and material. Experts told ABC News that Ptech had easy access to the computer systems of those agencies and institutions.
The sensitivity of the matter can be seen in the reaction to reports that funds for some of the 9/11 hijackers came from the bank account of the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar. Saudi officials held a news conference to vehemently deny that the money was intended for terrorists. They said that they were gifts to Saudis who had asked for help to pay medical expenses.
The new 9/11 commission should investigate this, as well as the FBI’s failure to find the perpetrators of the anthrax letter attacks.
The Washington Post has run an editorial questioning the FBI’s pursuit of former government scientist Steven Hatfill. “Several months ago,” it noted, “the government searched Mr. Hatfill’s possessions and drove him from his job-but it still won’t call him a suspect, charge him with a crime or clear him.” The paper said the government has left the public “in the dark.”
Bob Woodward’s book also leaves people in the dark on this matter. But another Post journalist, Marilyn Thompson, has a book coming out on the anthrax case.