Senator Bob Graham and his colleagues have pinned the blame for the September 11 disaster squarely on the Clinton administration. Graham said Clinton lacked the political will to strike Al Qaeda at its roots in the 1990s. According to Graham, we knew where the camps were, we knew they were turning out freshly trained terrorists every month, and we knew that a significant number of these were coming to the United States of America. We had the capability to eliminate those camps, Graham said, but we didn’t use it. Treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue failed completely. Clinton hamstrung U.S. policy by adhering to “international law,” while the terrorists operated under no such restrictions. Not surprisingly, the national media have completely ignored Senator Graham’s charges that the Clinton administration was derelict in its duty.
Graham made these at a press conference to announce the findings of the Congress’ Joint Intelligence Inquiry. In that report, Graham and his colleagues delivered a sweeping indictment of CIA Director George J. Tenet, who was appointed by Clinton in 1997 and held over by President Bush. The joint inquiry found that Tenet had failed to “posture” the intelligence community to combat terrorism, failed to develop a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, failed to marshal and apply sufficient resources that then hindered the community’s counter-terrorism efforts, and failed to prioritize those resources available to him. They criticized Tenet for his failure to seek additional resources from the White House or Capitol Hill; but as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss once observed, Tenet likes his job too much to rock the boat.
The committee also found that Tenet and the Intelligence Committee had failed to “properly leverage technology” against terrorism. That’s a euphemism for permitting collection agencies like the National Security Agency to lose good people and squander America’s technological edge over our opponents. Goss and others on Capitol Hill have warned repeatedly about the potential consequences of NSA’s failure to develop and apply “timely technical solutions” to the new world of digital communications. Despite this, the joint inquiry found that NSA has still not reversed the “erosion” of its management or technical skills that Goss and others have been harping about for years. As Director of Central Intelligence since 1997, Tenet shares blame for this along with NSA’s leadership and the Pentagon.
Graham and his colleagues dismissed Tenet’s 1998 declaration of war on al Qaeda as an ineffectual gesture, saying that “most of his troops didn’t hear or didn’t respond.” More significant is the committee’s judgment that successive administrations did nothing to alert the American public to the threat and “thus harden the homeland against the attack. The published findings are a litany of missed opportunities, analytic failures, bureaucratic inertia, incompetence and inattention on the part of senior managers. The combination of these factors, prevalent throughout the intelligence community and the FBI, “greatly exacerbated the nation’s vulnerability to an increasingly dangerous and immediate international terrorist threat inside the United States.”
There were lots of references to “accountability” at the press conference, and Senator Richard Shelby, the committee’s vice chairman, was even willing to name some names. Ultimately, however, the committee recommended that the inspectors general of each agency investigate “who failed the country” and recommend “sanctions” where appropriate. Don’t hold your breath. Shelby continued his vendetta against Tenet, which stretches back years, by saying that “there were more massive failures of intelligence on his watch than any former CIA director.” Shelby has repeatedly called for Tenet’s dismissal, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Los Angeles Times that President Bush continues to have confidence in Tenet.
One veteran observer of intelligence affairs recently said, “Nobody pays attention to the intelligence community until it screws up.” Judging by the media attention, even screw-ups pass by relatively unnoticed. Only the Washington Post put the story on its front page, the rest of the nation’s elite dailies buried it. Many editors probably think the committee’s findings have already been covered, so there was nothing really new to offer the public. A week after Graham’s press conference, the joint inquiry’s findings and Graham’s allegations seem already forgotten. The New York Times even published a puff piece praising Tenet for his ability to gain and keep President Bush’s confidence. That too is a dereliction of duty.