The Book Club

How Things Might Have Worked Out Differently and Why They Didn’t

Dear Steve,

I often think about how things could have worked out differently—how American policy-makers could have been more perceptive about the nature of the emerging Islamist threat and the danger that U.S. foreign policy would fuel the anti-Americanism in the region; how the intelligence community might have penetrated the radical circle as easily as, for instance, John Walker Lindh, the young American Taliban who drifted into the open training camps; how the CIA and the FBI might have cooperated in a way that would have uncovered the al-Qaida sleepers before they were able to put their plot into action.

Arching above all of these failures of intelligence was a general failure of understanding. Since you point to Louis Freeh, I’ll use him as a prime example. Freeh personified the Irish/Italian-male-Catholic culture of the bureau, which worked well enough when the mafia was the main threat the FBI encountered, but proved a real handicap in dealing with al-Qaida. Freeh was stiff-necked and independent, important qualities in the nation’s top lawman, but he was also prone to nursing personal slights, famously so with Clinton, which affected the standing of the bureau and drove it deep into partisan waters. He actually surrendered his White House pass, saying he would go there only as a visitor. The rift between the bureau and the White House meant that communication broke down at a crucial time—exactly during the period that al-Qaida was making its plans for 9/11. Freeh was also a technophobe whose first action, upon taking office in 1993, was to toss out his computer. By the time he resigned, in June 2001, the bureau’s computers were so out of date that even church groups would not accept them. Meantime, al-Qaida was marrying technology and terror in a way the bureau was unable to counter.

During Freeh’s tenure, the FBI’s budget for counterterrorism increased 450 percent, but on 9/11 there was only one analyst working full-time on al-Qaida. Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar in the National Security Council, told me that the bureau should be audited to determine what happened to all the money. Clarke also told me that Freeh repeatedly assured the NSC that al-Qaida posed no domestic threat. Little wonder, then, that he made no effort to create a more diverse organization capable of responding to the Islamic extremists, surely one of the greatest failures of Freeh’s administration of the bureau. Thus, on 9/11, there were only eight Arabic-speaking agents in the entire bureau, and only one in New York, Ali Soufan. This single, very talented interrogator was essential in gaining the names of the hijackers after 9/11. Had there been more Ali Soufans in the American intelligence community, I have little doubt that matters would have turned out differently.

Despite all the faults of the FBI, there remained a good chance that the bureau could have uncovered the 9/11 plot, but the CIA withheld for nearly 20 months the vital information that members of al-Qaida had already arrived in the United States. This was clearly the best opportunity American intelligence had to intercept the plan, but the CIA shielded that information from the bureau even when directly queried by Ali Soufan about specific events that would have led to the discovery of the hijackers in California.

The reasons for that are both personal and institutional. Soufan’s boss, the hard-charging John O’Neill, in particular, aroused extreme animosity within the CIA. In some respects, he was almost too much like Mike Scheuer, his counterpart in the CIA center devoted to Bin Laden, called Alec Station. Like O’Neill, Scheuer was fanatically devoted to destroying al-Qaida, at a time when few in his organization took it seriously. If O’Neill and Scheuer had been able to cooperate with each other and been less antagonistic toward their superiors, the history of al-Qaida might have taken quite a different turn. In any case, O’Neill was pushed out of the bureau by some unknown colleague who leaked a damaging story to the New York Times (it had to do with taking classified information out of the office), and Scheuer was fired. The two men who had the greatest interest in fighting al-Qaida were taken out of action before the tragedy commenced.

Tactically, the CIA had little to show for its efforts prior to 9/11. The leadership of al-Qaida was intact. There were several operations designed to kidnap or kill Bin Laden, but none of them came to pass, largely because of the absence of on-the-ground intelligence. Why was that? Because the CIA was reluctant to commit the resources needed. Clarke told me that he twice got emergency appropriations to assist the agency in going after Bin Laden, but when he had an analysis done of the CIA budget, he discovered that the agency was using only the supplemental money to support its al-Qaida operations—nothing at all from its own budget. He urged the CIA to devote extra resources from its deep pockets to al-Qaida but was told that the agency couldn’t find the money. “That meant that they thought everything else they were doing was more important than al-Qaida,” Clarke said. Strategically, al-Qaida wasn’t on the CIA’s map.

In telling the personal stories that make up The Looming Tower, I couldn’t help but observe that there were individual failures on the part of both the terrorists and the counterterrorists. Indeed, Zawahiri and Bin Laden, the leaders of al-Qaida, were in so many respects incompetent amateurs who lurched from one disaster to another, but the organization they created was single-minded and unswerving in its goal. In the case of 9/11, the institutional conflicts within the American intelligence community, combined with the unprofessional and highly personal rivalries that kept the CIA and the FBI at war with each other, undermined the extraordinary advantages that the United States had over its adversary and allowed the catastrophe to unfold.

Certainly there were important policy failures on the part of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, but they were poorly served by the managers of the intelligence community. Although the book doesn’t deal with the bureaucratic fallout of 9/11, what troubles me the most is that the reorganization of our intelligence agencies—through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the new office of Director of National Intelligence—has done nothing to improve the bureaucratic tangles, the institutional incomprehension, and the limited skill set of our operatives; indeed, in many respects, it has only added a new overlay of confusion. Many of the best and most experienced members of the intelligence community, demoralized by poor leadership and wrongheaded reforms, have left the service. Meanwhile, this administration’s fix—the illegal use of wiretaps and call monitoring and other as-yet-undisclosed intrusions on our civil liberties—has empowered a security apparatus that is apparently beyond the reach of law but is no more clear-sighted than before.