After investigating the intelligence snafus that preceded Sept. 11, 2001, the members of Congress’ Joint Intelligence Committee are offering some homespun wisdom to the FBI and CIA: Learn to share.
The demand for greater cooperation between spooks and G-men is compellingly simple, but it dangerously misunderstands the lessons of the 9/11 intelligence failures. It’s true that the FBI and CIA don’t communicate well. It’s also true that an intelligence operation that crosses international borders as seamlessly as the terrorists do will be a key to preventing future attacks. But if Congress and the Bush administration are going to create an effective response to al-Qaida, they must realize that the communication breakdowns between the FBI and CIA are not evidence of the agencies falling short of their individual missions. In fact, they show just how successful the two sibling rivals are.
While geography represents an obvious difference between the FBI and the CIA—the Bureau takes the homeland, the Agency the rest—it is far from the most important. The FBI is a law enforcement organization that was designed to track down and arrest the crooks that local cops can’t. The CIA is an intelligence agency that was designed to tell policy-makers what’s really going on in the world. One measures its accomplishment by successful convictions, the other by successful predictions. Both use intelligence to do their jobs, but catching the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby and determining whether Gen. Badenov still has influence with Khrushchev are two very different goals. And because the work is so different, the two agencies differ in how they collect, analyze, act upon, and share intelligence.
Take, for instance, a piece of information that was shared but not acted upon. In 1998, congressional investigators discovered, the CIA told the FBI that a group of Arab terrorists was planning to fly a plane filled with explosives into the World Trade Center. The FBI dropped the report in its bombing file and forgot about it. And why shouldn’t they have? What investigation would it support? Like most CIA intelligence products, it didn’t include the sources or the methods used to acquire the information because that might jeopardize the Agency’s ability to continue collecting intelligence. For the FBI, a vague prediction without names, sources, or methods is useless. CIA analysts are trained to paint the big picture. “The FBI,” says former CIA analyst Larry Johnson, “wants to know about a target: Who are his immediate associates, who is his family, who does he call, where does he eat? Most of that is never disseminated … because it would compromise sources.”
The FBI complains that intelligence officers are too untrusting, but the Bureau has earned its reputation for burning sources. In 1985, for instance, the FBI rushed to arrest ex-National Security Agency staffer Ronald Pelton, who was suspected of spying for the Soviets. As the investigation began, then-NSA Director Lt. Gen. William Odom gave explicit instructions to watch Pelton until the case against him was rock solid and investigators learned if others were working for the Soviets. Such patience is a classic intelligence investigation technique that the FBI didn’t appreciate. Odom was expecting to wait a year or more, but the Bureau arrested Pelton after only a month of surveillance. The only reason the FBI eventually gained enough evidence for a conviction was that Pelton offered to work for the Bureau as a double agent. The FBI thanked Pelton for his confession, and he was sentenced to life in prison. But, Odom says, “There’s no reason he couldn’t have just walked. Now, if you’ve had that experience, would you give the FBI any information?”
FBI agents are similarly skeptical toward the CIA agents who always seem to be getting in the way of their arrests. As Mark Riebling details in Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA, the CIA in 1979 told the FBI that fugitive financier Robert Vesco had sought sanctuary in the Bahamas, where he gained protection by bribing Bahaman officials. Just before the FBI arrested Vesco, the CIA station chief objected on the grounds that busting Vesco might scuttle the Agency’s attempts to work with those same corrupt officials to find a new home for the recently deposed Shah of Iran. While the FBI and CIA were going back and forth, Vesco figured the decidedly un-Rasta-like men following him for FBI agents and fled for communist Nicaragua and eventually Cuba.
Seen through each agency’s lens of experience, the mistakes leading up to Sept. 11 begin to make slightly more sense. One can perhaps understand why the CIA might have failed to tell the FBI that two suspected al-Qaida operatives who would eventually become hijackers had entered the United States. Why risk the FBI arresting two guys who may eventually lead them to Bin Laden’s cave? So, too, can one understand why the FBI failed to give the CIA the names of al-Qaida informants who were helping the investigation of the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing. Why risk the prosecution by involving an agency that knows little and cares even less about law enforcement? Had either been more forthcoming, the other might have been able to do more to prevent the attacks. But had either done so, it wouldn’t have been doing its job, at least not in a strict sense.
That’s why the reformers’ calls for intelligence-sharing, personnel exchange, and token increases at the Joint Counterterrorism Center at Langley are, in the end, so empty. Ultimately, the people of each agency are going to abide by the goals of the very different organizations for which they work. They have done so for more than 50 years, despite every director of the FBI and CIA’s well-meaning promises to improve coordination. And as much as Congress tries, rhetorical whippings or budgetary enticements will not fix what is essentially a problem of structure.
It’s tempting, then, to change the structure. And, indeed, there have been plenty of proposals flying around the Hill that would do just that. There are two lead possibilities likely to be considered when the Joint Inquiry Committee completes its report next year. The first is separating the coordinating role of the Directorate of Central Intelligence from the CIA director’s office. The second is creating a domestic surveillance agency, distinct from both the CIA and FBI, that could follow suspected terrorists once they enter the United States. The first sensibly elevates the DCI above bureaucratic bickering but will most likely not have an appreciable effect on the midlevel analyst-to-analyst coordination that counterterrorism requires. The second would address the CIA’s fears by divorcing law enforcement from domestic surveillance but would probably run into too much interference from civil libertarians and the turf-protective FBI.
So here’s something that might work. Create a dedicated counterterrorism agency not from scratch but by yanking the counterterrorism divisions out of the FBI and the CIA. For good measure, they should also add the counterterrorism departments of the NSA and Justice Department. By putting the string-’em-up FBI agents and the string-’em-along CIA officers in the same room, reporting to the same bosses, following the same rules, you would allow them to hash out strategies on specific information and cases. The goals of intelligence collection and criminal prosecution will still interfere with each other, but decisions of how to prioritize can be made by a single, top-level official, rather than by innumerable agents and analysts deciding on their own what to pass along and what to keep to themselves.
Admittedly, such a move would be politically impossible if it were designed to be permanent. But why would it need to be? There’s no reason to believe that al-Qaida and international terrorism will be the No. 1 intelligence priority five years from now. (It barely is now, just one year after the attacks.) By sunsetting the new collaboration in, say, five years, Congress could, with presidential muscle, get around the bureaucratic resistance. After all, even J. Edgar Hoover, who tried to smother the infant CIA in its crib in the late ‘40s, was able to tolerate its forerunner, the OSS, when he thought that it wouldn’t survive the end of World War II. If, after five years, a centralized counterterrorism agency is still needed, it can be renewed. But if terrorism returns to its previous position as just one of many potential threats, it can be disbanded or reduced. Then the FBI and CIA can go back to doing what they do best: driving each other nuts.