War Stories

How Not To Stop the Next 9/11

Congress’ pointless plan for preventing terrorism.

There’s something odd about the congressional intelligence committees’$2 900-page report on 9/11, which was released Thursday to great fanfare. On the one hand, it contains generally astute observations on how the FBI, CIA, and NSA all ignored the myriad signs of an impending terrorist strike. On the other hand, most of its recommendations on how to fix the problem are—viewed in light of the report’s own findings—clearly inadequate, even irrelevant, to the task.

The report amounts to a ripping narrative of monumental bureaucratic bungling—followed by the usual poli-sci nostrums on how to reshuffle organizational charts: appoint a “director of national intelligence”; develop a “multi-level security capability to facilitate the timely and complete sharing of relevant intelligence information”; create an “all-source terrorism information fusion center.”

News stories over the past year and a half have made much of the interagency rivalries, or simply the lack of communication, that contributed to the terrorists’ success. However, the impression left by a careful reading of this new congressional report is that each of these agencies managed to botch matters badly enough on their own. A new intelligence czar, or some new “fusion center” for information sharing, will have little impact if the agencies to be ruled or fused lack the money, personnel, incentives, or brain power to do the job properly.

Recurring characters in this report are Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the hijackers who slammed a passenger plane into the Pentagon. The report details three occasions between January 2000 and September 2001 when the CIA or FBI could easily have put this pair on an official terrorist watch list but failed to do so. That’s old news, but the report throws in a new, painfully revealing angle. On Jan. 6, 2000, it turns out, a CIA employee briefed FBI personnel about these two terrorist suspects. However, he did not mention that al-Mihdhar had obtained an American visa or that al-Hazmi had traveled to the United States—definitely news the FBI could have used. He failed to do so even though these tidbits had come through the Counter-Terrorism Center, an office where CIA and FBI personnel worked together (the office had been set up precisely to share information and coordinate policy)—and even though the CIA briefer (whom the report does not name) was, at the time, working at the FBI’s Strategic Information Operations Center specifically to fix problems in communications between the FBI and the CIA.

The CIA’s director, George Tenet, boasted in committee hearings that, as far back as 1998, he “declared war” on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, and labeled this war a “Tier 0 Priority”—meaning absolutely top priority. In the spring of 1999, Tenet came up with a plan—he called it “The Plan”—for waging this war.

Yet, the congressional report notes, Tenet did not follow up the Plan with any meaningful action. He ordered no National Intelligence Estimate on the threat Bin Laden posed, made no calculation of the resources required to execute the Plan, made no decision to downgrade other priorities to accommodate the Plan, and neither requested nor received any participation by the FBI or any other intelligence agency. He asked Congress for only the slightest increases in spending on counterterrorism—and, even so, the CIA “ended Fiscal Year 2001 with millions of dollars in counter-terrorism money left unspent.”

Similarly, at the National Security Agency, from 1998 to 2001, al-Qaida was one of just two targets tagged Tier 0 Priority (the other has been censored from the report). Even so, in the final weeks before the attack, the NSA “intercepted, but did not translate or disseminate until after Sept. 11, some communications that indicated possible terrorist activities.”

Shortly after Tenet declared war, the FBI made Bin Laden a Tier 1 Priority (next-to-highest). Even so, Richard Clarke, then the top White House official on counterterrorism, testified that when he visited several FBI field offices and asked agents what they were doing about al-Qaida, “I got sort of blank looks of ‘What is al-Qaida?’ “

The FBI shirked its duties in many ways. When an enterprising field agent in Phoenix put 2 + 2 + 2 together—observing that lots of suspicious Arabs were taking flight lessons, linking that with other intelligence about al-Qaida, and concluding that a hijack plot might be in the works—the FBI’s “intelligence operations specialist” sent his memo not to the FBI’s analytical unit but rather to the field office in Portland, Ore., because of possible connections to a local case having nothing to do with terrorism.

The bureau also had a counterterrorism informant in San Diego who had frequent contact with future hijackers al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. Yet he “was never asked to help the FBI locate them.”

The big problem here had little to do with vast organizational charts and a great deal to do with the mundane realities—the implicit system of rewards and penalties—in bureaucratic life. For all the rhetoric about Tier 0 Priorities, any analyst in the U.S. intelligence community could have reasonably inferred before 9/11 that counterterrorism was not really an urgent business, especially given all the other work to do.

According to the report, the Counter-Terrorism Center had only three analysts working full time on al-Qaida during 1998-2000 and just five between 2000 and September ‘01.

In 2000, the FBI took five strategic analysts who had been working on al-Qaida and transferred them to assist the operations on a criminal case—a move that, according to one official, “gutted” the bureau’s expertise. Four years earlier, the FBI had hired 50 strategic analysts for counterterrorism. But, the report notes, most of them left within two years, dissatisfied with the meager role that they were allowed to play.

The director of the CIA Language School testified that the agency doesn’t have enough linguistic specialists to fight the worldwide war on terrorism, and “added that there is no strategic plan in place,” even now, to remedy this shortcoming.

The NSA, too, has also been burdened by “downsizing, outsourcing,” and “the loss of critical program management expertise.”

The report does contain one recommendation that addresses the crucial issue: “Establish and sustain independent career tracks within the FBI that recognize and provide incentives for demonstrated skills and performance of counter-terrorism agents and analysis.”

(The same could be said for the CIA, NSA, and all the rest.)

Here, finally, is recognition of the central way that incentives shape how a person or a bureaucracy spends time and resources. If no other suggestion but this one is taken seriously, vast improvements will follow very quickly. If all the other suggestions are implemented but this one is ignored, nothing much will change.