The biggest puzzle about the 9/11 commission’s report is why Thomas Kean, the panel’s chairman, said at the start of his press conference this morning that the U.S. government’s failure to stop the attack on the World Trade Center was, “above all, a failure of imagination.”
It was a strange comment because the actual report—a superb, if somewhat dry, piece of work—says nothing of the sort. The failure was not one of imagination but rather of incentives. It turns out that many individuals, panels, and agencies had predicted an attack uncannily similar to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The problem was that nobody in a position of power felt compelled to do anything about it.
As early as 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad told Philippine authorities that he and Ramzi Yousef, who was arrested for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, had planned to fly an airplane into CIA headquarters. This wasn’t dismissed as a crazy idea. The year before, a group of Algerians actually had hijacked a plane in France with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower.
In September 1998, a U.S. consulate in East Asia was warned about an impending al-Qaida plot to fly an explosives-laden airplane into an American city.
Around the same time, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief, conducted an exercise in which terrorists commandeered a Learjet, loaded it with bombs, and flew it into a target in Washington, D.C. Clarke asked Pentagon officials what they could do to stop such a threat. They answered they could scramble jet fighters, but they would need authority from the president to shoot the plane down. The exercise went no further.
On Dec. 4, 1998, the President’s Daily Brief by the CIA warned that “bin Laden and his allies are preparing for an attack in the US, including an aircraft hijacking” to compel the freeing of those responsible and imprisoned for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The North American Aerospace Defense command also conducted an exercise to counter a terrorist attack involving smashing an airplane into a building (though the scenario assumed the plane would be coming from overseas).
Quite independently, in August 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration’s intelligence branch warned of a possible “suicide hijacking operation” by Osama Bin Laden.
On May 1, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a circular to airliners, informing them of intelligence reports about a possible terrorist hijacking.
On June 22, 2001, the CIA notified its station chiefs about an al-Qaida plot to attack American cities with planes.
All of these scenario-spins (plus several others, similarly spelled out in various blue-ribbon commissions) preceded the infamous President’s Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, which warned George W. Bush, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
So, the problem is not imagination, thankfully. If that were the main shortcoming, reform would be nearly impossible. How do you go about ordering bureaucrats to be “more imaginative” or to “think outside the box”? One definition of a bureaucrat might be a person who doesn’t realize that he’s inside a box to begin with. Another problem with this nostrum is that those who think too far outside the box tend to be dismissed as fanatics. Dick Clarke was seen as “obsessed” with Bin Laden. His counterpart in the State Department told the commission that he was chided by those around him as “a one-note-Johnny nut case.”
The commission’s 585-page report points to far more tangible shortcomings in the government’s approach during the Clinton and Bush presidencies.
In 1998, the FBI drew up a five-year strategic plan to create a counterterrorism division, which would entail a nationwide automated system for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence. But, the report notes, the plan was never implemented; the FBI was never given enough money.
Around the same time, an agreement was reached whereby the FBI and CIA would share names of suspected terrorists with the FAA’s 40-person intelligence unit. Yet as of Sept. 11, 2001, the FAA had received only 12 names—whereas the rest of the intelligence community had a watch list of thousands. This was the case, despite a recommendation from a panel headed by Vice President Al Gore, calling for the unification of such lists.
As far back as the mid-1980s, CIA Director William Casey created a Counter-Terrorism Center, in order to unify the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (the clandestine branch of spies) and its Directorate of Intelligence (the analytical branch). Yet most of the center’s chiefs came from operations and focused on information geared more to support spies than to provide warning of an attack.
Bureaucratic rivalries run deep. In 1996, a presidential commission recommended strengthening the powers of the CIA director. President Clinton signed an executive order, making it so. But the Defense Department, which controls three-quarters of the national intelligence budget, rose up in opposition. Clinton didn’t fight for its implementation. Neither did the CIA director. So the initiative died.
On Dec. 4, 1998, CIA Director George Tenet sent out a memo about the threat from Bin Laden: “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [Intelligence] Community.” Nothing happened. Officials inside the CIA thought Tenet was addressing the other intelligence agencies. Inside the other agencies, Tenet didn’t control the purse strings.
In 2000-01, Dick Clarke drew up a set of proposals to strengthen border security. Clinton approved them. But, as the report puts it, they “required action by weak, chronically underfunded executive agencies.”
Sometimes the problem isn’t so much budgets or bureaucracy as sheer bungling. The report tells us that, from Jan. 20 through Sept. 10, 2001, the CIA gave George W. Bush over 40 President’s Daily Briefs that mentioned the growing threat from Bin Laden. The report also reveals that, after the famous Aug. 6 PDB, the National Security Council held no meetings about terrorism. Nor was the commission able to find any indication, between Aug. 6 and Sept. 11, of any discussion between Bush and his top advisers about the possibility of an al-Qaida attack in the United States.
Similar, if less extreme, problems plagued the last days of the Clinton White House. After the attack on the USS Cole, the FBI and the CIA held back from making an official judgment that al-Qaida had mounted the attack. Clarke told the commission that both agencies thought the White House “didn’t really want to know.” If al-Qaida had been named as the conclusively guilty party, Clinton would have felt compelled to retaliate. Yet only a few months remained in his term; Clinton was more focused on an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, and he didn’t want to get bogged down in a military intervention.
The report cites one intelligence veteran’s definition of “actionable intelligence”: You tell me what action the president wants, I’ll give you the intelligence. In this case, Clinton didn’t want intelligence that would have required him to take action. (By the time Bush took office and the CIA fingered al-Qaida with greater precision, the new team figured the Cole attack was too old—”too stale,” as Paul Wolfowitz put it—to merit a retaliatory strike.)
The upshot of all these anecdotes is that reforming the intelligence community requires more than reshuffling the boxes on an organizational chart. The 9/11 commission makes several recommendations at the end of its report: Name a National Intelligence Director who controls budgets and personnel across the entire breadth of the intelligence community. Create a National Counter-Terrorism Center, which shares data and integrated intelligence with operations under a series of joint commands and national mission centers (similar to the military reforms of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act). Make parallel centralizing reforms in congressional oversight of intelligence and counterterrorism. Make the intelligence budgets public, so people know what the priorities are.
These are all worthy suggestions (unusually, but wisely, the panel also recommends substantive changes in foreign policy). But they are not sufficient. The report’s voluminous chronicle of misjudgments and missteps suggests that such changes will yield nothing without money and wisdom.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the commission, made this point at this morning’s press conference. Kean and the Democratic ranking member, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, waxed hopeful about the chances that their proposals would be adopted. But Kerrey noted that the proposals all involved removing power from some very powerful agencies. As a result, he said, “I’m not optimistic.”
Everything that the panel wants to do has been tried, in one way or another, in the past. The government doesn’t change in so dramatic a fashion unless the president pushes hard for the change. New priorities mean nothing unless budgets reflect them. New superagencies mean nothing unless their managers have the power to control the purse strings of their constituent parts. Better intelligence means nothing unless the president wants to hear it—and at least seriously considers acting on it.