September 16, 2001 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Intelligence Disaster, Bureaucratic Sclerosis

The History Channel will one day air a new episode of "History's Blunders," in which historians will compare the massive intelligence failure preceding the terror attacks against New York and Washington not only with Pearl Harbor, but also with Hitler's disastrous attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 that cost the Russians millions of casualties.

Together with the Maginot Line disaster that led to the fall of France in 1940 and the Israeli failure to foresee the Egyptian attack that started the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the opening salvo of what President George W. Bush has called the first war of the 21st Century's first war was a strategic surprise of Biblical proportions.

The three concentric circles of American security failed: the Central Intelligence Agency's foreign intelligence; the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Naturalization Service's domestic security, and the Federal Aviation Administration's airport security.

The roots of this calamity lie in institutional sclerosis and bureaucratic ossification. Congressionally-mandated blue ribbon task forces failed to see it coming.

Last year, the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities to Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, chaired by Gov. James Gilmore, R-Va., in its Second Annual Report written for the panel by the RAND Corp., stated: "Based on classified briefings as well as 'open-source' information, it is clear that the U.S. Intelligence Community's foreign intelligence collections and analysis against terrorism has been excellent. There is, however, room for improvement."

Indeed.

Another blue ribbon panel, the National Commission on Terrorism, said last year that the FBI was doing a very good job of disseminating information concerning immediate threats.

But what if FBI intelligence fails to collect, analyze and share this information? This could happen, the commission found, because "the guidelines under which FBI agents operate ... are badly written and confusing. These are guidelines that set out the terms under which the FBI can open a preliminary inquiry against somebody who may be suspected of being a terrorist. All of us read them (they run to about 42 pages) and we had a number of current and former FBI agents testify that they found them confusing."

The commission recommended that then Attorney General Janet Reno and former FBI Director Louis Freeh rewrite the guidelines into "more easily understood English."

Moreover, the FBI had no procedure for disseminating useful information for analysis within the agency or sharing it with other government agencies.

Information which was obtained, in Los Angeles, for example, but did not immediately apply to the case at hand, would simply not leave the regional office, even though it might provide important clues for another investigation, says Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Ambassador at Large for Counterintelligence during the Reagan Administration and former Managing Director of Kissinger Associates.

A case in point is the investigation of El Sayyid Nosair, arrested in 1990 for the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York. According to Judge Abraham Sofaer of at the Hoover Institution, and formerly one of the State Department's top attorneys, the FBI failed to translate papers found in Nosair's home because its New York office had no Arabic translator available.

Those papers, said Sofaer, contained useful leads that might have enabled the FBI to prevent the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Moreover, when the translation was finally completed, it was so poorly done that the name al Qaida, was mangled and wound up being interpreted simply as "the basis." As a result, FBI agents completely failed to recognize it. The proper translation would have been "The Base" -- Osama Bin Laden's international terrorist organization.

Blunders in counter-terrorism work have also been committed by other agencies. When the mastermind of the Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yusuf, entered the U.S. with a false passport, he was caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but released because the government lacked space in the local holding facility.

Like hundreds of others, he disappeared and failed to appear for his hearing. It took thousands of hours, a manhunt spanning three continents, and millions of dollars to hunt him down in Pakistan.

Congressional sources have informed UPI that senior INS managers have failed to recognize the critically important role that INS enforcement should be playing in the national security area.

Anti-terrorism has simply not been as high on the priority list as counter-narcotics, for instance. Senior INS officials on the national level often have been quoted as saying that terrorism is the FBI's responsibility.

As a result of such attitudes, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, head of the Egyptian Al Gamat Al Islamiya was allowed into the country - and subsequently convicted of leading a plot to bomb U.S. landmarks and bridges in New York.

Musa Abu Marzook, one of Hamas' top three officials, was permitted to found and operate a think tank in Chicago and Virginia, and Ali Mohammed and Adih el Hage, a top Al Qaida lieutenant and secretary to Bin Laden, were also allowed into United States.

In addition, senior leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Jihad, Tunisian and Algerian radical Islamic organizations, and leaders and spokespersons for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which calls for attacks on American targets and for suicide bombings, as well as for Jihad against Jews and "other enemies of Islam" were allowed to receive green cards or U.S. citizenship, according to congressional testimony.

The INS, which controls U.S. borders, failed to interdict these people, as it failed to stop those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack, despite the fact that two of the them were wanted by the FBI for questioning about their relationship with bin Laden.

But the INS and the FBI were not the only agencies to fail in their duty to protect America.

The Federal Aviation Administration failed to bring airport security up to speed by allowing its private contractors to hire semi-literate personnel for near-minimal wages. Every report on airport safety, every inspection which involved smuggling weapons into aircraft, indicated major security failures.

Pilots were allowed to keep doors into their cockpits open at all times. The doors could have been bullet-proofed and locked, thus providing proper protection from hijacking. Nothing of the kind was in place. When it was proposed, the Airline Pilots Association lobbied against it, citing the danger of crew being trapped in the event of a crash. And the worst airports, including Logan, were known to FAA.

Finally, one of the largest failures in counter-terrorism intelligence activities rests on the shoulders of the CIA.

In 1995 the guidelines promulgated by then-Director of Central Intelligence John Deutsch, prohibited the engagement of foreign intelligence informants who may have previously been involved in human rights violations.

These broad guidelines prevent CIA cooperation with numerous intelligence officers around the world and inhibit the Agency's ability to recruit sources or informers from terrorist organizations.

The Gilmore Panel and the National Commission on Terrorism issued a call to rescind these guidelines.

On Sunday, that call was echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

"If you're going to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys," he told NBC's Meet The Press, "you're not going to find out what the bad guys are doing."

In order to successfully fight what he called the "mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business" of terrorism, the United States would need to "have on the payroll some very unsavory characters," he added, promising to review the Deutsch guidelines.

Smugness, inertia, turf battles, and gross over-bureaucratization all contributed to a historic failure of the U.S. security's three circles of defense. The price we paid was huge. Only an organizational renaissance, a true awakening, such as often occurs in major wars, may save America from further terrorist attacks.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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