September 26, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Could the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have been prevented?
We're hearing that question a lot these days, particularly after the recent report from a congressional panel on intelligence that some say indicates the answer is yes.
The report details the many warnings government officials received before Sept. 11 that a major attack on U.S. soil was imminent. For example, it says the CIA learned in May 2001 that associates of Osama bin Laden "were disappearing while others were preparing for martyrdom" and "were planning attacks in the United States with explosives."
Of course, we can debate forever who knew what, when and how. A more fruitful discussion, I believe, can come from answering two other questions: What caused our intelligence system to fail us in the first place? And what can we do to correct the problem?
According to investigative reporter Bill Gertz, author of the best-selling book Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11, Congress shoulders a large measure of the blame. The intelligence community came under heavy political fire in the mid-1970s, amid accusations that out-of-control elements within it were spying on Americans and violating civil rights. Two congressional committees, led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y., chained the intelligence services "with a combination of restrictions, constraints and funding controls" that severely compromised their capabilities, Gertz says.
Thanks to the Church and Pike committees, new people came to power within the intelligence community who "created a culture of intelligence that persists today-that ignores the need for counterintelligence and relies on material gathered by foreign intelligence services rather than on the CIA's own intelligence operations," Gertz says.
The CIA, for instance, was forbidden to recruit terrorist spies. But according to James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence, "To deter CIA officers who are trying to penetrate terrorist groups from recruiting people with violence in their past is like telling FBI agents that they should penetrate the mafia, but try not to put any actual crooks on the payroll as informants. There's nobody in the mafia but crooks and there's nobody in terrorist organizations but terrorists."
Another problem highlighted by the newest congressional report is the lack of information-sharing among the various intelligence agencies. When, for example, Philippine government officials broke up a terrorist group operating in Manila in 1995 and learned that it had ties to Osama bin Laden and was planning attacks on the United States, they told the CIA, who in turn told the FBI … nothing.
The problem isn't simply a lack of information; it's having a way to piece it together. That's why we need to create a government "fusion center" that can access intelligence collected by both foreign and domestic intelligence services. The Department of Homeland Security that Congress is trying to hammer out won't work unless it can dip into raw intelligence information gathered by agencies such as the CIA and the FBI.
Such a system would allow U.S. authorities to prevent, say, a confirmed terrorist from obtaining a visa at the U.S. embassy in Yemen. It also could help keep those on the CIA's watch list from boarding commercial aircraft-which actually happened on Sept. 11.
Maybe we couldn't stop Sept. 11 from happening. But surely we can stop it from happening again.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.