September 11, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

9/11: Five Years On<br>Connecting a lot more dots

Forewarned, forearmed. - Ben Franklin

There has been no bigger whipping boy in the shadow of 9/11 than the U.S. intelligence community (IC) - and rightly so. Connecting the intel dots could have made a big difference in preventing the horrific attack. But while 9/11 was an intelligence failure of mammoth proportions, it isn't just by chance that there hasn't been another attack here since that infamous day.

The IC isn't perfect by any means (nor will it ever be), but it's a heckuva lot better than it was five years ago.

  • One key to fighting the War on Terror is international cooperation - and that's way up. Foiling of the recent U.K. airliner plot, which included intelligence/law enforcement cooperation among the United Kingdom, United States and Pakistan, is a good example.

  • We've vastly improved human intelligence. Shockingly, in 2001 way more than half of CIA case officers weren't stationed overseas spying on bad guys, but were manning desks at CIA HQ instead. Today, the ratio has been reversed. The CIA doubled the spy force against terrorism, opening more stations/bases in potential intelligence blind spots, especially in the developing world.

    As a result, we've been able to bag a lot of al Qaeda's bigs since 9/11 - such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (9/11 mastermind), Hambali (Southeast Asian commander) and Abu Musab al Zarqawi (al Qaeda leader in Iraq).

  • The FBI has also improved its counterterrorism focus at home, establishing a National Security Bureau - and programs like NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program have helped unravel terrorist plots against the homeland.

But there are still concerns. For instance, the jury is still out on the new office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), headed by John Negroponte. The DNI is still a work in progress, but critics already dislike its bloated bureaucracy, its micromanaging of (some) operations, and the seemingly endless info requests from its staff - time that might be better spent on hunting down the bad guys.

To its credit, the DNI has improved information flow across the 16-agency IC. And although its National Counterterrorism Center won't kill or capture anyone, it serves as government's all-source, go-to place for terrorism analysis.

While our $40-billion-a year intelligence apparatus has made progress in fighting terrorism, it has stumbled from time to time.

The most glaring shortcoming has been failing to get Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. Despite a lot of shifting of IC assets to catch the deadly duo, they're still on the loose.

Nailing these two wouldn't mean the end of al Qaeda. But it would crush the myth of invincibility that their on-the-run status has spurred - and discourage other hard-core disciples and al Qaeda-inspired terrorist wannabes.

The other elephant in the room no one is talking about is terrorist counterintelligence. The IC doesn't have a good handle on to what extent terrorist groups are collecting intelligence on our counterterrorist activities, especially overseas. We do a good job of looking inward for spies, but have limited capability to vet foreign agencies for terrorist moles or sympathizers. This makes info-sharing a risky proposition.

And leaks to the U.S. media are really hurting international cooperation. Some of them embarrass the cooperating partner - especially in Muslim countries where not everyone is a big fan of Uncle Sam. Others jeopardize ongoing operations, endanger field operatives or may disclose sensitive intelligence sources/methods to the bad guys. Not helpful at all.

There is still work to be done. For instance, we need more operations officers, who can speak tough languages and operate against tough targets.

In the five long years since 9/11, the IC has improved, showing its mettle in battle overseas and in preventing another attack at home. But if we're to win this "Long War" with terrorism, our leaders in Congress and the Executive must challenge the IC to do even better.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post