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Paper No. 521                              23.09.2002

by B.Raman

Immediately after 9/11, it was apparent to those with some experience of intelligence and security management that the intelligence and physical security agencies of the US had let themselves be caught napping by Al Qaeda and that there had been major failures in collection, analysis, assessment, dissemination and follow-up action inside the US intelligence community which had enabled Al Qaeda to successfully carry out the terrorist strikes.

2. In the initial wave of patriotism, not only the Executive and the Congress, but even large sections of the media and the public refrained from criticising the agencies lest their criticism cause demoralisation at a time when all the energies and concentration of the agencies needed to be focussed on the war against terrorism under the US leadership.

3. Now that the war has entered the second year, the need for a professional critical analysis, which was earlier overlooked, is receiving greater attention, resulting in a Congressional investigation into  the state of knowledge of the intelligence community before 9/11 and into the follow-up action taken on the basis of the intelligence available.

4. This investigation, which is still on-going, has already brought to light serious deficiencies in the functioning of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which could be held to have facilitated the success of the terrorists. These deficiencies could be broadly categorised as follows:

* Lack of serious attention by the senior leadership of the agencies to concerns expressed by their junior officers over matters such as the unusually large number of Arabs enrolling themselves for flying training in US institutions.

* Lack of adequate communication amongst different agencies--- and particularly between the CIA and the FBI--- resulting in a failure to share promptly intelligence about the movements of suspected or confirmed Al Qaeda operatives inside the US and to place them under surveillance.

* Lack of adequate linguists in the technical intelligence (TECHINT) agencies resulting in a delay in the translation of vital communications intercepts.

* Lack of adequate analysis and assessment of even the available intelligence, however limited and imprecise they might have been, which contributed to  self-complacency and lethargy in the follow-up action.

5. These deficiencies have been taken seriously even by  President Bush, who has already indicated his intention to order an independent enquiry into the matter. As one reads the details of the investigation coming out of the Congress, one is reminded of the famous Congressional enquiry into the  case relating to the betrayal of the CIA by Aldrich Ames, one of its senior officers, who worked for years for the Soviet and Russian agencies and sent valuable US sources to death without being detected in time by the counter-intelligence set-ups of the CIA and the FBI.

6. The Aldrich Ames intelligence disaster took place not for want of intelligence, but for want of communication, trust and co-ordination between the CIA and the FBI and for want of professionalism amongst the senior intelligence officers of the two agencies. Innumerable warning signals about deficiencies in the personal character of Ames were overlooked and when the CIA's leadership realised that Moscow had a mole inside it, it did not inform the FBI whose responsibility it was to investigate such suspicions. Instead, the CIA chose to make its own secret investigation without informing the FBI.

7. The FBI had in its records a report from one of its officers that Ames had been secretly visiting the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC, but it did not alert the CIA. Nor did it follow it up with its own investigation. These are just a few of the shocking instances of slipshod intelligence management highlighted in the Congressional report.

8. The Congressional investigation and the criticism of James Woolsey, Director of the CIA, during President Clinton's first term, for his shoddy handling of the case led to his resignation, which was followed by a revamping of the US Counter-Intelligence apparatus. The present investigation into 9/11 shows that no lessons were drawn from the systemic failure of the US intelligence community as a whole in the Ames case and  that the necessary correctives were not enforced. It should be  as clear as daylight to anyone with an open mind that the US Counter-Terrorism apparatus had been functioning in as shoddy a manner as its Counter-Intelligence apparatus was before 1995.

9. The US has more laws regulating the functioning of its intelligence agencies, more Congressional and other watchdog bodies to monitor their performance, more governmental and private experts in intelligence craft, it has had more blue-ribbon commissions to go into the working of its agencies  and spends more money (US $ 20 billion plus per annum) on intelligence collection and assessment than any other country in the world. In spite of all this, it has an intelligence community which does not do credit to the sole super power of the world.

10. The CIA is one of the most politicised agencies in the democratic world. Very often, it tells the President what he wants to hear and not what he ought to hear. If Ronald Reagan looked upon the erstwhile USSR as an evil empire, Bob Casey, his CIA Director, and Robert Gates, the then head of its Analysis Division, went around collecting intelligence and producing assessments which would show that the President was right. Remember the famous Senate hearing of the  1980s on the suitability of Gates to succeed Casey during which many instances came to light as to how the Analysis Division of the CIA had allegedly been politicised by Gates to produce assessments acceptable to the President?

11.If Bush calls North Korea, Iran and Iraq the axis of evil and Saddam Hussain  as great a threat as Osama bin Laden, the CIA must be working overtime to prove how perspicacious he is . During and after the Gulf war of 1991, Saudi Arabia was looked upon as a stalwart ally just as Pakistan is today. The result: Indicators of Saudi nexus with Al Qaeda brand terrorists were ignored just as similar indicators of Pakistani nexus are not receiving the attention they deserve today.

12.Reagan and Casey were fascinated by covert action. During the Afghan war of the 1980s against the Soviet troops, more attention was given and more money allotted for strengthening the covert action capability and the disinformation apparatus of the CIA than for improving  its intelligence collection and analysis capability. The result: The CIA went around creating an army of pan-Islamic terrorists for using them against the USSR without realising that one day they could become a menace to the democratic world.

13. And when they started doing so in the 1990s, there was a reluctance to act against them firmly till 9/11 happened. Tonnes of evidence collected and shared by countries such as India and Russia to show that they had become Frankenstein's monsters were rejected with disdain by the CIA's counter-terrorism experts. Even pre-2001 evidence that Al Qaeda brand terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan were systematically planning to carry their jihad to US territory through Pakistani organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Tablighi Jamaat etc was ignored.

14. The CIA's soft attitude towards the pan-Islamic terrorists did not change even after the assassination of two of its officers in Langley by Mir Aimal Kansi and by the New York World Trade Centre explosion in 1993.The dramatis personae in both these terrorist strikes were its sources and collaborators  in the 1980s in Afghanistan. Their past co-operation with the CIA rendered it blind to the threat which such elements could pose to the USA in future. It is this soft attitude, which should explain the lack of action against Al Qaeda operatives in the USA.

15. The US intelligence community as it has evolved since 1947 is tailor-made for repeated systemic failures. It has a plethora of intelligence agencies, but no independent over-all co-ordinator. Director, CIA, wears two hats. As the head of the CIA, he is responsible for its over-all functioning. As Director, Central Intelligence,he acts as the Adviser to the President on intelligence matters and helps him in the co-ordination of the functioning of the various agencies.

16. Not only that. He often chairs the various committees of the National Security Council Secretariat set up to review intelligence policy matters. The tremendous influence thus wielded by the head of one of the agencies of the community over the entire community has often been criticised in the past on the ground that it does not encourage fairness and objectivity in co-ordination. Rightly or wrongly, there is always a perception that Director, Central Intelligence, tends to be soft and over-generous towards his own agency. Suggestions made in the past for separating the two posts and for making the co-ordinating post of Director, Central Intelligence, tenable by an independent personality unconnected with any agency had been rejected not only by many Presidents, but also by Congressional committees and by the joint Brown-Les Apen congressional commission, which went into the working of the intelligence agencies during Clinton's term as the President.

17.Before 9/11, despite the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February,1993, the US intelligence community always considered  major threats to the US from terrorist strikes as more likely to be targeted at US nationals and interests abroad than inside the USA. As a result, the CIA, as the external intelligence agency, was given the leadership role in the multi-agency Counter-Terrorism Centre and not the FBI.

18. The USA was the only country in the democratic world which did not have a separate department dealing with internal security similar to the Home Ministry or Department in India and other democratic countries. Nor did it have an internal intelligence agency exclusively devoted to the collection of internal intelligence similar to the Security Service (MI5) of the UK. The FBI is a hotchpotch agency, which handles counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, investigation of organised and federal crime, law enforcement etc. It is a mixture of the UK's MI5 and the Scotland Yard or India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In this ill-assorted amalgam of responsibilities, the focus on intelligence collection and analysis relating to internal security tended to get diluted.

19. It took the catastrophic consequences of 9/11 to convince the US policy-makers of the need for a Homeland Security Department to focus exclusively on internal security. Having realised the need for it, the Bush Administration has been going about the task of setting it up in an unwise manner. If and when Bush's ideas are implemented, what the USA will have is not a lean, hungry and well motivated agency, agile and all the time on the look-out for a kill, but a security leviathan, more cumbersome and much slower than an elephant.

20. The US, which often criticises the bureaucracies of the developing world, has the shoddiest bureaucracy in the democratic world.  And nothing is shoddier in its bureaucracy than its intelligence community, which is the most pampered part of the administration. US investigators---whether from the Executive or the Congress--- are often thorough in their analysis of the failures of the intelligence community, but lacking in wisdom and imagination in prescribing correctives.

21. They invariably come out with stock responses---more staff, more money, more gadgets and more powers for the agencies. The CIA has flourished and bloated after each failure. What the US intelligence community needs is less staff,l ess funds and  less gadgets, but greater professionalism, better motivation, more perspicacity, better analytical capability and linguistic skills, sharper intuition and greater humility in accepting that there are others in the world who understand terrorism better and that it should learn from them.

22. If the present Congressional investigation and the proposed enquiry by the President do not lead to these results, it will be another wasted exercise. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: )