A tough agenda ahead

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The 9/11 Commission Report throws light on some of the flaws in the intelligence system in the United States and offers a clear strategy to tackle global terrorism.

The enemy is not Islam, the great world faith, but a perversion of Islam... .. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbours. America and Muslim friends can agree on respect for human dignity and opportunity.... That vision of the future should stress life over death: individual educational and economic opportunity.

9/11 Commission: Final Report

THE United States media are having a field day dissecting the 9/11 Commission's final report released last week. TV news bulletins and discussions cater abundantly to the enormous public interest in the subject, which is not surprising. For, after all, what the U.S. experienced on September 11, 2001 was horrendous, a disaster that pitted literally one man against the world's mightiest nation. The Al Qaeda attack caused unparalleled trauma to the families of victims as well as other citizens who may not necessarily have suffered a personal loss. But what is now visible, nearly three years after the occurrence, is the fear that 9/11 could repeat itself, perhaps with greater ferocity, which seems to haunt many Americans. In briefings after the report was made public, Chairman Thomas Kean and other members of the Commission, have expressed such apprehensions.

They draw on the testimony of many experts who appeared before the Commission that a more devastating attack was not only a "possibility" but also a "probability". It is this unqualified prediction that should make those in government and outside sit up and take the Commission's labour with absolute seriousness. There is a strident demand from the Commission that the Bush administration should act at once, or else posterity will not forgive it. The Commission has gone on record saying that, unlike other Presidential Commissions, it will not wind up just now but will carry on for a while to monitor the follow-up measures by the Executive. Indications are that members of the Congress are willing to cut short their summer recess in order to legislate for the recommended changes in August. This determination and focussed attention to fundamental issues of national security is something that members of India's Parliament would like to emulate. Their attention should also be stirred by the unanimity that a bipartisan body such as the 9/11 Commission could bring to bear on the matter. The moral: There are certain aspects of governance that just do not permit to be distorted and muddled by narrow political considerations.

Interestingly, quite like the United Kingdom's Lord Butler report on the role of the intelligence in the country's decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein, the 9/11 Commission did not name names. This has disappointed many who were expecting fireworks and the damning of individuals starting from President Bill Clinton and his cronies and ending with the incumbent President and his confidants. Families of a few victims have been carping on this. It is difficult to blame them if one regards the irreparable loss they had suffered. But then, the basic question is: Is it the role of such Commissions to fix responsibility for failures and demand action?

The tenor of the Commission's final report does not surprise many of us because it is in tune with the proceedings of the earlier televised public sittings and the contents of the staff reports published at regular intervals during the hearings. The Commission seems to be clear that both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) just did not measure up to the task of anticipating the Al Qaeda's plans. The Commission does not directly answer the question: Could 9/11 have been prevented? I believe that this was because taking a categorical stand on a major disaster caused by man's inhumanity to man was far too preposterous.

THE Commission, nevertheless, talks of many opportunities missed, by both the CIA and the FBI. For example, there was a January 2000 Kuala Lumpur meeting of top Al Qaeda operatives, including two of the hijackers who subsequently took part in the 9/11 operation. The CIA monitored the meeting but lost track of the participants one of them, Al Midhar, had a valid visa to enter the U.S., a piece of information that was known to the CIA.

The FBI was equally guilty of not understanding or linking two separate reports of its field offices that pointed to unusual activity on the part of foreigners on American soil. One was from Minneapolis in August 2001 regarding the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui who entered the country in February 2001 and was learning to fly, first in Oklahoma and later in Minneapolis. On a tip-off from a flying instructor, Zacarias was held by the FBI on some immigration charges. When the Minneapolis office sought the permission of the FBI headquarters to move the court for a search of his computer, the request was turned down. Actually, the acting FBI Director was informed of Zacarias' arrest only after September 11. Again, in July 2001, the FBI office in Phoenix warned its Washington headquarters that some Islamic terrorists could be receiving aviation training in the U.S. The Bureau's top brass just ignored the information.

Those who criticise the two organisations are speaking with the advantage of hindsight. But then, it is equally true that major investigations are triggered and are successfully concluded only through such building blocks.

The Commission rightly comes to the conclusion that the CIA and the FBI, given their present structure and work culture, cannot be the guarantors against future terrorist attacks. More than the latter, it is the CIA that gets major attention in the final report. This was not unexpected especially after the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) fiasco in Iraq and the recent exit of CIA Director George Tenet who reportedly had misinformed President Bush that the existence of WMD in Iraq was an absolute certainty.

CURRENTLY, the CIA chief wears three hats - as the principal adviser on intelligence to the President, as the head of the CIA, a massive organisation, that has grown beyond recognition despite the end of the Cold War, and as an official with the onerous responsibility of managing and coordinating nearly 15 intelligence agencies in the country. The 9/11 Commission is convinced that it was this ludicrous situation that probably explained a definite lack of focus on terrorism that led to the catastrophe. The proposal now is for a National Intelligence Director (NID) who will manage the collection and analysis of intelligence for the entire government. A presidential appointee, to be confirmed by the Senate, the NID will report directly to the President and receive guidance from the National Security Council. Holding budgetary control, the NID will oversee foreign, defence and homeland intelligence. In this capacity the NID will also supervise the working of a newly created National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) that will take care of joint operational planning in conjunction with existing agencies, to whom it would later assign lead responsibilities. It will not, however, be a policy-making body. While foreign intelligence will continue to be the responsibility of central intelligence, domestic or homeland intelligence will be in the hands of the FBI's Executive Assistant Director of Intelligence. Notwithstanding the pressures from some quarters to divest the FBI of its domestic intelligence responsibilities, the Commission did not opt for such emasculation of a well-established organisation that has a fairly impressive track record.

The million dollar question is how far an NID, who will control both the CIA and the FBI, at least partially, will bring about an improvement in the quality of intelligence collection and sharing processes. In the first place, unless the choice falls on a skilled public figure, with at least some knowledge of the intricacies of collecting and analysing intelligence, the NID could be a downright political personality without the flair of a professional. Secondly, how far will two highly placed functionaries such as the Directors of the CIA and the FBI agree to share information with him or her is debatable. Where is the guarantee that the two will not establish a direct line to the White House, especially when an unprincipled President would like to use them for serving his political ends? On the face of it, there is everything to suggest that the experiment is fraught with undesirable consequences. It could end up merely as another layer of bureaucracy in an already formidable hierarchy of ranks. In spite of all these caveats, the Commission's proposal for an NID is well motivated, one that is intended to ensure that the President gets the invaluable inputs and advice he so badly needs in a country that is at permanent high risk. The Commission members claim that they have put forth a sound system, and say that unless there is an alternative that appears to be better thought out, theirs is a scheme that deserves immediate trial. I consider this an unexceptionable stand.

One significant recommendation is to strengthen the FBI's intelligence resources. At present the Bureau has an onerous responsibility to keep track of the happenings in the domestic scene. But its personnel do not have the exacting skills or training to perform the task. The 9/11 Commission proposes that senior FBI supervisors should be qualified intelligence officers. Also, each field office should have a clearly marked officer trained in security matters. More important, future FBI recruits will have the choice to opt for a career in national security within the Bureau itself. The others can remain in criminal justice chores. This appears to be a rational and feasible division of work. But, I am often intrigued by this model. Why should domestic intelligence and criminal investigation be dovetailed in a single organisation? I would any day commend our model where the Intelligence Bureau and the CBI perform the two functions separately and with reasonable efficiency. Where the two want to understand each other, they have synergised remarkably well. It is only occasionally that they do not cooperate with each other. This too only when egos cloud their vision. Fortunately, this is an aberration. It is for this reason that I do not understand why the 9/11 Commission missed a golden opportunity to strengthen the processes of collecting intelligence within the U.S. by creating a new internal intelligence outfit.

THE Commission has a clear strategy to tackle global terrorism. While unfolding this, it has possibly lent itself open to the charge of exceeding its brief and navigating what is essentially a politician's and diplomat's territory. This criticism, however, is irrelevant if we consider it helpful to welcome suggestions from any quarter as long as its focus is on combating the pernicious evil of terrorism.

The Commission's strategy starts with the practical axiom that terrorist sanctuaries, wherever they are, should be rooted out. I wonder whether any right-thinking person can object to this resolve. The problem will arise only when the U.S. and its allies ignore sovereign rights and intervene in the affairs of another country on flimsy grounds. Iraq is, therefore, not totally irrelevant here.

The Commission's prescription against future growth of terrorism appears well thought out. It seeks building a coalition against Islamic terrorism and the evolving of a common approach, especially in the contentious matter of treatment to be meted out to captured terrorists. Reports of what is happening in Guantanamo Bay have incensed world opinion. The stony silence to the criticism of the way in which the camp is run has not exactly won friends for the U.S. Perhaps the most acceptable part of the strategy that the Commission has commended is a support to public education in the Islamic world. This is obviously designed to lure young minds away from the obnoxious indoctrination that takes place in many madrassas under the veneer of religious education. I am, however, very certain that many Islamic nations will resent any U.S. attempt to fund education in their territories. For it being pushed through, the creation of a strong progressive lobby of Islamic leaders who would view the proposal in the spirit in which it is made, is a fundamental requirement. The antagonism towards the U.S. is now so intense all over the world that I do not think there is a chance for it to succeed.

My overall impression of the report is that it is a well-argued document. It is unambiguous and action-oriented. The consensus that it projects enhances its credibility and, therefore, its acceptance. I commend strongly that it be read by those who make security policy in India. I am sure its benefits are enormous, particularly if one reads it with an open mind.

We need to tighten our systems and the 9/11 report throws up a few thoughts. There is no room for complacence just because we have had no major attacks since the Bombay blast of 1993 and we have improved our relations with Pakistan. We are doing very well on the economic front. We have had only recently a political transition effected in the most remarkably peaceful manner. Naturally, our standing in the comity of nations has gone up. This has definitely invited the envy of both friends and foes, who may not be comfortable with a strong and stable India. This is why we need to be on guard.

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