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Intelligence inaction

Print edition : Aug 29, 2003 T+T-

A bipartisan panel of the U.S. Congress confirms that faults in the internal security system, as much as the persistence of anti-U.S. sentiment abroad, contributed to the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

FOR nearly two years now the rest of the world has paid for the trauma suffered by the United States on September 11, 2001. Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded. Iran, Syria and North Korea were threatened with military action at various points in time. Every other nation on earth was warned that the new strategic doctrine of the U.S. - which encompasses pre-emptive action, limited nuclear strikes and unquestionable strategic primacy among its key ingredients - was operational.

Now, a bipartisan panel of the U.S. Congress has confirmed that faults in the internal security system contributed as much to the tragic events of 9/11 as did the persistence of anti-U.S. sentiment abroad.

The panel, constituted by combining the intelligence committees of both Houses of Congress, produced its voluminous report in December 2002. It was vetted and made available to the public in July this year. Only 28 pages of the over 900-page report have not been declassified. But, information on what is contained in this hidden portion has leaked to the press and set off a separate controversy.

As could be expected, the report delves deeply into the antecedents, motivations and operational methods of the 19 men who carried out the hijack/crashland attacks of 9/11. Much of this has been in the public domain over the past two years and analysts have dissected the mindset of the people who could inflict such a horror on civilians.

So much attention has been paid to information about the perpetrators that the idea of a group determined to wreak havoc on those who do not subscribe to its ideology, has now become embedded in the world's consciousness. A widespread consensus has developed that the world is confronted by a diffused phenomenon called terrorism and that its representatives network with one another to strike at random. Not everyone agrees with all the nuances of the theory that is abuilding on fundamentalist terrorism, but there is sufficient commonality of view that this phenomenon does threaten much of the world. Such an understanding raises the concern in all countries about their ability to tackle the phenomenon when the mighty U.S. was unable to protect itself.

What the congressional report has brought to light is that the U.S. could have done a better job of protecting itself. The panel took on board the view of the officials who drew the distinction between what could and could not have been done. The overall conclusion was that the agencies concerned could not have apprehended the perpetrators of 9/11 before the event despite the mass of intelligence that was available. If, however, the intelligence available had been properly assessed, these agencies could have taken precautionary measures that would have stopped the perpetrators in their tracks or lessened the effect of their actions.

Reviews of the functioning of intelligence agencies can often be akin to what in the U.S. is known as being a "Monday morning quarterback". Intelligence professionals often complain that it is easy for reviewers to reach certain conclusions after an event. They point out, quite validly, that those who have to fit pieces of information together to anticipate an event have a much more difficult task. The intelligence community in the U.S. has reportedly resorted to this, and similar, rationale to disparage the panel's findings. But, leading figures in the intelligence community have admitted that some of the conclusions drawn by the panel are essentially sound.

IN the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it appeared that the terrorist perpetrators had taken everyone by surprise, both in their choice of targets and in their mode of attack. However, the panel found that the intelligence agencies had information from 1994 onwards that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was planning attacks on U.S. targets within the country and outside. While the credibility of the sources was often suspect and the information sketchy, traces of the salient features of the 9/11 events could be found in the intelligence available from 1998 onwards.

Available information had indicated that terrorists could use aircraft as weapons, either by dropping conventional or non-conventional munitions from the planes or by flying them directly into buildings. There were also reports of possible attacks on civil aviation and on Washington D.C., New York City and the cities on the West coast of the U.S. Among the bits of information that stood out post-September 11 were the traces of a plot to crash an aircraft into a U.S. airport in 1998. Information had also been available to the agencies of a plot either to crash an aircraft into or to bomb a U.S. embassy in 2001. Both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were aware that convicted terrorist Abdul Hakim Murad and his associates had discussed the possibility of crashing an aircraft into the headquarters of the CIA

Several of these reports had been circulated among the U.S. government agencies concerned. But these exchanges appear to have been more by way of bureaucratic routine since the panel found that not many even within the intelligence community knew of the possibility of aircraft being used as weapons. Consequently, officials outside the intelligence community were even less aware of the existence of a threat of this kind.

In the judgment of the bipartisan panel, the CIA and the FBI made a grievous error by failing to draw sufficiently the attention of policy-makers and other departments to the magnitude of the threat. The panel held that although specific intelligence about the place and timing of attacks was not available, there was sufficient information to warrant greater alertness. It was likely that protective measures would have been taken if the entire administration and the public had been made aware of the magnitude of the threat. In focussing on the potential threat to civil aviation, the panel felt that some of the mechanisms set in place post-9/11 would have been employed before that date if a wider circle had been informed about the frequency of the warnings.

Measures such as tighter screening at airport check-in counters and the strengthening of aircraft cabin doors could have been taken as easily before 9/11 as it was after that. Terror suspects who figured in the watch-list of the agencies concerned could have been more closely monitored in order to ensure that they did not enter the U.S. Cooperation from local and State-level police forces could have been more focussed had they known that the threat was not as vague as they might have had reasons to believe. An alerted travelling public would also have helped draw the attention of security personnel to the presence of suspects.

The testimony provided to the panel by CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is instructive for what it reveals about the two intelligence agencies' gut feelings about their performance leading up to 9/11. Tenet said: "The context was we raced from threat period to threat period, from target to target, and once we resolved them we never thought about the fact that the security that was protecting, whether it's a plane or an infrastructure or a bridge, is poor to begin (with)."

An excerpt from Mueller's testimony, reproduced by The New York Times, reads:

"I think you can look at what happened [on] Sept. 11 and I think both of us would say there are things we did right and things we missed and did wrong. But you look at it from the perspective of could we have prevented these individuals, identified these individuals and prevented them from undertaking this multi-plane undertaking, and I guess I would say I think it's speculation, but . . . I'm not certain you get to the point where we stop these individuals.

"On the other hand, looking at the concept of hijacking planes and taking them over, as a country one could look back and say with reports of hijackings over a period of time, perhaps we as a country should have looked at changing the way we protect our planes, which means doing what we are doing now in terms of hardening the cockpit..."

The intelligence agencies could argue with some validity that it would have been very difficult to track down the perpetrators of 9/11 even with better intelligence than they had in their possession. However, the panel found that the two intelligence agencies had not even done as well as they could have with the information that was in their possession. The reason for the lapse was a failure in co-ordination. For instance, the CIA had known of the terror connections of Khaled al Midhar and Nawaq al Hazmi, two of the 9/11 suspects, as early as 2000. At the same time the FBI had comprehensively penetrated the social circles the two moved in when they were in the San Diego area. But the two agencies failed to cooperate and thus missed a golden opportunity to get ahead of the game.

THE congressional panel's report will not be the last word on the subject. Another special bipartisan commission, which has been mandated to undertake a more comprehensive study of the 9/11 events, is expected to submit its report by the end of this year. But, the Congressional panel appeared to have set the broad outlines of the conclusions that can be drawn from the events of 9/11 with regard to the performance of the security services of the U.S. Measures to effectuate better coordination between the agencies concerned were implemented even before the panel submitted its report, including the establishment of a mammoth Department of Homeland Security.

However, it is unlikely that the administration of President George W. Bush, with its Manichean view of the world, would bother about the deeper and broader issues that underlay the events of 9/11 at least in a tenuous fashion. There might not be many takers for Al Qaeda's claim that it fights for a noble cause. But a much wider circle beyond the terror network does agree with the assessment that the arrogance and high-handedness of the U.S. has much to do with the hatred it instills in people in many parts of the world.

The hubris - the "with us or against us" attitude - with which the U.S. has gone about the war on terror after 9/11 clearly indicates that this administration's worldview has not been changed in any meaningful way since September 11, 2001. It believes that it will win the war against terror only by bullying other nations into following its orders rather than by asking them for their cooperation.

As the congressional panel has discovered, the terror strikes of 9/11 might not have been as successful as they were if pragmatic measures had been taken prior to them within the U.S. The rest of the world would breathe a sigh of relief if the U.S. would correct faults that lie within before it embarks on a crusade to change the world.

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