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  September 14,  

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When intelligence fails

The terrorists who committed the heinous acts that destroyed the New York World Trade Center and a wing of the Pentagon at large loss of life will be "hunted down and punished", said US President George W Bush in his first reaction. They should be. Whether the US$30 billion a year US intelligence community, which so utterly failed to counter this unprecedented attack on the US and has failed on several occasions over the past several years to prevent terrorist acts against US citizens, installations and assets, will be able to carry out what Bush has asked is another matter entirely.

The term "intelligence" when applied to those outfits has more often than not appeared to be an oxymoron. Are we to believe that the very agencies that seemingly had no clue, no specific advance warning of and certainly no ability to prevent the September 11 "act of war" against the US will now, in short order, be able to reliably identify the attackers, their backers and organized networks and - along with the US military - exact retribution aggrieved Americans and citizens of civilized nations everywhere can consider just and effective?

In its July/August 2001 edition, The Atlantic Monthly ran an article by former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht, datelined Peshawar in Pakistan and titled "The Counterterrorist Myth". Gerecht notes that "the United States has spent billions of dollars on counterterrorism since the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, in August of 1998 ... that tens of millions have been spent on covert operations specifically targeting Osama bin Laden [the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks] and his terrorist organization, al-Qa'ida ... senior US officials boldly claim ... that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are clandestinely 'picking apart' bin Laden's organization 'limb by limb'."

"But," he adds, "having worked for the CIA for nearly nine years on Middle Eastern matters, I would argue that America's counterterrorism program in the Middle East and its environs is a myth."

Later in his article, Gerecht quotes a former senior CIA Near East Division operative as saying, "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing."

Neither, it appears, is that the only kind of thing that the CIA and its sister intelligence organizations don't (or didn't) do. The only force in Afghanistan still fighting the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government, which is sheltering bin Laden, is the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the most accomplished commander of anti-Soviet Mujahideen guerrillas in the 1980s. According to Gerecht, until October 1999, no CIA official ever so much as visited Masoud in Afghanistan. No support has been offered. To date, no CIA case officer has debriefed Masoud's soldiers on the frontlines or interrogated the over 300 Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab holy warriors they've captured.

And what of the one-time cozy anti-Soviet alliance of the CIA, Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, Saudi intelligence, the Afghan Mujahideen, and bin Laden himself? Was it all just too much trouble (no women, no beer) for the CIA to keep in touch and informed?

But the most astonishing intelligence and security failures in the run-up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon suicide attacks occurred in Europe and the US itself. At least 18 hijackers armed with knives and cardboard cutters more or less simultaneously boarded four transcontinental flights at three different US airports. They and support cells with dozens of members in close communication and coordination operated in the US for months. Some received flight training in Florida. There will have been money transfers and international communications supposedly monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA) - all undetected. Several of the terrorists lived in Hamburg, Germany, for years, studying electronics at a technical university. Obviously, neither the CIA nor the FBI nor Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst had a clue.

"Anyone who says this is not an intelligence failure is blowing smoke. This is an intelligence failure and a security failure," said Lieutenant-General (Ret) William Odom, former head of the NSA and the former head of US Army intelligence. "The security guys will blame it on the intelligence guys and the intelligence guys will tell us the great successes they had in the past."

The CIA has become - in equal parts - a bureaucratically bloated, risk-averse and arrogant intelligence (so-called) organization that has failed its country. Internationally, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other US-allied intelligence services - Israel's vaunted Mossad included - have done no better. George Tenet, CIA director since 1997, has repeatedly described America's counterterrorist program as "robust" and successful at keeping bin Laden's terrorists "off-balance" and anxious about their own security. The senior director for counterterrorism on the US National Security Council, Richard Clarke, has said he is sure that bin Laden and his men stay awake at night "around the campfire" in Afghanistan, "worried stiff about who we're going to get next". Well, as at this writing, we're watching CNN reporting the evacuation of the Capitol building of the US Congress on a report that a dog had sniffed out a suspicious package.

So, we repeat, with its record of gross intelligence failures, who can now trust that the US intelligence community will identify and that the US military will hit the right targets in execution of President Bush's vow of reprisal? Bombs away on Kabul or Beirut, the headquarters of the Hezbollah? And if so, then what?

If the US is intelligently serious about its declaration of war on international terrorism, it will not engage in quick flight-forward reaction against uncertain targets. It will see this as a protracted war, it will undertake the "no women, no beer" intelligence efforts required, it will shake up a complacent, arrogant and incompetent intelligence community from top to bottom, it will build the alliances which alone can assure success in the longer run. It will consider as well that defeat of a fanatical, religiously-inspired enemy is not merely - or even primarily - an intelligence and military task. It's the historical task of proving the values and resiliency of free societies under the rule of law.

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