WASHINGTON — The CIA’s top leaders failed to use their available powers, never developed a comprehensive plan to stop al-Qaida and missed crucial opportunities to thwart two hijackers in the run-up to Sept. 11, the agency’s own watchdog concluded in a bruising report released Tuesday.
Completed in June 2005 and kept classified until now, the 19-page executive summary finds extensive fault with the actions of senior CIA leaders and others beneath them. “The agency and its officers did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner,” the CIA inspector general found.
“They did not always work effectively and cooperatively,” the report stated.
Yet the review team led by Inspector General John Helgerson found neither a “single point of failure nor a silver bullet” that would have stopped the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
CIA chief: Report a distraction
In a statement, CIA Director Michael Hayden said the decision to release the report was not his choice or preference, but that he was making the report available as required by Congress in a law President Bush signed earlier this month.
“I thought the release of this report would distract officers serving their country on the front lines of a global conflict,” Hayden said. “It will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed.”
The report does cover terrain heavily examined by a congressional inquiry and the Sept. 11 Commission. However, the CIA watchdog’s report goes further than previous reviews to examine the personal failings of individuals within the agency who led the pre-9/11 efforts against al-Qaida.
Helgerson’s team found that no CIA employees violated the law or were part of any misconduct. But it still called on then-CIA Director Porter Goss to form accountability boards to look at the performance of specific individuals to determine whether reprimands were called for.
The inquiry boards were recommended for officials including former CIA Director George Tenet, who resigned in July 2004; his Deputy Director for Operations Jim Pavitt; Counterterrorism Center Chief Cofer Black; and the agency’s executive director, who was not further identified. Other less senior officials were also tagged for accountability reviews, but identifying information was removed from the report’s public version.
In a statement, Tenet said the inspector general is “flat wrong” about the lack of plan.
“There was in fact a robust plan, marked by extraordinary effort and dedication to fighting terrorism, dating back to long before 9/11,” he said. “Without such an effort, we would not have been able to give the president a plan on Sept. 15, 2001, that led to the routing of the Taliban, chasing al-Qaida from its Afghan sanctuary and combating terrorists across 92 countries.”
Glimpse of CIA shortfalls
In October 2005, Goss rejected the recommendation for the inquiry boards. He said he had spoken personally with the current employees named in the report, and he trusted their abilities and dedication. “This report unveiled no mysteries,” Goss said.
Hayden stuck by Goss’s decision.
Providing a glimpse of a series of shortfalls laid out in the longer, still-classified report, the executive summary says:
- U.S. spy agencies, which were overseen by Tenet, lacked a comprehensive strategic plan to counter Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11. The inspector general concluded that Tenet “by virtue of his position, bears ultimate responsibility for the fact that no such strategic plan was ever created.”
- The CIA’s analysis of al-Qaida before Sept. 2001 was lacking. No comprehensive report focusing on bin Laden was written after 1993, and no comprehensive report laying out the threats of 2001 was assembled. “A number of important issues were covered insufficiently or not at all,” the report found.
- The CIA and the National Security Agency tussled over their responsibilities in dealing with al-Qaida well into 2001. Only Tenet’s personal involvement could have led to a timely resolution, the report concluded.
- The CIA station charged with monitoring bin Laden — code-named Alec Station — was overworked, lacked operational experience, expertise and training. The report recommended forming accountability boards for the CIA Counterterror Center chiefs from 1998 to 2001, including Black.
- Although 50 to 60 people read at least one CIA cable about two of the hijackers, the information wasn’t shared with the proper offices and agencies. “That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systemic breakdown.... Basically, there was no coherent, functioning watch-listing program,” the report said. The report again called for further review of Black and his predecessor.
'We are at war'
While blame is heaped on Tenet and his deputies, the report also says that Tenet was forcefully engaged in counterterrorism efforts and personally sounded the alarm before Congress, the military and policymakers. In a now well-known 1998 memo, he declared, “We are at war.”
The trouble, the report said, was follow-up.
The inspector general did take exception to findings of Congress’ joint inquiry into 9/11. For instance, the congressional inquiry found that the CIA was reluctant to seek authority to assassinate bin Laden. Instead, the inspector general believed the problem was the agency’s limited covert-action capabilities.
The CIA’s reliance on a group of sources with questionable reliability “proved insufficient to mount a credible operation against bin Laden,” the report said. “Efforts to develop other options had limited potential prior to 9/11.”
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said the CIA has learned from the past and has corrected many of these shortcomings, but has to do more.
“Sadly, the CIA’s 9/11 accountability review serves as a sobering reminder that the Bush Administration policies for the past six years have failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden,” the West Virginia Democrat said. “Nor have the administration’s policies deprived Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders of the safe haven they need to plot against the United States.”
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