WASHINGTON, Aug. 19 — As American intelligence agencies pursue a war against al Qaida and its allies, these same agencies are fighting a ferocious rearguard action to blunt demands for deeper changes in their missions and in the structure of the U.S. intelligence community. Nearly two years after 9/11, and contrary to the recommendations of congressional and independent panels of experts, agencies like the CIA, FBI and Defense Department are resisting reforms aimed at reducing turf battles and legal dilemmas, at streamlining bureaucracy and bringing accountability to the world of spying and counter-terrorism.
As the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, an MSNBC.com investigation found deep unhappiness with the stalled process of fixing the many problems that allowed 19 foreigners to plan, finance and launch the most sophisticated and deadly terrorist attack in history right here on American soil.
Interviews with past and current members of the intelligence community, the Bush administration, members of Congress and the U.S. military reveal, two years later, a consensus that President Bush missed an opportunity to untangle the nation’s Cold War-era intelligence bureaucracies and retool them to fight global terrorism.
“The problem is, I don’t think the president knows what he wants in this area,” says former Sen. Gary Hart, who co-chaired a commission before the 9/11 attacks that specifically warned that terrorists would strike the American homeland and that U.S. defenses were unprepared. “Right now, you have bureaucratic warfare all over the place, all about turf, not about American security. The trauma after 9/11 would have allowed the president do overcome that. But as time goes by, the bureaucratic mentality reasserts itself.”
All those interviewed were quick to praise the urgency with which the CIA and its sister agencies reacted to 9/11, particularly their performance in coordinating the Afghan Northern Alliance’s drive on the Taliban. Most also felt that Americans are, indeed, somewhat safer today than they were on Sept. 10, 2001.
Yet most also expressed deep dismay at what they see as structural problems and competing agendas at the nation’s 15 separate intelligence agencies. While perspectives differed on some issues, especially where one agency might gain the upper hand over its bureaucratic rivals, common agreement exists on several problems that continue to impair the ability to track, identify and defeat terrorists. Among them:
that the “buck” stops nowhere; i.e., that no single official, not the Director of Central Intelligence, nor the Secretary of Defense, nor the Secretary of Homeland Security, is “in charge” of American intelligence collection;
that the FBI, traditionally an investigatory agency designed to collect evidence admissible in court about crimes already committed, is being unwisely prodded to become the country’s chief domestic spy agency, too, ignoring concerns about the bureau’s ability to perform the task with current personnel and the risk of damaging civil rights;
that, in contrast to public pronouncements, a bureaucratic penchant for caution still hampers American efforts to rebuild “human intelligence” capabilities which were largely abandoned in the 1970s after revelations about abusive and rogue operations during the Cold War;
that U.S. intelligence agencies remain subject to “stovepipes” — self-contained avenues of information of the kind that allowed warnings before 9/11 by FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis about terrorists training at U.S. flight academies to go unheeded.
that despite such revelations, not one single intelligence, law enforcement or policymaking official has been disciplined, reassigned or dismissed as result of the 9/11 attacks.
MSNBC.com’s series will explore each of these areas in the coming weeks.
Some things have changed
Publicly, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies consider these issues as largely settled. At the insistence of Congress, Bush appointed a “blue ribbon” commission to study the lessons of the 9/11 attacks, headed by former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas Kean. It is due to release recommendations in May, 2004.
In response to criticism from Congress, previous panels and the media, intelligence officials point to a series of successes in their pursuit of al-Qaida, both abroad and in towns and cities across the United States. In response to criticism by Congress in late July, for instance, FBI Director Robert Mueller issued a detailed statement portraying his agency as dramatically changed and vowing that, “By continuing to restructure, improving our intelligence capabilities, and building on our traditional strengths, the FBI will continue to fulfill its mission to protect America.”
He and others also note the key role CIA operatives played in the routing of al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, the foiling of several alleged plots to mount a follow up attack on American soil, the arrest and subsequent convictions of al-Qaida “cells” in the United States and terrorists involved in attacks prior to 9/11, reforms of U.S. laws that previously had discouraged information sharing among agencies.
Most dramatically, defenders of the current structure of intelligence emphasize a new “gloves off” approach to counter-terrorism not seen since the Nixon administration, exemplified by last November’s killing of al-Qaida lieutenant Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi in Yemen by a CIA-operated Predator drone packing Hellfire missiles.
“This is because our people care about getting it right — about constantly analyzing how we can do better, about being honest about our mistakes and correcting them,” CIA Director George Tenet told a gathering of intelligence and security officials earlier this summer. “They constantly challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zones—they dare to take risks—and they are undaunted by the obstacles they face.”
But even inside the intelligence world, concerns persist that the changes have fallen short.
“The problems are well known, but the solutions are not to anyone’s liking inside the Beltway,” says a senior administration official. “Two years is a long time, and a lot of these guys think al-Qaida is on the run. A lot of other folks think their doing what they’ve always done — taking their time, being meticulous.”
A host of presidential, congressional and independent commissions are working on these issues. Critics note that the three best known panels — an ongoing survey of U.S. counter-terrorism policy chaired by former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities being conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees, and the Kean commission on 9/11 — currently all are chaired and steered by Republican allies of the president.
Nonetheless, the unease about administration moves to date is strong within all of them.
The Gilmore panel, for instance, doubts the ability of the FBI to function effectively and constitutionally as a domestic intelligence agency. Gilmore, a conservative Republican, says he personally accepts FBI Director Mueller’s contention that the bureau can balance the many conflicting priorities of these jobs. But the Gilmore panel concluded otherwise in a report last December, recommending last December that a separate agency modeled on Britain’s MI-5 be formed to handle spying inside American borders.
“Even with the best intentions, the FBI cannot soon be transformed into an organization dedicated to detecting and preventing terrorist attacks. It is also important to separate the intelligence collection function from the law enforcement function to avoid the impression that the U.S. is establishing a kind of ‘secret police’,” the panel says.
Coordination and accountability
The overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic rivalries also remain troublesome to those studying the issues. These problems are blamed for the fact that the many clues in federal hands before 9/11 that might have led the plot to unravel failed to be transmitted from one agency to another, essentially preventing a fuller picture of what was happening from developing.
A report accompanying the fiscal 2004 House intelligence authorization bill states flatly that “the nation’s security would benefit from fundamental structural and management changes within the intelligence community.”
Senior intelligence officials publicly concede this. Last spring, for instance, a senior CIA official published a clarion call for institutional reform on the agency’s website. While the gist of the article clearly favored CIA’s own view of how to “fix” intelligence — by investing more power in the director of central intelligence — it is the characterization of the current situation that so many found harrowing given the potential consequences:
“The [Intelligence] Community is not managed or organized to directly address national security missions and threats,” wrote Larry C. Kindsvater, the director of intelligence community issues at CIA. “The Community continues to have a “stovepipe” collection focus. From a management and organizational perspective, the Community today is not much different than it was in 1947 when the National Security Act was passed” creating the Central Intelligence Agency.
Some officials say it would have been unrealistic to expect the Bush administration, in office less than a year and reeling from the attacks, to launch into a reengineering of the Byzantine intelligence bureaucracy right after the 9/11 attacks.
“I think the president opted against radical change, so far, except perhaps in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security,” says Gilmore. “The president and administration have decided to go with what they’ve got and manage their way through the issues. They’ve received assurances (from intelligence agency heads) that they’re doing their job, and the president is comfortable with that.”
But is that necessarily the best course? More specifically, has the decision to leave the intelligence structure largely unchanged left the United States open to a second 9/11 scale attack? Officials say there are no guarantees.
“If you look at what has happened since 9/11, you’ll see that we’re giving those warnings here, we’re giving them to American citizens and to locations abroad, and so to the extent that discourages or interferes with terrorist plans, then you’re safer,” says Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. “Where the real difficulty lies is that any administration has to be right every single time, the bad guys have to be right only once. Those are very unfair odds.”
Hart and many others say that long odds should be no excuse for allowing Beltway rivalries to hindering reforms that would make America safer.
“No system is perfect, but it shouldn’t take another attack to get this fixed,” says Hart, a one-time Democratic presidential canaidate. “This is about the president, and with all we’ve heard about his strong leadership, I say if he were a strong leader he could make things happen, bang on the table a little.”
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