Day two of the great terrorist attack scandal. Some sanity returned as the New York Times announced that its careful study of the record revealed that the President did not receive any information that warned of the September 11 attacks prior to those attacks. It quoted a government official saying that a warning a month before the attacks that al Qaeda, bin Ladin’s organization, might hijack a plane was based on one intelligence report that was several years old.
Lack of evidence did not deter House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt from saying that “what we have to do now is find out what the President knew and when he knew it and, most important what he did about it.” Political posturing like this is part of what is keeping this “scandal” going. But it is wrong to focus on the White House. The problem is in the intelligence community.
As has been known for months, enough evidence existed to suggest to intelligence analysts that al Qaeda might hijack a plane and drive it into a building. Terrorists associated with bin Ladin had planned to do this on at least two occasions. Details of both plans reached American intelligence following the arrest of one of the plotters and the investigation of an actual hijacking. During the summer, European intelligence officials warned that al Qaeda might be planning to crash a plane into an economic summit meeting. Intercepts of al Qaeda conversations warned that the network was planning something big. Study of al Qaeda operations revealed a pattern of repeating an attack until it was done right. We knew that the first attack on the World Trade Center was carried out by people associated with bin Ladin. Then, of course, there were the reports from FBI field offices about Muslims with questionable backgrounds taking flying lessons.
With all of this information available, it would have been possible to predict what happened on September 11. Making that prediction was not the President’s job. It was the job of the intelligence community. That’s where the failure occurred.
In thinking about this failure and what to do about it, we should keep three things in mind.
First, we generally hear that as far as terrorism is concerned, the big intelligence problem is human intelligence. We do not have enough agents that can tell us what is going on in terrorist groups. This is true. We will never have enough human intelligence. But the problem with the September 11 attacks was not lack of information from human or other sources. It was an analytical failure. We did not make sense of what we knew. The deficiencies of our analytical capabilities deserve more attention than they have received.
Second, the other failure was one of coordination. The FBI did not share important intelligence. The position of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was created to run both the CIA and the entire intelligence community, precisely so that we would be able to avoid another Pearl Harbor, as surprise attack that we could have known about had all intelligence been reviewed. Clearly, the process of coordination requires further work. As discussion of reforming the intelligence community goes forward, it might be good to consider splitting the jobs of the DCI. Perhaps he should become a full time DCI, focused on assuring coordination among intelligence agencies, and leave the running of the CIA, a full time job in its own right, to someone else.
Finally, we should keep in mind that although it might have been possible to predict something like the attacks that occurred on September 11, it would have been very difficult. It was not just analysts in the intelligence community that missed the possibility of such an attack. No one who studies terrorism (including yours truly) predicted it. Keeping this difficulty in mind should temper criticism and help produce the kind of calm, rational analysis we need of how to improve our ability to counter terrorism, the kind of analysis so far missing from the great terrorist attack scandal.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.