Our infected intelligence system

Agencies grow fat, remain unaccountable

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Despite having, by far, the world's largest and most lavishly funded "intelligence community," we suffered a massive intelligence failure on 9/11/2001 and repeated embarrassment since. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "could have and should have been prevented," Adm. Michael McConnell, then director of national intelligence, told Congress in 2007.

We went to war in Iraq in large part because of the mistaken belief Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were far more robust than in fact they were. We failed to stop the "underwear bomber" in 2009 (even though his father had warned us he was dangerous) or the Boston Marathon bombers this year (even though the Russians had warned us they were dangerous).

Our intel community was surprised by the "Arab Spring," the subsequent Arab winter and the attack on our consulate in Benghazi on 9/11/2012.

How come?

In large part because we have the world's largest and most lavishly funded intelligence community. But before we go there, let's review what it takes to prevent nasty surprises.

Information must be collected on the capabilities and intentions of potential enemies, and analyzed. Could they hurt us? How? Do they want to?

Spy satellites and communications intercepts are great for determining capabilities, but divining intent often requires having our spies recruit people in the target country who know what locals are thinking. Historically, the U.S. has been excellent at technical intelligence, lousy at human intelligence and poor in protecting our secrets and catching their spies.

Some people are better at connecting dots than others. Our record in analysis is spotty. We have some first-rate analysts, more who are not. Intelligence analysis would be better if analysts were paid better, permitted to mix more with academic experts and had more opportunities for career advancement.

When an alarming picture emerges from connected dots, timely and appropriate action must be taken. If it isn't, politicians often describe the result as "intelligence failure" even though it's usually the politicians or their appointees who decide whether and how to respond.

Before the original 9/11, enough dots had been collected by U.S. intelligence agencies -- we have 17 -- to identify most of the bad guys and to indicate what they were up to. "It was an issue of connecting information that was available," Adm. McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee. But analysts couldn't connect the dots because each had access to too few of them.

The CIA had information on terrorists attending flight schools in the United States that it did not share with the FBI until after 9/11, noted the 9/11 Commission and an internal CIA review.

The National Security Agency "knew a great deal about the 9/11 threats and al-Qaida, electronically tracking various people and organizations for years," said former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake. "The problem is, it wasn't sharing all of the data. If it had ... more than likely, NSA could have stopped, I say stopped 9/11."

"What happened on 9/11 was not a failure in the system, it was a system designed for failure," Federal Aviation Administration security expert Bogdan Dzakovic told the 9/11 Commission. FAA leaders "knew the terrorist threat was rising, but gambled nothing would happen if we kept the vulnerability secret."

The "intelligence failure" on 9/11 was a bureaucratic failure. Knowledge is power, which the heads of the various agencies weren't willing to share with rivals.

The first 9/11 happened because our intelligence agencies "were too parochial, compartmented and stove-piped to share information laterally, and because the growth in agencies has for years been in headquarters bureausclerosis, not in line analysts and field agents," a former special forces soldier who blogs as "Weapons Man" wrote after 9/11/2012.

Nothing much has changed. The CIA and Homeland Security had info on Boston's Tsarnaev brothers the FBI claims it never got.

Nothing much has changed because no one has been held accountable. Instead, the bureaucrats responsible for the greatest intel failure since Pearl Harbor were given lots more money and vast new powers. The only ones to suffer have been whistleblowers like Mr. Drake.

"We have far more intelligence officers than before 9/11/01," Weapons Man wrote. "They are far more concentrated in the National Capital Area. They are vastly more lavishly funded. And they are even more likely to miss or bungle intel on a future surprise attack. And for the exact same reasons, because we never addressed the true cause of the 9/11/01 failure."

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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