Intelligence Matters

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, November 23, 2004)


The Al Qaeda attacks of September 11 prompted a flood of questions as to why the U.S. intelligence community had failed to see them coming; and Sen. Bob Graham wanted some answers. The Florida Democrat, then chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, joined 36 other House and Senate members to form the 2002 congressional joint inquiry into where the intelligence agencies went wrong.

In his recent book, Intelligence Matters, Graham provides an inside account of what this inquiry found. Graham details examples of the agencies failing to connect the dots or adapt to the new threats represented by global terrorism. He shares his experiences researching intelligence failures and offers some recommendations for preventing future ones. And he takes the Bush administration to task for disengaging from the war against Al Qaeda in order to invade Iraq, a decision Graham voted against and memorably criticized on the Senate floor.

“Ultimately, I would reach the conclusion that September 11 was the culmination of a long trail of American intelligence failures both at home and abroad,” Graham writes in his introduction, “an almost bewildering array of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities caused by warring governmental cultures, bureaucratic incompetence and neglect, lack of imagination, and perhaps, most tragic of all, a failure of leadership at the highest levels of government.”

Graham, a former governor of Florida, chose not to seek re-election to the Senate this year, after 18 years’ service (10 of them on the intelligence committee). He recently spoke by phone with In the book, you detail a dozen instances where U.S. intelligence could have unraveled the 9/11 plot and prevented the attacks, but failed to. What trends did you see in those failures?

Bob Graham: It wasn’t just a matter of collecting intelligence; it was using intelligence in a creative and coordinated way. There were at least 12 instances where, had our agencies — particularly the CIA and the FBI — acted with more assertiveness, the tragedy of 9/11 would likely have been avoided. One of the reasons that I think we failed in those instances had to do with the way in which we were organized, that there is more a feeling of competitiveness than collaboration in many of the activities of our intelligence agencies. The second was the human side. Our intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, are a product of the Cold War. We understand Russian language and culture, and intelligence played a significant role in our Cold War victory. Our new adversaries, however, speak languages that we hardly understand and come from cultures where we’re even more ignorant. We need to have a massive infusion of new people with the skills necessary to operate on threats from the Middle East and Central Asia. We also need to reorganize the intelligence agencies in a way that will better respond to the new threats we’re facing. What can the agencies do to bring in those people, both in the short and long term?

BG: In the longer run, one idea I’m personally going to be working on is to establish for the intelligence agencies an equivalent to the Reserve Officers Training Corps for the military. That is, to identify students while they’re undergraduates, encourage them through student financial aid to add to their curriculum some courses that will be beneficial to their service as an intelligence officer, particularly the languages of the Middle East and Central Asia. And then the student would make a commitment to service for a certain period of time in exchange for the financial assistance provided while they were undergraduates.

In terms of a shorter-term thing, the United States is the most diverse nation on earth, and we have significant numbers of people from almost every ethnic and cultural background. There are, for instance, approximately seven million Americans whose heritage is from the Arab Middle East. It has been very difficult to date to get people with that heritage cleared to serve in the intelligence services; there is almost a profiling that has kept them out. I think we need to develop new ways of evaluating the patriotism and credibility of Arab Americans so that we can take advantage of people who are more likely to have a knowledge of the languages and an understanding of the cultures of our principal threat areas today. During the joint inquiry, you found many instances where “The Wall” between agencies prevented essential intelligence sharing. What reforms could help solve that problem?

BG: Some steps have been taken in that regard to eliminate, for instance, limitations on intelligence agencies and law-enforcement agencies cooperating with each other. And some of those 12 missed opportunities revolved around those walls that prevented sharing. I also think that the structure that’s being considered in the Congress today, which would have a strong director of national intelligence who could lay out standards for enhanced cooperation and enforce those standards — as well as a series of intelligence setters which focus on specific threats such as terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — would be a structure that would reduce the chances of a repetition of the intelligence community’s behavior prior to 9/11. How cooperative were President Bush and his administration with your inquiry?

BG: They started out with a lot of representations of how helpful they would be, in the same way that they did to the citizens’ 9/11 Commission that followed us. But when you actually started to dig close to sensitive information — the most sensitive being the role of the Saudis — they began to erect barriers. When did you first realize that the administration was shifting its focus away from Al Qaeda and Afghanistan and toward Iraq instead?

BG: In February 2002. The U.S. Central Command, which has military responsibility for the Middle East and Central Asia, is based in Tampa, Fla. I’ve had a practice of going there during military operations to get a briefing. On that particular day, the subject was the war in Afghanistan. At the conclusion of a fairly upbeat briefing, Gen. Tommy Franks — who was the commander of Central Command and subsequently the commander of the war in Iraq — took me into his office and said, “We’re no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan; we’re engaged in a manhunt.” He went on to say that some of the military personnel and equipment which had been most important in the early successes in Afghanistan were being relocated to get ready for a war in Iraq. He then went on to describe how he thought the war on terrorism should be conducted: staying in Afghanistan until we crushed Al Qaeda there, then moving to other areas, such as Somalia and Kenya, where there were large numbers of Al Qaeda cells. He was also suspicious of the intelligence that was coming out of Iraq, and said that the Europeans knew more about weapons of mass destruction there than we did. That was my first recognition that we were about to abandon the war on terror against the enemy that had just killed 3,000 Americans, in order to shift our attention to a bad, evil person — but a bad, evil person who had never killed any Americans other than in combat. Do you see the way intelligence was handled before the Iraq war as strictly an intelligence failure or as a consequence of political pressure from the administration?

BG: I would say it was the willingness of the intelligence agencies to be co-opted for political reasons. As early as the spring of 2002, the White House had called CIA representatives down to begin preparing what would be a public document to make the case that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, weapons that could be used on an immediate basis and therefore required pre-emptive action to eliminate. When we got into the hearings on that issue in the August/September period of 2002, we were aware that what the intelligence community was telling us privately was not the same as what they were telling the American people publicly; that conditions and limitations that were being given in a closed session were eliminated in the public documents. Comments on Saddam Hussein’s actual willingness to use weapons of mass destruction — assuming he had them — were much more restricted in private briefings than what the administration was releasing to the American people. That was one of the reasons I voted against the authorization to go to war when it came before the Senate in early October of 2002. How can the government shift focus back to Al Qaeda and terrorism?

BG: Well, that’s a very good question to which there is no good answer. We’ve gotten ourselves so bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq that we’ve allowed our principal enemies to regroup, to recruit thousands of new terrorists, to diversify into a much more flexible and nimble organization. Al Qaeda today is a different Al Qaeda than it was three or four years ago, and has become a more serious opponent for the United States. On the other hand, I don’t think we can just pack our bags and walk away from Iraq. The strategy of trying to train enough Iraqis, and train them adequately with necessary equipment, is probably the only strategy that has a chance for us to make any kind of an early — and I would define “early” as anytime within the next five years — exit from Iraq. In addition to Al Qaeda, where else should intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts focus?

BG: The other major international terrorist groups, starting with Hezbollah and going on to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and others. Those are groups that have demonstrated their willingness to kill Americans; until 9/11, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other international terrorist group. They are well-organized. They’ve had a history of conducting successful operations. We’ve done virtually nothing to them. For instance, in the book I describe a meeting with the president of Syria, which is the home for Hezbollah and Hamas, urging that he take action to expel those groups from his country. He was very defensive about that and our government has been unwilling to face him down and basically say, “It’s intolerable for you to be providing a sanctuary for these murderous terrorist groups. And if you aren’t willing to evict them, then with the international community, we will be forced to do so.” What actions can the United States take against nations that, like Syria, continue to harbor these groups?

BG: It may involve sanctions, and in fact the Congress has now passed legislation authorizing the president to use economic sanctions against Syria, an authorization that the president has been very tepid in utilizing. But Syria’s a country that understands its position in the world, which is that of a declining power. And I believe strong U.S. diplomatic demands, backed up by other major international forces which recognize the power and potential of terrorist activities against them that Hezbollah and Hamas represent, we could force change in Syrian policy without having to resort to military activity. But we’ve never tried to have the iron fist in the velvet glove. Earlier you mentioned the need for better human intelligence. How can the agencies improve in that respect?

BG: I asked that same question of an official of the British equivalent of the CIA, and he had a three-word answer: “penetrate, penetrate, penetrate.” We fell into the habit, during the Cold War, of learning what we needed to know about the Soviet Union from satellites and other distant collection platforms. You can’t do that against Osama bin Laden or the leadership of Hezbollah. They don’t use conventional communication systems, and taking a picture of their caves or tents won’t tell you very much about what their plans are. You’ve got to get a human being close enough to the inner circle who can begin to put together what the intentions and capabilities of those terrorists are. That’s why improving our human intelligence, which is the place where you would carry out an operation of penetration, is so important. What other systemic changes would improve the intelligence agencies?

BG: Today, the person who is allegedly in charge of our overall strategic intelligence activities is also the director of the CIA. The history is, they spend so much time running the day-to-day activities of the CIA — and there are a lot of problems that require that kind of day-to-day attention — that nobody has been looking at the big picture. For instance, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, there was not a single American actually on the ground in Iraq whose job it was to verify these statements that exiles and foreign nations were giving us as to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction capability and the likelihood that he would use those weapons. We can’t afford another massive failure like that. So I think having a person who sits at the top of all the intelligence agencies and has the responsibility, among others, of looking at the big picture — what are the principal threats today? What are the principal threats likely to be 10 or 20 years from now that we need to start preparing to understand and to meet?

The second thing is I think the intelligence community has become too incestuous, that it just listens to itself. We need to open up to other sources of information, including open-source information. There is speculation in Cairo that had somebody been reading Egyptian newspapers and magazines, they could have put together the fact that there was a plot underway inside the United States by Al Qaeda. We didn’t have that capability, and we paid a high price for it. Couldn’t an intelligence czar still be susceptible to political pressure?

BG: In a democracy, you can never give an insurance policy that improper things won’t happen. I think the best way to avoid that is transparency. The more eyes that are on an activity, the less likely that activity is to be manipulated for purposes other than the national interest. In this bill that is pending, we rewrite the method by which materials can be classified, that is, withheld from the public. Today, it’s 100 percent a presidential decision. If the president wants to deny the American people knowledge as to what the Saudis did to support the terrorists, that’s the president’s prerogative. And if the American people accept that, as they did on Nov. 2, 2004, that pattern will continue. This legislation would give some means of requiring the president to at least explain why he is withholding information from the American people. During the joint inquiry, you served as co-chair with Porter Goss. What did you think of his appointment as head of the CIA?

BG: I strongly supported his appointment. I thought that Porter not only had personal characteristics of leadership and dedication, but also had the personal background, having served for 10 years as a clandestine officer in the CIA and then, for the last 16 years in Congress, being one of the primary overseers and monitors of the intelligence community. I know there have been some concerns expressed about the first few weeks of Porter’s tenure, including the fact that he brought some people into the CIA with whom he had worked in the past. I find that to be perfectly normal; when a person accepts a major executive responsibility, it’s standard for them to bring people that they have confidence in, who understand their style of leadership, to assist in carrying out the mission. Porter’s also been questioned about some of the changes that were made. Frankly, there are a lot of changes needed in the CIA. I don’t know the individuals who have departed the agency since Porter took over, but I have enough confidence in Porter to believe that he found reason to make changes. What do you expect will happen with the intelligence reform legislation in the weeks ahead?

BG: I would say there’s a 30 percent chance that before the end of this Congress, which is early January, a reorganization of the intelligence community will have been enacted. The two people who will make the most difference are President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Pentagon has been the principal adversary of intelligence reform. Not just today, but over the last 10 or 20 years. The reason is, the Defense Department manages about 80 percent of the intelligence budget, and it’s very reluctant to give up that control. And almost any of these reform recommendations will have the effect of reducing the Defense Department’s control over the intelligence budgets. There are other reasons given as to why the Defense Department should continue with as much influence as it has today but, in my judgment, the only one that really is relevant is the unwillingness of the Defense Department to give up control. It’s going to take President Bush calling Secretary Rumsfeld into the Oval Office and laying down the law. Looking at the 9/11 Commission report that was completed after your inquiry, how did the findings of the two compare?

BG: In the main, it was very consistent. The basic intelligence failures that we found, and the recommendations to correct those failures, were largely adopted in the 9/11 report. The 9/11 Commission had a somewhat broader jurisdiction than we did; they were also looking at things like the FAA and other non-intelligence agencies. In the matter of findings, the biggest disagreement we had with the 9/11 Commission was on the role of Saudi Arabia. We found that there was compelling evidence that the Saudis played an active role in assisting two of the terrorists in Southern California, including being the means of substantial funding for those two terrorists. And this question of whether their support was limited to those two, or may have extended to others of the 17 terrorists, is still an unsolved mystery because the FBI did such an inept job of conducting that investigation. Whether we got it right or the 9/11’s softer evaluation of the role of the Saudis was right, we won’t know until after the administration makes available more information to the American people.

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