Within the next few days, leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees will set the date for the start of a congressional inquiry whose likes have probably not been seen in sixty years. This is fitting since legislators will soon be conducting a post-mortem on an intelligence failure that preceded the deadliest foreign attack on American soil since the subject of those earlier hearings: Pearl Harbor.
The first problem the investigation of September 11th -- or Pearl Harbor II -- will face arises because the man in charge of U.S. intelligence in the years leading up to that second Day of Infamy, CIA Director George Tenet, remains in place. He continues to enjoy the confidence of President Bush and, by most accounts, has done a commendable job in the months following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in employing CIA assets to carry the fight to the enemy.
Yet, Mr. Tenet refuses to acknowledge that there was any failure of intelligence in the run-up to 9/11. He insisted in testimony before the Senate last week that “failure” meant that no effort had been made to prevent such attacks or to penetrate the cells of those who might carry them out -- a state of affairs that clearly did not pertain.
This is, of course, nonsense. Failure does not mean nothing was done, merely that what was done was inadequate. September 11th was every bit as much a failure in that sense as was the mighty Seventh Fleet’s unpreparedness for a Japanese attack on its bases in Hawaii six decades ago. And the Congress and the American people need to know why.
Let’s be clear: We need to understand what went wrong on that beautiful day last Fall not only because those responsible for past, defective intelligence policies and practices -- as with any costly failure -- should be held accountable. More important by far, we need to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated in the future, a particular concern given that Mr. Tenet and some of his subordinates remain in office today and in denial about what went wrong on their watch.
These are among the issues the congressional investigators should critically review as they consider what amounts to the Clinton intelligence legacy:
O Politicized intelligence: During the Clinton years, George Tenet -- in his capacity as Deputy CIA Director and then as Director of Central Intelligence -- presided over an intelligence community that was kept on a short leash by its political masters. It is a matter of record that intelligence estimates on emerging missile threats were massaged and their release timed to support the President’s determination not to deploy missile defenses. Reports on corruption in the Yeltsin-Chernomyrdin Kremlin were dumbed-down after complaints from Vice President Gore. Evidence of Chinese proliferation activities was withheld from Congress, lest it complicate administration efforts to romance Beijing.
We need to know in what ways did President Clinton’s desire not to offend Saudi Arabian sensibilities, to improve relations with Iran, to end sanctions on Libya, to make Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomatic breakthroughs with North Korea and/or to stymie congressional efforts to help the Iraqi opposition contribute to a similar dumbing-down, or hamstringing, of intelligence on the international terrorist scourge and its state-sponsors? How can the Bush administration assure the integrity and perspicacity of U.S. intelligence in the face of today’s foreign policy considerations -- like the purported need to preserve the anti-terrorist coalition?
O Deficient “humint”: Political correctness also caused the Clinton administration to deprecate the value of human intelligence (or humint) as opposed to that antiseptically collected by electronic means or photo satellites. This was particularly true to the extent that the humans who might have access to information about operations being mounted by the likes of Osama bin Laden generally are unsavory types. Like Mafia informants, they often have blood on their hands and dirty money in their bank accounts.
We need to know to what extent such hamstringing of U.S. intelligence contributed to its inabilies to penetrate bin Laden’s compartmented information “loops” and to intercept his Islamist hijackers before they commandeered three American passenger jets. Has the Bush administration taken corrective action to ensure that humint is being given the priority it requires in the war on terrorism? What can be done to retard the loss to retirements of experienced handlers and field agents and accelerate the process of their augmentation and replacement with a new generation of spies?
O Limits on domestic surveillance: The Clinton team empowered individuals like Anthony Lake and Morton Halperin with long histories as critics of FBI and other agencies’ monitoring of the activities of potential subversives on U.S. soil. According to Mr. Tenet’s testimony last week, we now have in this country some 70,000 individuals who match the demographic profiles (age, sex, countries of origin) of the 9/11 hijackers.
We need to know whether constraints on domestic surveillance -- some of which date back to the 1970s -- contributed to the failure to discern the September 11th plot. Does the Bush Administration believe that additional authority in this area, beyond that granted in legislation last year, is needed? To what extent does political correctness (e.g., concerns about the sensibilities of Arab-Americans about “ethnic profiling”) continue to constrain justifiable surveillance and investigative activities?
Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor II is not likely to be the end of the acts of terror against the United States, its interests and people. Their impact may be alleviated, and possibly even their occurrence prevented, however, if we properly understand the intelligence failures of the past -- and are able to apply their lessons rigorously.