Our Clueless Intelligence System

By Amy Zegart
Sunday, July 8, 2007

The hunt was on last week as British intelligence officials searched for suspects in the attempted bombings in Scotland and London. After the attention fades, they'll examine what went right and wrong and how to do better next time. Let's hope that in doing so, they'll be more successful than the United States has been since Sept. 11, 2001.

Our national response to the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history has consisted chiefly of finger pointing and ax grinding. Some say Clinton administration officials were too wimpy in their response to earlier al-Qaeda attacks outside the United States. Others think that Bush administration officials were out to lunch, so preoccupied with Cold War bogeymen that they never noticed the CIA's memo warning of Osama bin Laden's determination to strike on U.S. soil.

We've become obsessed with the personal drama of failure. As Bob Woodward wrote in his book "The Commanders": "Decision making at the highest levels . . . is a complex human interaction. . . . This human story is the core."

Actually, the human story is irrelevant. Those who want to learn what went wrong and how to fix it need to understand something far less intriguing: bureaucracy -- the organizational weaknesses that cause smart people to make dumb decisions.

Many of the agonizing missteps and missed clues leading to 9/11 are now well known. There was the failure to watchlist or spread the word about Khalid Almihdhar, the 9/11 hijacker who first attracted the CIA's attention in January 2000 when he attended an al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia carrying a multiple-entry U.S. visa in his passport.

There is the FBI's "Phoenix memo," which warned that bin Laden could be training terrorists in U.S. flight schools but which never reached top FBI officials or any other intelligence agency. And there is the refusal by FBI headquarters to seek a search warrant for the computer files of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in the United States for his connection to the 9/11 plot.

But these screw-ups are the tip of the iceberg, and they all stem from a handful of organizational deficiencies that have plagued U.S. intelligence agencies for decades-- and, despite intelligence "reform," still do.

Public government documents reveal that the CIA and the FBI missed 23 potential opportunities to disrupt the

9/11 attacks. In each case, failure stemmed from the same causes: 1. agency cultures that led officials to resist new ideas, technologies and missions; 2. promotion incentives that rewarded all the wrong things; and 3. structural weaknesses that hampered the CIA and the FBI and prevented all 15 U.S intelligence agencies from working as a unified team.

Case in point: Nineteen days before 9/11, the FBI got word that the suspected al-Qaeda operative Almihdhar might be in the United States. Its response was to put the manhunt on the back burner and call out the C-team. The search was designated "routine," the lowest priority level, and given to an agent who had just finished his rookie year.

Although a full-scale, first-string effort might not have found Almihdhar in time, the evidence suggests otherwise. He and fellow hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi were hiding in plain sight, using their real names on rental agreements, bank accounts, credit cards, auto insurance and telephone listings. They were also operating under the FBI's nose, living for a while with an FBI informant and making contact with several targets of counterterrorism investigations. On the evening of 9/11, an anguished FBI agent, suspecting Almihdhar, submitted his name to the bureau's information technology center just to see what a search of public records would uncover. A few hours later, he got Almihdhar's correct address in San Diego.

Individuals were not the problem. The FBI was. The bureau's highly decentralized structure -- which assigned all cases to a lead office -- meant that what should have been a nationwide effort was instead the focus of a few people in New York. The FBI's law enforcement culture, which prized catching criminals and investigating past crimes more than finding suspected terrorists and preventing future disasters, guaranteed that the manhunt would go straight to the bottom of the pile. And in an organization in which convictions made careers, finding potential terrorists went to one of the office's least seasoned investigators because it was one of the least desirable jobs.

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