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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.

These and other crippling organizational weaknesses were no secret before 9/11. Between 1991 and 2001, a dozen reports examining U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities found serious organizational problems and urged immediate action. The consensus was stunning. Of 340 recommendations, 84 percent focused on the same four deficiencies: poor coordination across intelligence agencies, terrible information sharing, inadequate human intelligence and insufficient attention to setting priorities.

But almost none of the suggested fixes were implemented before 9/11. Most recommendations -- 268, or 79 percent of the total -- spurred no action. Nothing. The

9/11 commission and the congressional intelligence committees found that these same weaknesses led to disaster on 9/11.

If you think these problems have been solved, think again. Despite the recent creation of a director of national intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community remains a dysfunctional family with no one firmly in charge. The "new FBI" is still fighting the old FBI's cops-and-robbers culture. Visit the bureau's Web site, where job postings are divided into two categories -- special agents who wear badges, carry guns and catch bad guys, and everyone else. Analysts, those dot-connectors who since

9/11 have been touted as equal partners in the FBI's counterterrorism mission, are still relegated to "professional support staff," alongside auto mechanics and janitors.

Meanwhile, incentives still encourage analysts everywhere to think in the short term. At his confirmation hearings last year, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden warned Congress that unless the United States gets serious about doing big-picture analysis, it will be "endlessly surprised." And not in a good way.

Even our successes aren't cause for celebration. The FBI's recent disruptions of terrorist plots to kill soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey and to blow up the Sears tower in Chicago and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport were all in the early planning stages -- more pipe dreams than pipe bombs. In January, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III characterized the bureau's 2006 record as one of stopping "several unsophisticated, small-scale attack plans that reflect the broader problem homegrown extremists pose."

Intelligence reform is failing now for the same reasons it always has: Transforming any organization from the inside is hard, and imposing reform from the outside is even harder.

No organization changes easily by itself. Businesses often fail to adapt to shifting market conditions even when their corporate lives depend on it. Government agencies are worse off because they aren't designed to adapt. They're built to be reliable and fair, performing the same tasks in standard ways over and over again.

This isn't all bad. Standard operating procedures ensure that all military pilots have the same rules of engagement and that everyone stands in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But the downside is that government agencies are hardwired to keep doing things the same old way even when they shouldn't.

Imposing intelligence reform from the outside has always been a political loser. There's a reason why no president since Harry S. Truman has gotten serious about overhauling intelligence agencies through executive orders or legislation. It's called the Pentagon. For decades, the Defense Department has controlled about 80 percent of the intelligence budget and housed most of the agencies. And for decades, it has fiercely resisted any move to realign power in the CIA or anywhere else. Pentagon officials and their turf-conscious congressional supporters have been torpedoing intelligence reform forever -- crippling the CIA when it was created in 1947, savaging intelligence reform bills twice in the 1990s and fatally weakening the powers of the new national intelligence director during the last reform round, after the release of the 9/11 commission's report in 2004.

There's no magic potion for fixing U.S. intelligence. Meaningful reform will take years, requiring bottom-up cultural transformation as well as top-down policy changes. Sadly, it may need another catastrophic failure to gain traction. We've known about intelligence problems and their solutions for years. What we've never had, and desperately need, is the political courage in the White House and Congress to take on the Pentagon, demand radical overhaul and see it through.

Now that's where individuals matter.

zegart@ucla.edu

Amy Zegart is associate professor of public policy at UCLA and the author of the forthcoming "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI and the Origins of 9/11."

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