CIA pre-9/11 counterterrorism: “Lions led by asses”

In December of 1998, then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet wrote in an internal Central Intelligence Agency memorandum that “We are at war” with Osama bin Laden and that he wanted “no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [Intelligence] Community.”

But a 2005 report from John L. Helgerson, the CIA’s inspector general, parts of which were declassified this week, found that Tenet failed to follow through and create a plan for countering the terrorist threat posed by bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

The report, requested by the House and Senate intelligence committees after the release of their Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, was to determine if any CIA employees “were deserving of of awards for outstanding service . . . or should be held accountable for failure to perform their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.”

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The 19-page executive summary (PDF) of the report was released this week as a result of an amendment to a bill implementing some 9/11 Commission recommendations which President George W. Bush signed earlier this month.

Very little in this executive summary is new or disagrees with the Joint Inquiry report, which predated the 9/11 Commission, and focused on the nation’s intelligence agencies’ failure to detect or prevent the September 11, 2001, attacks. But the report does name names and recommend that specific CIA officials be investigated further for their individual failures.

The full report by the inspector general, totaling several hundred pages, remains classified. As spelled out in the executive summary that was released on Tuesday, the report found neither “a single point of failure” nor a “silver bullet” that would have allowed the C.I.A. to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. It found that no agency employee violated the law and that none of their errors amounted to misconduct.

But the report did conclude that C.I.A. resources devoted to counterterrorism had been mismanaged, and that some had been redirected away from Al Qaeda toward other parts of the agency’s clandestine service. It cited “failures to implement and manage important processes, to follow through with operations, and to properly share and analyze critical data.”

The report does not cite the names of the officials who it says “did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner,” but it identifies some of them by title. Besides Mr. Tenet, the report criticizes James L. Pavitt, the C.I.A.’s former deputy director for operations; J. Cofer Black, the former director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center; and other top officials. — New York Times

The conclusion of the report you should read for yourself:

(U) The Team found no instance in which an employee violated the law, and none of the errors discussed herein involves misconduct. Rather, the review focuses on areas where individuals did not perform their duties in a satisfactory manner; that is, they did not — with regard to the specific issue or issues discussed — act “in accordance with a reasonable level of professionalism, skill and diligence,” as required by Agency regulation. . . .

(U) The findings of greatest concern are those that identify systemic problems where the Agency’s programs or processes did not work as they should have, and concerning which a number of persons were involved or aware, or should have been. Where the Team found systemic failures, it has recommended that an Accountability Board assess the performance and accountability of those managers who, by virtue of their position and authorities, might reasonably have been expected to oversee and correct the process. In general, the fact that failures were systemic should not absolve responsible officials from accountability. — OIG Report on CIA Accountability With Respect to the 9/11 Attacks (PDF)

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But current CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, and his predecessor Porter Goss, rejected this recommendation, and no accountability boards were ever formed. “Director Goss noted at the time that the officers cited include some of our finest,” Hayden said in a statement accompanying the report. “With inadequate resources, they and those they led worked flat out against a tough, secretive foe.” In government, working hard is a sufficient defense for incompetence.

Hayden also objected to the document’s release.

“While meeting the dictates of the law, I want to make it clear that this declassification was neither my choice nor my preference,” Hayden said.

“I thought the release of this report would distract officers serving their country on the frontlines of a global conflict. It will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed. I also remain deeply concerned about the chilling effect that may follow publication of the previously classified work, findings, and recommendations of the Office of Inspector General. The important work of that unit depends on candor and confidentiality.”

In other words, only the government should monitor the government. We the people can’t really be made privy to the government’s budgets, decisions, people, or operations. Even with regard to something as innocuous as the intelligence community budget, only the bureaucracy and a handful of cleared congressional officials deliberate.

Yet the review finds that even after Tenet declared “war,” even after he ordered that no resource be spared in the counterterrorism effort, even after he had gained all necessary authority to move money and people — not only wasn’t it done, but the CIA Counterterrorist Center didn’t even spend its entire budget. And then the center complained that it could not afford to put an officer at the National Security Agency because it did not have the resources. . . .

Whether through secret budgets or bureaucratic selfishness, this is the way the intelligence community works. Heck, this is the way the CIA itself works, with one group not cooperating with another, with one office in competition with another, with the prestige stations and locations looking down on the less fortunate.

Now we are supposed to believe that, after 9/11, all of those old problems have been resolved. — Early Warning

And if you believe that, I’ve got a hot tip on the whereabouts of Osama, too.

Tenet defends his record at the agency, calling the report’s conclusions “flat wrong” and blaming, in part, the scaling back of the intelligence community in the 1990s. “For me, however there was no priority higher than fighting terrorism,” Tenet said in a statement. “As I said to the 9/11 Commission: ‘No matter how hard we worked — or how desperately we tried — it was not enough. The victims and the families of 9/11 deserved better.'”

Remember, in government, working hard means you can’t be judged incompetent.

But former CIA analyst Ray McGovern told the BBC the inspector general’s criticism was justified.

“– [George Tenet] was too busy schmoozing with foreign leaders and getting sort of swamped with the detail that he forgot that his job was to manage the intelligence community and so the cracks such as existed became wider and wider. He didn’t talk to the FBI and 9/11 happened.”

Meanwhile, the former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, described the agency’s rank-and-file employees under Mr Tenet as “lions led by asses”.

“Many of the difficulties that were listed in that report today ‘ the inability to share information, the lack of people to support and run operations against Osama bin Laden ‘ those were problems that were brought to Mr Tenet’s attention as early as 1996 and he never did anything about them,” he told the BBC. . . .

But Lori Van Auken ‘ whose husband, Kenneth, died in the World Trade Center attack ‘ said of the report: “We’re talking about complete and utter incompetence, and people should be held accountable and we should know who they are–” — BBC News

CIA incompetence is, of course, nothing new. The I, after all, stands for incompetent. DCI Hayden, for his part, says things are getting better and the CIA is “self-aware, self-critical, and, to a great degree, self-improving.” But the evidence of that, if there is any, is classified.

One thought on “CIA pre-9/11 counterterrorism: “Lions led by asses”

  • September 11, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    hey, actually I have a question here. Today is 9.11 again and here at work we are discussing whether it is especially dangerous or save today. My collegues think it is especially dangerous but I think that those terrorists are kinda celebrating today and thus it is no real danger of a terror attack today. What do you guys think?

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