Regarding the CIA’s latest self-assessment
Amy Zegart — who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is danieldrezner.com’s official go-to source on this issue — e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA’s latest effort at self-criticism: Say it ain’t so. The CIA has just finished an internal review of 9/11, and may be gearing up for disciplinary action against ...
Amy Zegart -- who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is danieldrezner.com's official go-to source on this issue -- e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA's latest effort at self-criticism:
Amy Zegart — who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is danieldrezner.com’s official go-to source on this issue — e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA’s latest effort at self-criticism:
Say it ain’t so. The CIA has just finished an internal review of 9/11, and may be gearing up for disciplinary action against some former big wigs, including CIA Director George Tenet, Jim Pavitt, who headed the agency’s spy branch, and Cofer Black, who used to run the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. I can hear the drums and chants already : “Hold them accountable!” Let us leave aside for a moment the irony that the fate of these men now rests in the hands of Porter Goss, the current CIA chief who chaired the House Intelligence Committee before 9/11 — and who was “shocked shocked” to discover so many failures in the agency he was so vigilantly overseeing. Let us also leave aside the fact that these guys don’t exactly come across as the most sympathetic figures, slam dunking their way to presidential medals and all. The fact is that holding a few people responsible for the failures of 9/11 is comforting but dangerous. Comforting because it makes us feel safer that there’s someone to blame. Dangerous because it leads us to believe that if only a few individuals had done their jobs better, 9/11 could have been averted. The reality is much worse: yes, individuals made mistakes. But it was the system that failed us. And until we fix these systemic problems, nobody should be sleeping well at night. Case in point: why didn’t the CIA watchlist Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, 2 of the 9/11 hijackers that first came to the attention of agency officials back in January 2000, when they attended a terrorist meeting described by one intelligence official as “the al Qaeda convention”? The simplest answer: keeping track of foreign terrorists had never been standard practice or a high priority. For more than 40 years, the Cold War had dominated both the thinking and operation of the CIA and the other agencies of the US intelligence community. When the Cold War ended and the threat changed, US intelligence agencies were slow to change with it. Before 9/11, in fact, there were no formal training programs or well honed processes for identifying dangerous terrorists and warning other US government agencies about them before they reached the US. CIA officers let Mihdhar and Hazmi into the country not because they failed at their jobs, but because they never considered watchlisting to be a part of their jobs. CIA leadership could only do so much to fix these kinds of problems because they were decades old and built into the structure, fabric and thinking of the intelligence community. Tenet, for example, actually did try to improve longer-term, strategic analysis in the CIA’s counterterrorism center before 9/11, but his efforts were doomed before they ever began. Three reasons explain why: 1) Location. When the Counterterrorism Center was created in 1986, it was housed in the Directorate of Operations, the CIA’s spy branch, rather than inside the agency’s analytic division. For analysts, this was like operating behind enemy lines. The Directorate of Operations was home for people who ran spies, stole secrets, and conducted clandestine operations, not for egghead analysts who sat in cubicles piecing together information about distant threats. Location ensured that the Counterterrorism Center would give short shrift to strategic analysis from day one. 2) Culture. Nowhere was the “need to know” and aversion to information sharing more deeply rooted than inside the clandestine Directorate of Operations. Clandestine officials for decades had viewed analysts with suspicion, even disdain. So deep was the divide between them and analysts that when the Counterterrorism Center was first created, clandestine officers assigned there requested additional safes and procedures to keep their information out of the hands of analysts working alongside them. 3) Career incentives. For analysts, the fast track to promotion required focusing on current intelligence and staying close to home. During the 1990s, the rise of 24 hour news cycles put so much pressure on analysts to provide current information, many joked that the CIA had become “CNN with secrets.” For a savvy career minded analyst, the only thing worse than getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis was getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis outside the CIA’s analytic branch–precisely what Tenet was trying to do in 2000 and 2001. Little wonder he found strategic analysis in counter-terrorism so weak, and why he struggled with such little success to fix it. After 9/11, the congressional intelligence committees found that on average, counter-terrorism analysts had less than half the experience of analysts in the rest of the CIA. Ironically, career incentives meant that the unit most in need of experienced analysts did not have them. Tenet and company may not deserve any medals. But let’s not kid ourselves: searching for a few bad apples will not fix what’s wrong in US intelligence.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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