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What Went Wrong?

April 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout its hearings, the Sept. 11 Commission routinely has released an initial report on a specific area of its investigation. Yesterday’s report, read by staff director Philip Zelikow, was highly critical of the FBI prior to the 9/11 attacks. Zelikow was back before the commission today, with a report that was no more complimentary of the CIA and its counterterrorism center.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: While we now know that al-Qaida was formed in 1988 at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the intelligence community did not describe this organization, at least in documents we have seen, until 1999. As late as 1997, the Counter Terrorist Center characterized Osama bin Laden as a financier of terrorism. There were no complete authoritative portraits of his strategy, and the extent of his organizations involvement in past terrorist attacks. Nor had the community provided an authoritative depiction of his organization’s relationships with other governments, or the scale of the threat his organization posed to the United States.

Our investigation so far has found the intelligence community struggling to collect on and analyze the phenomena of transnational terrorism through the mid-to late-1990s. While many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece together the growing body of evidence on al-Qaida and to understand the threats, in the end it was not enough to gain the advantage before the 9/11 attacks. While there were many reports on bin Laden and his growing al-Qaida organization, there was no comprehensive estimate of the enemy, either to build consensus or clarify differences.

With the important exception of attacks with chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons, the methods developed for decades to warn of surprise attacks were not applied to the problem of warning against terrorist attacks. In intelligence collection, despite many excellent efforts, there was not a comprehensive review of what the community knew, what it did not know, followed by the development of a community-wide plan to close those gaps.

KWAME HOLMAN: Staff director Zelikow addressed in particular the role of CIA, Director also called the DCI, Or director of central intelligence, who for the last eight years has been George Tenet.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The DCI Labored within and was accountable for a community of loosely associated agencies and departmental offices that lacked the incentives to cooperate, collaborate, and share information. Like his predecessors, he focused his energies on where he could add the greatest value the CIA, Which is a fraction of the nations overall intelligence capability. As a result, a question remains: Who is in charge of intelligence?

KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, George Tenet made his second public appearance before this commission — and while commissioners complimented Tenet for his dedication and years of service…

JOHN LEHMAN: You are a very entrepreneurial, gutsy guy, who has worked very, very hard on this problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: …Several commissioners– John Lehman among them– argued the CIA had failed in many of its reform efforts.

JOHN LEHMAN: We’ve been struck by– and when I say, "we," I mean most of the commissioners and all of the staff– by a real difference between our interaction with FBI And our interaction with the agency. The bureau, while it’s been defending various actions and issues, has fundamentally admitted they’re in an agency that is deeply dysfunctional and broken. And make no bones about it, whereas the attitude we kind of get from CIA is… and institutionally is that, "hey, you know, we’re the CIA" Kind of a smugness and even arrogance towards deep reform.

That report that you heard this morning was a damning report, not of your actions or the actions of any of the really superb and dedicated people that you have, but it was a damning evaluation of a system that is broken, that doesn’t function. And I’m here to tell you– and I’m sure you’ve heard it before– there is a train coming down the track. There are going to be very real changes made.

GEORGE TENET: First of all, I want you to know that I have serious issues with the staff statement as it was written today. I have serious issues about how the DCI’s authorities have been used to integrate collection, operations. When the staff statement says the DCI had no strategic plan to manage the war on terrorism, that’s flat wrong. When the staff statement says, "I had no program, strategic direction in place to integrate, correlate data, and move data across the community," that’s wrong.

I just want to say to you that I would like to come back to the committee and give you my sense of it, at the same time telling you it ain’t perfect. And by no stretch of the imagination am I going to tell you that I’ve solved all the problems of the community, in terms of integrating it and lashing it up, but we’ve made an enormous amount of progress. I would tell you also that… and this is the perspective I lived. Nobody else can live what I lived through. I believe that if you separate if you separate the DCI from troops, from operators and analysts, I have a concern about his or her effectiveness, his or her connection.

Now, you may want to have a different structure, you may want to have a different CIA, Sir, in terms of how you manage it, so there may be some things we can do there, but I wouldn’t separate… I wouldn’t separate the individual from the institution.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commission Chairman Tom Kean asked Tenet about his statement that it would take five years to rebuild the CIA’s clandestine service, responsible for intelligence gathering and analysis.

THOMAS KEAN: I wonder whether we have five years. And that’s what when you say five years to rebuild the agency, that worries me a little bit.

GEORGE TENET: Well, sir, you know, you have an infrastructure, you have a recruiting framework, you have a quality control, you have a student-to-faculty ratio, and you have a big pipeline. We built all of that in to make sure we can get this done. Nobody was paying attention to the plumbing. It’s not sexy. You got to pay attention to the plumbing. And the bottom line is, to do this right, to build the platforms and access and cover and technology that we need it’s budgeted for; the president has recognized it… it’s going to take another five years to build the clandestine service the way the human intelligence capability of this country needs to be run.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Jim Thompson wondered whether the CIA Should absorb some of the responsibilities currently held by the FBI.

JAMES THOMPSON: Is there any reason why the domestic intelligence functions of the FBI Could not be placed under the CIA?

GEORGE TENET: Lots of good historical reasons, lots of privacy reasons, lots… just lots of reasons, sir. I think that this is not appropriate. I would not want to be in a position where the DCI, given our statutory framework, our laws, our privacy, our history, I don’t think it’s appropriate.


SPOKESMAN: This is the last question, commissioner.

JAMES THOMPSON: Why is privacy more of a concern under the CIA than it would be under the FBI?

GEORGE TENET: Well, sir, since I don’t want to be flip about this, since we operate almost extensively in an overseas environment, we operate with a certain degree of impunity with regards to other countries’ laws. Since we’re operating clandestinely and collecting clandestinely, and we’re not going to a judge to tap somebody’s, whatever we’re doing, or launching surveillance, it’s a different context for us.

KWAME HOLMAN: While some commissioners looked ahead, several still weren’t satisfied with answers about past events. Commissioner Bob Kerrey:

BOB KERREY: Let me just ask you, I know that this is your transitional moment, so this is ’96 to ’97. Did you ever have a conversation with President Clinton where you told him that al-Qaida was a substantial military effort, that they were responsible for shooting down our helicopters in Mogadishu, that there was a substantial military threat to the United States of America, that we ought to ramp this guy up to the top of the list?

GEORGE TENET: Sir, I will go back and look at my… I didn’t come prepared with what happened in… I’ll go back and look at my records, look at the data dissemination, go back through the meetings that were held at the time and give you an answer to the question.

BOB KERREY: I say, director, this is the reason I think this is central, because we have heard, I mean, I’ve heard a series of excuses from Sandy Berger, Bill Cohen, Madeleine Albright, Don Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, all kinds of rationalizations. And one of the things I’ve heard over and over and over was the American public wouldn’t have supported any action had we taken action before 9/11.

Now, I got to tell you, I think if the president of the United States of America had come and said that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida is responsible for shooting down a black hawk helicopter in Mogadishu in 1993, I believe that that speech would have galvanized the United States of America against bin Laden. I just can’t believe that public opinion wouldn’t have been on his side just like that. Don’t you think so?

GEORGE TENET: Sir, I’ll go back and look at it all and come back to you.

BOB KERREY: Did you bring that information to the president and say this is an army that’s been engaged in an effort against the United States of America all the way back at least to 1993?

GEORGE TENET: Whether I took it back to ’93 or not, sir, I don’t recall. But we certainly walked through al-Qaida, its organization, the threat it posed, its previous affiliation with bombings and activities over a concerted period of time. But I’ll go back and look at whether that was specifically raised. I don’t recall it.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon the commission turned its attention back to the FBI, and to what improvements the bureau has made under the leadership of director Robert Mueller. Commission staff member Christine Healey:

CHRISTINE HEALEY: Because of Director Mueller’s efforts, there is widespread understanding that counterterrorism is the FBI’S number one priority. However, many agents in the field were offended by the directors statements that the FBI needs a new, proactive culture. Some agents who had worked counterterrorism cases before 9/11 felt prevention had always been part of their mission. We also found resistance to running counterterrorism cases out of FBI Headquarters.

Many field agents felt the supervisory agents in the counterterrorism division at headquarters lacked the necessary experience in counterterrorism to guide their work. Director Mueller’s articulation of priorities has reached the field. FBI personnel consistently told us the current policy is that no counterterrorism lead will go unaddressed no matter how minor or far-fetched. Recruitment of sources has increased, but agents recognize more sources are needed. Michael Rolince, who at the time was acting assistant director of the Washington field office, told us that although the FBI knows ten times more now about the radical Islamic community in his territory than it did before 9/11, its knowledge is at about 20 on a scale of one to 100.

Another ongoing problem is the shortage of qualified language specialists to translate the intercepts. While highest priority cases are supposed to be translated within 24 hours, the FBI cannot translate all it collects. According to a recent report by the Department of Justice inspector general, the FBI shortages of linguists have resulted in thousands of hours of audiotapes and pages of written material not being reviewed or translated in a timely manner.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commission report also the progress of the FBI’s information sharing capabilities, both internally and with outside agencies such as the CIA

CHRISTINE HEALEY: One official told us that headquarters personnel visiting the field have been amazed at the information they found in the paper files. Agent after agent told us that the primary way information gets shared is through personal relationships. There does not appear to be any recognition that this system fails in the absence of good personal relationships. Many current officials told us the FBI still does not know what information is in its files. Furthermore, the Department of Justice’s inspector general reported in December 2003 that the FBI Had not established adequate policies and procedures for sharing intelligence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Mueller became FBI Director just seven days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and this afternoon he told the commission he believed the bureau has been making steady progress ever since.

ROBERT MUELLER: Starting that morning, protecting the United States from another terrorist attack became our overriding priority. Every FBI manager understands that he or she must devote whatever resources are necessary to address the terrorism priority, and that no terrorism lead can go unaddressed.

The second step was to mobilize our resources to implement this new priority. Starting soon after the attacks, we shifted substantial manpower and resources to the counterterrorism mission. Another step was to centralize coordination of our counterterrorism program. And this centralization, this fundamental change has improved our ability to coordinate our operations here and abroad, and it has clearly established accountability at headquarters for the development and success of our counterterrorism program.

The bureau is moving steadily in the right direction, and we are making progress thanks to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of the FBI.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mueller then directed his remarks to those commissioners who might recommend removing some of the FBI’s responsibilities.

ROBERT MUELLER: I do believe that creating a separate agency to collect intelligence in the United States would be a grave mistake. Splitting the law enforcement and the intelligence functions would leave both agencies fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind their backs.

The distinct advantage we gain by having intelligence and law enforcement together would be lost in more layers and greater stove-piping of information, not to mention the difficulty of transitioning safely to a new entity while terrorists seek to do us harm. The FBI’s strength has always been, is, and will be in the collection of information. Our weakness has been in the integration, analysis, and dissemination of that information, and we are addressing these weaknesses.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it is those weaknesses that concerned Commission Chairman Thomas Kean.

THOMAS KEAN: Everybody likes you, everybody respects you, everybody has great hopes that you’re actually going to fix this problem. And I guess the decision which I got to make as a commissioner here is, can you fix it? And if you can’t fix it, then we’ve got to make some recommendations and structural changes that may be able to fix it.

ROBERT MUELLER: Well, in response to the question, I think we can and are fixing what has been wrong with the FBI. If you look at the IBM’s or the GE, the Gerstner or the Welches, they will tell you there are a number of components to transforming an organization. If you look at those who study this, they will tell you that it takes time to transform an organization. There will be 30 percent that will be with you from the outset; there will be 30 percent that are there to be persuaded; and there’ll be 30 percent that really resist the change for a variety of reasons. I think we’re on the right path.

KWAME HOLMAN: The question of whether Robert Mueller can correct the FBI’s internal problems became the theme of the afternoon session. Commissioner John Lehman referred to the culture of the FBI.

JOHN LEHMAN: Many of us on the commission have been hung up on the "Cole" case because it’s a very interesting case study of how the process works there’s an attack. Everybody knows who done it. The day it happens, everybody knows. When we ask why then, weren’t… wasn’t the president, President Clinton, told who done it? Why then, four months later, wasn’t President Bush told? And the answer we got back from three authoritative witnesses was, we had to wait until we created the evidence or gathered the evidence that could get an indictment. Now many of us were incredulous to hear that from three very senior officials, but that’s what I mean by culture.

ROBERT MUELLER: Since Sept. 11, that has changed dramatically. We all, myself included… I mean, I was a prosecutor before. My natural inclination prior to Sept. 11 is look in the courtroom. Today I understand the importance of getting information to the policymaker so that decisions can be made far outside the ambit of a courtroom in order to respond to attacks. I do believe it’s important for us that whenever there is an incident, any intelligence that we get, any information on that incident automatically ought to go to the CIA, ought to go to the president, so they can make decisions as to what to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Tim Roemer:

TIMOTHY ROEMER: My question to you is the following, and give it your tour de force and your passion and convince me and, you know, other people in America. With so little confidence right now in the FBI and the stakes being so large for the security of the country, why should we give the FBI another chance?

ROBERT MUELLER: Well, let me just start at the outset and say I don’t agree with your assumption that the confidence in the FBI is so low. If you go around this country, if you go overseas, if you go into your communities, if you talk to people, they have a tremendous respect and a belief in the capability of the FBI. We have changed to meet threats in the past. We will change to meet this threat. But I do not believe, I do not believe that the American public has lost confidence in the men and women of the FBI.

To the contrary, I think perhaps if you get outside of Washington you will find and in your communities, in your cities, in your towns that the FBI has a tremendous amount of respect from the community, but also from state and local law enforcement. I believe that every one of us, men and women of the FBI, and I don’t care whether they are agents or analysts or support, they have a dedication and a duty to protect the United States, and we have spent 12 hours a day since Sept. 11 in the execution of that duty. And I think it would be a mistake to not give that due consideration as you make your decision.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commission has two more rounds of public hearings scheduled. The next will be in New York City in May. It will focus on the 9/11 plot and emergency response. Commissioners also will interview the president and vice president at some undisclosed place and time before they prepare their final report for release in late July.