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why did u.s. intelligence fail september 11th
American intelligence experts assess the specific reasons for the Sept. 11 intelligence catastrophe, as well as the larger flaws in the system -- from bureaucratic obstacles and regulatory constraints to agencies' rivalries, lack of resources, and poor coordination in sharing information. Plus, links to significant readings on U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism.

arrowWhy Did U.S. Intelligence Miss the Sept. 11 Plot?

Why no prior warning? Were there clues pointing to it? Or, did the nature of this terrorist attack make it inevitable? Those are the questions, and here are some answers from: former Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1997 to 2000; Bill Esposito, former deputy director of the FBI; Rich DiSabatino, director of Intelligence Support Group Ltd.; Congressman Porter Goss (R-Fl.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel of the CIA.
arrowThe Constraints and Obstacles Facing U.S. Intelligence

In these excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews, experts point to a web of laws, regulations, and policies that have hindered American counterterrorism operations in recent decades -- from the ban on political assassinations to bureaucratic recruitment polices and prohibitions. Others cite the lack of qualified personnel and an intelligence culture that has not adapted to a post-Cold War world. Here are the views of Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel of the CIA; Lewis Schiliro, former assistant director of the FBI from 1998 to 2000; Congressman Porter Goss (R-Fl.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and Bill Esposito, former deputy director of the FBI.
arrowRich DiSabatino

Rich DiSabatino is the director of Intelligence Support Group Ltd., a private company providing electronic intelligence training, support, and equipment to government, military, and law enforcement agencies within the U.S. and approved foreign countries. Here, he warns of the limitations of electronic intelligence, arguing that it can only augment human intelligence, not replace it. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowBill Esposito

A former deputy director of the FBI in the Clinton administration, Bill Esposito talks about the need for far better working relations between the FBI and CIA, and the lack of agents skilled in Arabic languages. Esposito doesn't believe that the Sept. 11 attacks were the result of intelligence failures. Despite the sophistication and reach of U.S. intelligence, he tells FRONTLINE, it is still very difficult to detect some of the more stealthy terrorist groups. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowPorter Goss

The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a former CIA officer, Porter Goss (R-Fl.) says the intelligence community was unprepared for the new terrorist threat. He calls for a new emphasis on qualified personnel to infiltrate terrorist organizations and analysts who can decode and understand the information gathered by electronic and other surveillance methods. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowWarren Rudman

A former U.S. senator, Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) chaired the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1997 to 2000. Together with former Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), he also chaired a bipartisan commission that studied issues of national security for more than two years and issued its findings in January 2001. Rudman tells FRONTLINE he was not surprised by the Sept. 11 attacks and points to a failure of U.S. intelligence. However, he argues that although intelligence agencies may be able to assess security threats, they are rarely able to predict terrorists' intentions. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowLewis Schiliro

Until his retirement in 2000, Lewis Schiliro headed the FBI's New York bureau, where he supervised several counterterrorism investigations, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He questions whether the U.S. has had enough resources for intelligence operations and whether it has the will and the technical ability today to infiltrate terrorist groups. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowMichael Sheehan

From 1998 to 2001, Michael Sheehan was the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State. He calls the Sept. 11 attacks a failure of intelligence and says that the scale of the attack was completely unexpected. Sheehan offers insight into the structure of Al Qaeda, as well as Osama bin Laden's relationship with the Taliban and his role as psychological leader of an international organization. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
arrowJeffrey Smith

Jeffrey Smith was general counsel of the CIA from 1995 to 1996, during which time he was instrumental in drafting new regulations governing the conduct of U.S. intelligence activities. Here, he reflects on claims that those regulations -- as well as regulations prohibiting political assassinations and governing the surveillance of foreign agents -- have hamstrung the intelligence community. Although some procedures and policies may need review, he concludes those policies did not necessarily lead to the intelligence failure of Sept. 11, 2001. He warns that the regulations were put in place for good reasons and should not "be thrown out just because of this one terrible intelligence failure." This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.
links & readings
arrow"U.S. Commission on National Security Report"

Former Senators Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security, whose mandate was to examine issues of national security facing the U.S. in the 21st century. The final section of its three-part report, delivered on Feb. 15, 2001, is punctuated by some 50 recommendations for strengthening the country's defense. One of those recommendations calls for the establishment of a cabinet-level agency to coordinate homeland defense, much like the one created by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (Click here to download a PDF version of the report.)
arrow"Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism"

This is the 2000 report of the National Commission on Terrorism, which was set up by Congress in the aftermath of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Recent commentators have called the report prescient; the commission predicted that there would be a terrorist attack on the United States on the scale of Pearl Harbor. It also noted that our multibillion-dollar counterterrorism effort designed to thwart and warn against such an attack is plagued by procedures that have made it difficult for the CIA to employ "the services of clandestine informants" while the FBI "suffers from bureaucratic and cultural obstacles in obtaining terrorism information."
arrow"Combating Terrorism: Issues in Managing Counterterrorist Programs" (PDF Only)

In a statement before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in April 2000, Norman Rabkin, director of the U.S. General Accounting Office's National Security and International Affairs Division, says that much of the federal efforts to combat terrorism have been "based upon vulnerabilities rather than an analysis of credible threats." He summarizes the obstacles facing U.S. counterterrorism issues, including the need for more cooperation between government entities at the state and federal levels.
arrow"Navigating Through Turbulence: America and the Middle East in a New Century" (PDF Only)

This January 2001 report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- by a bipartisan group of policymakers and experts including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and other notables -- includes a section titled "Terrorism: Strengthen Response to New Threats." (Click here to download it in PDF.)
arrow"Terrorism and U.S. Policy"

This April 2001 panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution featured Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and author of Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (Brookings, 2001). "In this critical study, a career CIA officer provides a guide to constructing and executing counterterrorist policy, urging that it be formulated as an integral part of broader U.S. foreign policy." (Click here for an overview of Pillar's book, and the full text of the first chapter, available on the Brookings site.) Also on the panel were: Patrick L. Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; John Parachini, executive director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Washington Office; and R. James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence.
arrow"The CIA's Weakest Link"

In this article from the July/August 2001 issue of The Washington Monthly, Loch Johnson, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, argues that "the nation's spy agencies are still relying on a technological edge to keep the country abreast of looming international crises, and are giving short shrift to the people who synthesize and interpret the mounds of intelligence pouring in from around the globe."
arrow"The Counterterrorist Myth"

Writing in The Atlantic Monthly for July/August 2001, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former official in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, argued that the U.S. counterterrorism program in the Middle East and its environs is virtually nonexistent.
arrow"The Intelligence Gap"

Seymour M. Hersh, in the Dec. 6, 1999, issue of The New Yorker, takes a critical look at the National Security Agency, which during the Cold War "played a dominant role in American intelligence gathering behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere." As Hersh reports, "the decline of the N.S.A. is widely known in Washington's national-security community."
arrow"Countering the New Terrorism"

A 1999 RAND study "traces the recent evolution of international terrorism against civilian and U.S. military targets, looks ahead to where terrorism is going, and assesses how it might be contained."
arrow"The New Threat of Mass Destruction"

Writing in the January/February 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard K. Betts, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of political science at Columbia University, offered "a prescient discussion of the dangers of terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland and our failure to protect against them."
arrow"Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"

In 1998, four years after the CIA's discovery that one of its top agents, Aldrich H. Ames, had been spying for the Soviet Union, "Edward Shirley," a pseudonymous former officer for the CIA's Directorate of Operations, detailed how and why the agency's shadow had been severely foreshortened in crucial intelligence areas. (From The Atlantic Monthy, February 1998.)
arrow"Think Again: Terrorism"

In the Fall 1997 issue of Foreign Policy, former CIA director John Deutch argued that "controlling terrorism will require new mechanisms of cooperation -- both nationally and internationally -- between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Effective action must be simultaneously defensive and offensive and inevitably requires some compromise of civil liberties."

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