looking for answershomesaudi arabiaegyptintelligence failurediscussion


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.

Fmr Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.)
Rudman was chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1997 to 2000.

· read rudman's full interview

Were the events of Sept. 11 the result of an intelligence failure?

Of course it was an intelligence failure. By definition, when something bad happens to you, and you didn't know about it, it's an intelligence failure. The more important question is, is it something that we likely should have found out? I say no.

Look, U.S. intelligence knew in November of 1941 that the Japanese fleet was moving about the western Pacific. I mean, they were watching the fleet. They couldn't quite figure out the intentions until December 7.

In Europe, in November of 1944, American intelligence and British intelligence knew the Germans were massing forces in and around the Ardennes. They didn't know why until the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1990, we were aware Saddam Hussein was making unusual movements of armored forces in his country, in various places. We didn't know why until he invaded Kuwait. You know, how many times does that have to happen before you realize that intelligence on intentions is very difficult to ascertain? ...

And anybody who believes that intelligence, even with beefing up human intelligence, will be good enough to predict that these shadowy organizations can be penetrated in a way that we will be able to, with impunity, determine what they're going to do and where and when they're going to do it -- they're just whistling in the cemetery. That is not going to happen. ...

Understand the duties of intelligence agencies. We have to know about people's capabilities. We have to know about their capacity to injure us. We would like to know their intentions. But I will repeat to you: We do find out intentions some of the time, but not all of the time. And in this business -- it's a zero-sum business -- if you don't find it all the time, then what happened in New York is what will happen again, chilling as that may be. ...

Well, there's some indications. Israelis, in particular, although they have some interest in this obviously, are saying now that it looks like there may be some Hezbollah involvement, looks like there may be some Iraqi involvement, and they're also pointing their finger at this man, Zawahiri, who's an Egyptian ally of bin Laden's.

... Mossad, according to the press, had told American authorities that there were a large number of people that they believed were terrorists, who they had information were making their way into the United States. That's very important information. What do you do with it? Well, you try to locate these people. We've got 3.5 million people a day crossing our borders. 380,000 vehicles. You know, 58,000 containers on ships. It's very hard, with that kind of raw information, to target it.

I'm not making apologies for the intelligence community. They can defend themselves. I'll make this observation: If we think that intelligence is going to give us the weapon to prevent this from happening -- all the time -- we're wrong.

Bill Esposito
Esposito was a deputy director of the FBI during the Clinton administration.

· read esposito's full interview

Why do you think this happened on Sept. 11 and we weren't able to stop it?

If I had that answer, I'd probably be the richest man in the country. The United States is an open society. ... There are a lot of people who cross our borders every day, who fly into this country, a lot of people who get visas, who go to graduate school here, who work here. And we, as a government, do not track every one of these people. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't. There's too many of them. When a group of individuals get together and decide to commit an evil act, a lot of times law enforcement finds out about it and they prevent it. Sometimes they can't. If they're a group that is very closed-mouth, that watch what they're doing, it is very hard, no matter how much intelligence you have. ...

The way this has been unfolding, it seems like everyone was asleep at the wheel, because all of these guys from the Middle East were taking flight training courses here in the United States.

Today, after Sept. 11, it looks like, "Why didn't anybody know that?" But before Sept. 11, you have a situation where you have a number of people, and it's just not people of Arabic extraction. It's a number of people signing up for flight schools and taking lessons. We've gone through a couple years where the economy has been real good in this country. More people are flying, more people are buying planes, small planes, for their own use. So it probably was not out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, I'm convinced of that, because if it was out of the ordinary, there would have been more calls into law enforcement about what was going on. ...

If you were an agent and you got a phone call before Sept. 11 saying, "There is a man with a Saudi passport taking commercial flight training here at my school, and I'm suspicious," could you open a case?

Probably just on that, no. Not unless you checked the name and found out that this was a name that was actually tied to a terrorist cell somewhere. ... If you checked their name and maybe did a credit and criminal check, track it through some other type of indexes that the government has and came up negative, then you'd probably say, "Let me know if you see anything else."

So you couldn't just get a national security wiretap or...

No, not just because somebody of a foreign nationality was going to flight school. I mean, there's people that do that every day. ...

Do you think it's basically that this was not an intelligence failure, that this was just inevitable because of the kind of society we have?

It's a hard question to answer. To say that because of our society, anything that happens, so be it--that's not totally accurate. Having an open society, as I discussed earlier, doesn't help the situation. But that's the kind of society we also want. ...

Rich DiSabatino
DiSabatino is director of Intelligence Support Group Ltd., a private company.

· read disabatino's full interview

How come we didn't have a prior warning--at least from all the electronic eavesdropping that we do, and on someone like bin Laden, who was obviously a target of our intelligence agencies?

Bin Laden as a target is an extreme target. It's very hard to do. And one of the reasons is because of the technology that's involved. Bin Laden's group has notoriously used scramblers, internet encryption, fiber optics; and it's been very hard for us to intercept that type of transmission. ...

Now wait a second. I thought we were able to take this stuff out of the sky, let's say, and not only listen to it and record it, but we have computers that can decrypt it.

Well, we are probably one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. However, we have a long way to go, especially with a new threat such as sophisticated targets, such as bin Laden. For instance, we can receive information and it could be processed automatically on keyword recognition. However, if that information was scrambled or encrypted, you would not be able to even hear the keyword until it was processed in the clear.

He makes a phone call or a bunch of people in Afghanistan are making a phone call. We can collect that, right?

That's correct. If it's being transmitted in the airwaves, we could collect that.

So can't we just listen to it at that point?

No, at that point, it would have to be decoded. For instance, if it was a digital phone, it would come across in digital process. In intelligence gathering, that information is recorded and then processed at a later date.

So it's not done usually in real time?

Not unless it's an active surveillance. Usually there's such an amount of information that's being gathered that it has to be processed at a later time, post-processed. ...

So it's not surprising to you that, despite all of our electronic eavesdropping, we didn't have anything to lead us to believe that something was going on.

No, not at all. The [lack of] advanced notice is not surprising, because of the amount of time that it would take to decode, the amount of time and manpower and budget requirements that it would take to do this on all the targets throughout the country; actually, throughout the world. ... Because of the level of sophistication, it was impossible to figure out what was going on in a real time mode, in a mode that would have given us the proper warning for the constraints that were on our intelligence agency at the time.

Congressman Porter Goss (R-FL)
Goss is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

· read goss's full interview

How is it that we didn't have any advance warning of this particular act?

Well, we certainly had plenty of alerts that there was something going to happen. What we didn't have was the where, and the when, and the how. And no matter how hard we tried, there are enough of these terrorists out there now that they can occasionally make things happen that we are not going to know about, because we do not have enough resources deployed across the network to know all of these things timely. That's a sad state of affairs, and one that needs to be repaired. But it would be absolutely wrong, as some have suggested, to say this is the greatest intelligence failure or law enforcement failure or FAA failure or border immigration-type failure that we've ever had. It's a combination of all things. They simply, very cunningly in this case, and got through the net, because they outthought all of the systems we have in place and did it very well. This is crafty, cunning terrorism. ...

The job of the intelligence community is prediction and prevention, and the World Trade Center is not an unusual target. It's not something that hasn't even been hit before, and they take it down.

Yes. The point is, should we have known with specificity a date and a time and a place that the Trade Center was going to be hit again? The answer is that I wish I could say yes. But we do not have the capability right now to know all of those things. ...

I know that there was much amusement in the phrase "new world order" after the Soviet empire crumbled and the wall went down. Actually, things are different, and you can describe it any way you want, but it is a new world. We have different kinds of threats, and some of our defense capabilities and some of our intelligence capabilities are designed for the old order. We need to readjust them and design them for the new order. ...

Six thousand dead people, the way it happened, is an aberration of horror. The fact it was committed by human beings is what makes it worse. The question of, can you stop human beings like that on a day-in day-out basis? The answer is, no. You simply cannot stop somebody who is bent on suicide and doing mayhem.

Now, can you stop something as organized as that? ... And even though it was simple in its concept, it took some complication to make it all happen and execute. You ought to be able to stop that. And the answer is, yes, we can stop that.

But you cannot go through the day every day on high alert. One of the biggest problems we have had in the past six months with all of the alerts that we are getting -- and we are getting them from walk-ins, we are getting them from all of our sources, we're getting them from the rumor mill, we're getting them from the usual suspects -- suddenly we've got this abundance of information coming in, saying, "The sky is going to fall soon." ... How often can you keep your troops on alert? ... You just can't keep them on alert every day, because after a while, alert doesn't mean anything. ...

There are not enough people to examine all the information. We are inundated with tidbits of information. Finding in these ever-growing haystacks the nuggets, the needles that we need, has become increasingly difficult, because the haystacks have taken on a culture of their own now. ...

We don't have enough analysts. We are hopelessly underinvested in analysts. These are again, the language people, the people familiar with the culture, the people who have actually been on the street in Khartoum or wherever you want to go, who understand a little bit what this means.

Sitting in a chair one way might mean something to one person; it might be unremarkable to somebody else. If you know the culture and see the way a person is gesturing with his hands or his feet or something, you get a message that you might not get if you don't understand the culture. So it is critical that we have those people. We're horrendously underinvested in them. ...

Jeffrey Smith
Smith was general counsel of the CIA from 1995 to 1996.

· read smith's full interview

The CIA's job is to predict and prevent damage to the United States.


It didn't happen this time.

Terrible failure. The CIA was created in 1948 to prevent another Pearl Harbor, and their most important job is warnings of attacks on the United States. That's what they spend a lot of time on, and in this case, it was a terrible failure. Nobody feels that more than the U.S. intelligence agencies. And as we speak, they're working as hard as they can, pouring every resource, every ounce of energy they can into finding out who did this, finding out whether there are any future attacks being planned, and trying to prevent it. But there is no way to say this other than it was a terrible failure, and to learn the lessons from it that we must.

The difference with Pearl Harbor is that in the wake of Pearl Harbor, within ten days, the admiral who was in charge of the Pacific Fleet at the time, was demoted, and a national, if you will, compromise was worked out, where we said we wouldn't investigate until the end of the war to figure out exactly what should be done in the future. In this case, it just seems as if we're continuing on. What is our intelligence community up to?

Well, they have been very successful in the past. They have predicted a number of things. They have been able to prevent a number of terrorist actions--everything from drug activities in Central and South America, the U.S. intelligence community has been successful in; but they've had terrible mistakes. The downing of the innocent airplane over Peru is clearly another example of a failure.

This is a very difficult business, and chemical and biological weapons are particularly difficult to attack. If you can brew beer, you can make a biological weapon. If you think for a moment about the number of breweries in the world, is it reasonable to expect that any organization could identify every brewery in somebody's garage, in some obscure part of the world, that might be trying to "cook" a biological weapon that they want to launch against the United States? It is physically not possible, and I think that nothing would be served by having an exercise in keelhauling U.S. senior intelligence officials right now.

Nobody feels worse than they do. Nobody is more dedicated than they are, right now, to finding out what went wrong, fixing it and preventing this in future. My own view is that we ought to look at the procedures and rules under which they operate. We ought to look at the manner in which cooperation occurs or doesn't occur between the U.S. intelligence community and the law enforcement community. We ought to look at the way in which our government deals with foreign governments, the amount of information shared back and forth, and we need to build the kind of coalitions that the president is talking about.

home +  introduction +  saudi arabia +  egypt +  intelligence failure +  islamic terrorism
reporting from the ny times +  interviews +  video +  discussion
tapes & transcripts +  press +  credits
frontline privacy policy +  FRONTLINE +  pbs online +  wgbh

photo copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



Solitary NationApril 22nd