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Intelligence Since 9/11

Spencer Michels reports on how September 11th changed the US intelligence agencies. Follow-up Discussion

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    In the days after September 11, pundits and politicians quickly jumped on one phrase to describe the attacks: They called them "the worst intelligence failure in the United States since Pearl Harbor." Just as President Franklin Roosevelt received predictions of an impending Japanese attack somewhere in 1941, President Bush received intelligence warnings that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden wanted to attack America. But Mr. Bush and his advisors, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, maintained their information was vague.


    The overwhelming bulk of the evidence was that this was an attack that was likely to take place overseas. I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center,


    On the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the pentagon, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, linked them to other debacles, including the 1996 truck bombing of U.S. Air Force housing, in Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 servicemen.


    Look at Khobar Towers. Look at the Trade Towers One, as we would call it. Look at today. Look at the U.S.S. "Cole." Look at the strategic intelligence failures some of us called it dealing with the lack of information the Indian nuclear testing. We can go on and on. We can do better. We must do better.


    In 1993, the truck bombing of the World Trade Center by radical Muslims, which killed six people and injured 1,000, put the spotlight on U.S. intelligence and on terrorism in the post-Cold War world. The investigation and subsequent trial provided authorities with new information on the identities, motives and methods, of the terrorists. Some of that information was gathered at this apartment building in Manila, where Ramzi Yousef once lived. He was convicted of plotting the 93 Trade Center bombing. A computer in Yousef's old apartment revealed al-Qaida plans to crash a jet into the CIA, assassinate the Pope, and blow up U.S. jetliners in Asia. Philippine authorities and others managed to thwart those plans.

    Nevertheless, U.S. Intelligence was criticized for failing to stop attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, in 1998, which killed 227 people, attacks U.S. Intelligence said were organized by Osama bin Laden. In October 2000, the U.S.S. "Cole" was bombed by terrorists in the port of Aden in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. There allegedly had been prior U.S. Intelligence, intercepted phone calls by suspected terrorists, and warnings that Yemen was a terrorist base, but that information failed to prevent the attack. At a hearing, Senator Jack Reed questioned General Tommy Franks.


    General Zinni, when he testified and was asked about intelligence assets and availability, his major criticism was, and it's a persistent one, was the lack of human intelligence, the tactical intelligence, the satellite, phone intercepts, all that is…


    Senator, I agree with that.


    Prior to the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11, U.S. Intelligence agencies picked up what looked later to be important information. In June, Newsweek reported the CIA knew of a secret planning summit of al-Qaida operatives in Malaysia, in January 2000; even knew some of their names, but didn't follow up. The Washington Post reported that two months before 9/11, the top counterterrorism official at the National Security Council, Richard Clarke, told high government officials that "something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon."

    Also last summer, an FBI agent in Phoenix urged an investigation of Middle Eastern men suspiciously training at flight schools. The memo was ignored. Around the same time, according to Minnesota FBI Agent Coleen Rowley, Bureau headquarters obstructed efforts to wiretap and search terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who'd been arrested after raising suspicions at a flight school. In May, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about intelligence prior to 9/11.


    What you're asking about is the so-called "dots," and whether or not it was possible for anybody in government to connect all those dots. And the simple answer to that is, as a result of September 11, our government learned a lot of things. There were a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot of changes were made as we evolved from a nation in peacetime to a nation at war.


    This year, Congress is working on legislation to increase by $5 billion to an estimated $35 billion, what it spends on 13 intelligence agencies, both civilian and military. Most goes for sophisticated technical devices; relatively little is for so-called "human intelligence," such as spies and informants. As this "Doonesbury" comic implied, the CIA and the military admitted after 9/11 they had few agents who could speak the languages of Afghanistan, and who had expertise in Islam and of the region. In hearings, members of Congress criticized long-time rivalries between the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies.


    We have found that information sharing, no secret to anybody, has not been our brightest success story.


    President Bush has acknowledged the problem, and has promised more cooperation. While the new Department of Homeland Security would incorporate several existing agencies, that still not include the CIA or the FBI. The new Department would combine intelligence from those agencies and, if needed, issue public warnings. Despite criticism, the President has backed his CIA Director, George Tenet, who testified in February about Osama bin Laden and what went wrong.


    Did we know, in broad terms, that he intended to strike the United States? There's no doubt about that. But is there some piece of information out there, sir, that nobody saw? That's not the case. Where did the secret for the planning reside? Probably in the head of three or four people. And at the end of the day, all you can do is continue to make the effort to steal that secret and break into this leadership structure, and we have to keep working at it.


    Congressional committees have started to look into intelligence failures, but have delayed a full, public probe. In an expression of impatience, the House has voted to create an independent, outside commission, an approach the White House opposes.

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