CIA's Terror Analysis Faulted

CIA Director George Tenet testifying at September 11th commission hearings, 04/14/04. CBS

The CIA lacked the funding or a plan to improve the way it collected and analyzed intelligence on terrorism before Sept. 11, a commission investigating the 2001 attacks reported Wednesday.

CIA director George Tenet insisted that "the warning was well understood" on al Qaeda's danger, but acknowledged "we made mistakes," and estimated it would take half a decade to get U.S. intelligence into fighting shape for the war against terrorism.

In its second day of hearings into warnings of the attacks and the federal response, a report by the commission staffed blamed "too many priorities, declining attention to the craft of strategic analysis, budget constraints, sophisticated denial and deception efforts by adversaries, and security rules" for flaws in CIA analysis on terrorism.

The critique, which mirrored a report on the FBI released a day earlier, indicated the agency was slow to recognize the threat of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Al Qaeda was formed in 1988, but the intelligence community did not document its rise until 1999.

The report said a key question framed by the pre-Sept. 11 failures was: "Who is in charge of intelligence?"

That's a key question facing the bipartisan panel's, whose hearing on Wednesday was to examine ways to prevent future domestic terrorist attacks, including possibly expanding the powers of the director of central intelligence and establishing a domestic intelligence agency, such as MI5 in Britain.

Among those scheduled to testify Wednesday were Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and officials with the Homeland Security Department and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center.

The staff report criticized not only how the CIA analyzed intelligence, but also how it collected and processed it.

"There was not a comprehensive review of what the (intelligence) community knew, what it did not know," the report found.

Weaknesses in analysis were especially evident in the warnings the CIA and did not issue — concerning, for example, the possibility that hijacked jets might be used as weapons.

For years there were signs that terrorists might be contemplating such a plot. In 1994, a small plane crashed into the White House lawn, and Algerian terrorists tried to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower but were unable to pilot the craft.

In 1995, a detained terrorist told Philippines investigators that he considered flying a plane into CIA headquarters. The next year, there was a report that Iranians considered crashing a hijacked plane in Tel Aviv.

In 1998, there was an uncorroborated report of a plot to crash aircraft into a U.S. city, and a foreign government heard word of a plot to hijack a plane to gain the released of terrorists held by the United States.

However, the CIA's counterterrorism center "did not analyze how a hijacked aircraft or other explosives-laden aircraft might be used as a weapon"

It "did not develop a set of tell-tale indicators for this means of attack. For example, once such indicator might be the discovery of terrorist seeking or taking flight training to fly large jet aircraft, or seeking to buy advance flight simulators."

An August 2001 report to top CIA officials titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly," detailing the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, "had no evident effect on warning," the commission reported.

Tenet saw the flaws in terrorism analysis in 2000 and appointed a senior official to correct them. Adding ten staff positions to the counterterrorism center "was seen as a major bureaucratic victory."

Commissioner John Lehman called the report "damning."

Tenet, however, contended that he did have a plan for improving the CIA's abilities by increasing the number of agents and strengthening links within the intelligence community.

"The intelligence that we provided our senior policymakers…was clear and direct," Tenet said. "The warning was well understood even if the timing and method of attacks."

"However, we never penetrated the 9/11 plot overseas," he said. "We made mistakes."

He pointed to the failure to track Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two suspected terrorists who were not added to a watch-list before the entered the country. They were among the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11.

For example, he said there were four separate terrorist identity databases and dozens of terrorist watch-lists.

"No matter how hard we worked or how desperately we tried, it was not enough," Tenet warned, estimating that, "It will take us another five years to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs."

A day earlier, the commission said in a preliminary report that delays and missteps in linking terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui to the al Qaeda terrorist group in the weeks before the attacks were emblematic of chronic problems within the FBI, including limited intelligence and analysis capabilities, outdated technology, poor information-sharing and floundering attempts at reorganization.

The panel's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said two scathing reports compiled by the commission's investigators amounted to "an indictment of the FBI."

Louis J. Freeh, who headed the bureau from 1993 to mid-2001, bristled at Kean's "indictment" charge.

"I would ask that you balance what you call an indictment, and which I don't agree with at all, with the two primary findings of your staff," Freeh said. "One is that there was a lack of resources. And two, there were legal impediments" that made it difficult for agents to pursue terrorism investigations.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno also spoke of a lack of resources but said the FBI did a poor job keeping track of the information its agents gathered.

Her successor, John Ashcroft, defended himself against allegations that he wasn't attentive to the terrorist threat. He blamed the Clinton administration for not acting in the previous eight years.

"The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said.
  • Rebecca Leung

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