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The Washington Times

Eyes wide shut

September 29, 2002
Page: B08

Joshua Sinai

"Breakdown" is the inside story of the intelligence community's failure to anticipate, preempt, and prevent the horrific simultaneous suicide aircraft bombings of September 11. According to Bill Gertz, the book's author, and others, al Qaeda's success in carrying out these attacks represented a Pearl Harbor failure of catastrophic proportions for the nation's counterterrorism community.

One of the many strengths of this important book is that Mr. Gertz places the September 11 attacks in context. He sees the assaults as much more than a single counterterrorism failure and he presents instead a chronicle of this nation's ineffectuality in thwarting previous al Qaeda attacks going back to the early 1990s. In his view the events of last fall represented a systemic failure encompassing all aspects of U.S. counterterrorism.

Mr. Gertz, a reporter on the national desk of The Washington Times, is considered one of America's leading national security investigative journalists. His unparalleled access to contacts and knowledge of America's intelligence/counterterrorism system makes him ideally suited to dig deep into what is, by any measure, an embarrassing episode of tragic proportions.

The pages are sprinkled with one major insight after another from the country's leading counterterrorism experts, such as James Woolsey (former director of the Central Intelligence Agency), Oliver "Buck" Revell (former associate deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for counterterrorism), retired Gen. Patrick Hughes (the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency), Angelo Codevilla (former congressional intelligence committee staffer), and others - whose wisdom about what went wrong needs to be incorporated into the congressional committees and national commissions that have been created to assess shortfalls and recommend solutions.

According to this account, the counterterrorism components in the CIA, the DIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency completely broke down in the 1990s. Despite "the most formidable intelligence-gathering system in the world," Mr. Gertz writes, there was a "succession of missed opportunities, undetected - until too late - attacks, and unfortunate surprises that have been the hallmark of U.S. intelligence agencies over the last five decades."

The attacks against the United States by al Qaeda and its network of affiliates that necessitated a much more pro-active and vigorous U.S. counterterrorism response began in the early 1990s. In 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian-American Islamicist, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane (in one of the book's few errors, the author misspells Kahane's first name). However, as Mr. Gertz points out, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a bigger plot involving blueprints in Nosair's possession to bomb New York City landmarks, including the World Trade Center. However, nothing was done at the time to sift through these blueprints, leaving al Qaeda's cell free to carry out the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Gertz cites numerous other examples of missed signals that could have thwarted future attacks, but the most glaring, in light of what happened on September 11, was the failure to follow through on the plots by Ramzi Yousef to hijack or use civilian aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. Yousef was the leader of the initial World Trade Center bombing, who was apprehended in 1995.

Despite the failed attempt by an Algerian affiliate of al Qaeda to plunge a civilian airliner into the Eiffel Tower in 1994 - it failed because the hijackers lacked flight skills - and the subsequent training of Islamic terrorists to fly aircraft, U.S. intelligence agencies appeared to be completely oblivious to al Qaeda's intention to use civilian airliners to launch catastrophic attacks against the American homeland.

The systemic problems in the U.S. intelligence apparatus Mr. Gertz criticizes began with wrongly assuming that Osama bin Laden was "primarily" a financial backer - but not a major organizer - of terrorism. They continued with an ineffectual intelligence covert operations capability to track, penetrate and preempt al Qaeda.

Mr. Gertz writes that President Bill Clinton's response to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa was "anemic" because its "primary goal here, as always, was to identify terrorists, capture them and return them for prosecution in a court of law. It was a reactive strategy that did nothing to deter attacks. Even the administration's extremely limited military counterstrikes were designed to send political signals rather than do actual damage to terrorists, their supporters, and the infrastructure they used."

Domestically, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI were hampered from carrying out effective intelligence operations in the United States because of a host of legal restrictions. This was a serious problem that paved the way for the FBI's inability to track all the al Qaeda operatives who were training at U.S. flight schools.

For example, as Mr. Woolsey told Mr. Gertz, "The FBI guidelines required . . . a very clear criminal predicate in order to open a full-scale investigation" - but by the time a specific act is already planned, intelligence gathering in the form of surveillance and penetration would be too late. Mr. Gertz also criticizes the FBI for its previous "law enforcement" as opposed to the needed "intelligence" culture, which is necessary to track and preempt terrorist groups from mounting their operations during the crucial incubatory pre-incident phases.

Congress also is subjected to Mr. Gertz's criticism. He writes: "By 2001, congressional oversight of intelligence had two results. First, it had left the intelligence services burdened with a combination of restrictions, constraints, and funding controls produced during the destructive period of the Church and Pike committees. Second, and in reaction to the first, it left Congress uninterested in performance-based oversight, which meant, ultimately, that millions of dollars were wasted on bureaucracy rather than intelligence achievement."

In his incisive conclusion, Mr. Gertz proposes a blueprint to reform and improve America's intelligence capabilities. He recommends a new clandestine service to replace the CIA's Directorate of Operations and the DIA's Defense HUMINT Service that would conduct more extensive intelligence operations; a new domestic counterintelligence service based on the British MI-5 that would work closely with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to collect intelligence on terrorist groups and a new clandestine military intelligence apparatus that would be absorbed into the military services in order to directly feed intelligence to the warfighting community.

The latter's clandestine operations force would also conduct military campaigns against terrorist groups.

In one of his most controversial recommendations, Mr. Gertz proposes the reorganization and renaming of the CIA into a "central analysis agency" that would produce analysis and technology research - but not covert operations - based on a new system of "competitive analysis" with outside specialists.

There is little likelihood that the current intelligence apparatus will change bureaucratically to accommodate Mr. Gertz's prescriptions. Nevertheless, it is likely that the Bush administration's emphasis on upgrading the intelligence community's counterterrorism capabilities on all fronts and at all levels and streamlining it through the newly formed Department of Homeland Security will result in incorporating Mr. Gertz's insights into what constitutes effective counterterrorism.

Mr. Gertz's book is highly accurate, except for one omission, which actually is not the author's fault. One of his sources, Marvin Cetron, a leading Washington-area futurist, is portrayed as having "produced" the 1995 report entitled "Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terrorism," for the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. That study, in fact, was a joint effort by Mr. Cetron and Peter Probst, at the time a special assistant for concept development at OSD SO/LIC, who served as the primary author of the report's terrorism sections. Mr. Probst, who has since retired from the Pentagon, is currently a leading consultant on terrorism issues.

"Breakdown" is the most insightful and penetrating of the books published so far about the organizational and analytical intelligence problems that led to the catastrophic attacks of September 11 and, as such, should be required reading for those who are committed to transforming those problem areas into solutions.

Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst on terrorism issues at ANSER (Analytic Services). He teaches a course on "Forecasting Terrorism" at the Internet-based American Military University, and a course on "Long-Term Forecasting" at George Washington University.


By Bill Gertz

Regnery, $27.95, 273 pages