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Accountability, Not Excuses

September 29, 2002

The 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 operated with impunity in Europe and the United States. They came and went as they pleased, even in one case calling the Fairfax, Va., cops indignantly after an attempted robbery. In 1998, the CIA declared war against terrorism, but the few warnings from within the intelligence community that might have uncovered the airplane plot were dismissed by higher-ups.

Yet on Thursday, Cofer Black, the former CIA chief of counterterrorism, and Dale Watson, former director of FBI counterintelligence and counterterrorism, told Congress that their agencies were merely underfunded--and as successful as they could be under the circumstances.

Huh? No one likes having their failings publicly exposed, but it defies belief that the intelligence community needed just a few more dollars to stop the hijackers.

Congressional hearings brought to light FBI agent Coleen Rowley's attempts to alert headquarters to potential air terrorism. They exposed the fact that the CIA knew in January 2000 that Khalid Almihdhar, later a hijacker, had attended an Al Qaeda-linked meeting in Malaysia, but that it neglected to put him and an associate, Nawaf Alhazmi (another hijacker) on an immigration watch list until late August 2001. By then they were in the U.S.

For Congress to throw more money at the CIA and FBI and allow them to continue as before smacks of the boards of directors that gave their chief executives big bonuses even while the companies verged on bankruptcy.

What the testimony of Black and Watson pointedly illustrates is the circle-the-wagons mentality that still pervades much of the intelligence community. As former CIA operatives Reuel Marc Gerecht and Robert Baer have recently pointed out, the agency's problems are systemic.

Officers in foreign countries too often do not attempt to penetrate the societies in which they are stationed. The CIA had depicted an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan as virtually impenetrable. But if that were so, why was John Walker Lindh, whose history as a Muslim was brief, able to waltz right in? London had become a hothouse for militant Islam, but the CIA station there in the 1990s didn't have any Arabic speakers. No doubt the CIA and FBI were collecting information on terrorism, but information, as Thomas Powers points out in the Oct. 10 New York Review of Books, is not tantamount to intelligence.

The Times' Greg Miller has reported that the CIA has done everything in its power to prevent House-Senate investigators from obtaining information about its performance.

Maybe CIA counterterrorism efforts should receive a 100% increase in funding, as Black maintained before Congress. But not before the ills of the intelligence community are studied by an independent panel. It would be reassuring if intelligence officials were less concerned about safeguarding their reputations and more aggressive about improving efforts to protect the country.

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