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We're still vulnerable

The CIA has not fixed organizational flaws that allowed 9/11 to happen.

August 24, 2007|Amy Zegart | Amy Zegart is an associate professor of public policy at UCLA and the author of "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11."

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden finally declassified 19 pages of the agency's voluminous internal 9/11 review on Tuesday. Now we know why the CIA fought Congress to keep that report deep-sixed for the last two years: It points fingers, outlining exactly who screwed up and how. At the top of the hit list: former CIA Director George J. Tenet, former clandestine service chief James L. Pavitt and former Counterterrorism Center Director J. Cofer Black.

But there's just one problem: These guys aren't to blame for 9/11.

It's comforting and easy to find fault with a few men at the top. But the ugly reality is that 9/11 stemmed from a far more frightening cause: the inability of our entire intelligence system to adapt to the rise of terrorism after the Cold War ended. Organizational breakdown, not individual error, is the key to understanding what went wrong -- and what is still wrong six years later.

Intelligence officials and policymakers often complain that hindsight is 20/20. But terrorism wasn't some far-fetched menace that nobody saw coming before 9/11. Every annual CIA threat assessment to Congress between 1994 and 2001 listed Al Qaeda among the most serious dangers to U.S. national security. Terrorism warranted mention in every State of the Union address in that period too. In the decade leading up to 9/11, a dozen different blue-ribbon reports examined U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities and warned that reforms were urgently needed. They issued a combined total of 340 recommendations. Almost none were implemented before 9/11. Most produced no action whatsoever. No meeting. No memo. No phone call.

On Tuesday, Hayden expressed his deep displeasure at releasing a summary of the internal 9/11 review, complaining that its public airing would "consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed." Huh? Three of the four major failings outlined in that secret review have yet to be corrected. America's CIA chief has no business whining about our obsession with the past until the agency he leads shows it has learned from it.

The CIA report's headline conclusion was that before 9/11, "neither the U.S. government nor the intelligence community had a comprehensive strategy for combating Al Qaeda." Today, two years later, the U.S. government's strategy for combating Al Qaeda seems to be creating more Al Qaedas. We now know -- from a separate intelligence report declassified last month -- that Al Qaeda is stronger than ever in Pakistan. We also know that a new Al Qaeda affiliate is operating in Iraq, and that Al Qaeda-inspired homegrown terrorists are on the rise across the globe.

The CIA report also harshly criticized agency leaders for giving short shrift to big-picture strategic analysis before 9/11. It found, among other failings, that CIA analysts never provided a comprehensive assessment about Al Qaeda, never put into context the spike in terrorist-threat reporting during the spring and summer of 2001 and paid scant attention to the threat of a terrorist attack in the United States.

Not much has changed. In 2005, a blue-ribbon, bipartisan presidential commission found that strategic analysis of the world's most dangerous states was poor and probably getting worse. In 2006, Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearings that he worried about the crush of current demands on CIA analysts. Unless the agency got serious about improving its big-picture thinking, Hayden warned, the U.S. would be "endlessly surprised." And this year, the most comprehensive report on the changing terrorist threat didn't have a CIA seal on its cover -- it came from the New York Police Department.

And then there's coordination. Like all of the reports from the 1990s, the CIA's 9/11 review found the CIA and other intelligence agencies failed to act as a unified team. Today, that team is bigger than ever: 16 federal intelligence agencies, a growing number of state and local intelligence organizations, plus more than 40 new "fusion centers" that are supposed to integrate terrorist-related information coming from government and private-sector sources.

The net result? Coordination is better in some areas, worse in some and nonexistent in others. The fusion centers in particular are operating willy-nilly, without a national plan or mission, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. They're so disjointed they lack even standard forms and terminology to relay vital threat information to officials in Washington.

So before you take solace in the fact that the CIA has finally aired some of its dirty laundry and assigned blame to specific people, consider this: Six years after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, Tenet and company are all gone -- but most of the CIA's greatest weaknesses are still with us.

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