The Case for Smart Intelligence

Calls to make it easier for intelligence agencies to spy on US citizens and visitors have emerged with disturbing regularity in the wake of September 11. The myth underlying the rush to usher in a new era of domestic surveillance suggests that if only Congress had not unwisely "shackled" these agencies with well intentioned reforms that limited their ability to collect information, the Pentagon might have five sides and the twin towers would still stand proudly in lower Manhattan's skyline.

It's becoming increasingly clear, however, that September's intelligence failure stemmed not from the inability to collect data, but from law enforcement's inability to analyze and act on information already in hand.

This view cannot be dismissed as partisan carping, because many of the calls for institutional reform have come from Republican senators responsible for oversight of the services, and from veterans of the services themselves. A careful read of military trade publications, mainstream and conservative dailies and news networks clearly indicates that the security establishment should have been aware that terrorists were planning to target urban icons with hijacked commercial airliners, and that efforts to track and apprehend suspects were hampered by bureaucratic paralysis rather than too few clues.

Intelligence lapses are not new -- they date back at least to the Truman administration, when the CIA was organized and shortly thereafter embarrassed by the surprise explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949. Sidetracked by national revolutions, assassination plots, UFOs, LSD experiments and allegations of abetting crack dealers, the Cold War-era agency was sufficiently distracted from its primary function of intelligence gathering and analysis to leave America's leaders ill prepared for such events as the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and the invasion of Kuwait.

FBI effectiveness during the 1960s and 1970s was similarly compromised by political and personal agendas. (The war against Black nationalists and Vietnam War opponents and J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with bedroom snooping come to mind.) The post-Hoover FBI has made efforts to transform and professionalize itself, but can't seem to free itself from persistent scandals and outdated systems.

Despite recent embarrassments like misplacing 3,135 pages of evidence from the McVeigh case and employing a Russian spy in its highest ranks, the FBI will likely continue lobbying for a vote of confidence to allow it to scan in-transit email for keywords and provide it with back doors to encrypted communications. The idea that the FBI can prevent terrorist attacks if allowed to collect more information about more people is not supported by post-Sept. 11 disclosures. In fact, information about at least some of the hijackers was in its hands prior to the attacks, and with some old fashioned shoe leather and a check of vehicle records, credit files and flight bookings, it might have been able to stop at least some of the terrorists from boarding their flights.

The attackers' methodology should not have come as a surprise. America's security establishment ignored repeated signals that international terrorists were planning to use commercial passenger jets as explosive devices against high profile targets.

* Gerald Carmen, a Reagan-era government official, wrote in the Washington Times, "I recall discussions on the threat of terrorism and the possibility of hijacked planes being used as weapons. This threat was recognized 20 years ago or longer."

* In 1986, American officials were aware of a thwarted plan by Hezbollah terrorists to blow up a hijacked Pan Am flight over Tel Aviv.

* In December 1994 French paratroopers stormed a hijacked Air France airliner after learning that the bin Laden-linked Algerian Groupe Armee Islamique planned to crash the Airbus A-300, full of fuel and dynamite, into the Eiffel Tower.

* In 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad told police in the Philippines of his intentions to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into CIA headquarters. Murad was an associate of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 truck bombing at the World Trade Center, and had trained at four US flight schools.

* The FBI has known for three years that bin Laden operatives were training to become pilots in the US, according to an Oct. 14 report in the Los Angeles Times.

* One of them, Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, was taken into custody on Aug. 17 after telling a Minnesota flight school that he wanted to learn how to fly jumbo jets, but not land them.

* The New York Times last week quoted government officials saying that "the CIA got a series of intercepted communications and other indications that al-Qa'eda might be planning a major operation."

Moreover, bin Laden himself had not been particularly shy about warning the world of his intentions.

* In the summer of 1998, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammad, who described himself as "mouth, eyes and ears of Osama bin Laden," described the objectives of his patron's holy war against the US: "Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks."

* Seven weeks before the Twin Towers attack, bin Laden sat alongside aides who briefed the pan-Arab TV channel MBC of an impending "big surprise" in the form of "a hard hit against US and Israeli targets across the world." He also told the London-based editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper to watch for a "huge and unprecedented attack."

As other nations became increasingly concerned about the al-Qa'eda danger, they began sharing intelligence with the US, which continued to go about business as usual.

* The latest edition of Jane's Intelligence Digest reports that "claims that Western intelligence services failed to gather vital information about Osama bin Laden,the al-Qa'eda network and links between the Taliban regime and Pakistan have been exposed as fallacy by the leaking of an astonishingly detailed report. Compiled by Russian intelligence, the report was passed by Moscow's Permanent Mission at the UN to the Security Council and the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan."

The document, presented to the Security Council's Committee on Afghanistan on March 9, 2001, detailed explicit intelligence about 55 al-Qa'eda bases and named seven of its top officials. Conventional wisdom is that President Bush -- like his predecessor who was similarly presented with detailed information pinpointing al-Qa'eda targets -- opted not to take military action for fear of disrupting US efforts to further Israeli-Palestinian peace.

* Also ignored was a French intelligence report on al-Qa'eda, which was passed to the FBI earlier this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. A month after its receipt, an FBI official acknowledged that the report had not been translated into English.

* Despite 240 suicide attacks in recent decades "outside Israel and Sri Lanka," security expert Rohan Gunaratna writes, "there has been little or no thinking on how to protect its human and infrastructure targets from airborne suicide attack." Another case in which the information was there, but the response wasn't.

* Contrast that with the FBI's quick and decisive action in the arrest and detention of programmer Dmitry Sklyarov in July after speaking at a conference about a processor he developed to allow conversion of Adobe eBooks into unencrypted Portable Document Format.

The conversion of the nation's most important law enforcement agency into the computer industry's copyright infringement police is no trivial matter, given the stakes to our nation. Initiatives intended to close the intelligence gap by throwing money at the problem will no doubt pass Congress, but bigger budgets alone won't solve the problems.

"The excuses we hear are a lack of resources and some sort of deterioration that has taken place because of well-intentioned rules and regulations to protect our civil liberties. This is absurd on the face of it," wrote Reagan-appointed Ambassador Carmen in the Washington Times. "Having run an agency myself, you never have enough resources, you never have enough good people, and you never have the right kind of organization. What has to be done by the senior people is to prioritize their objectives, doing the most important ones first. There is always enough money for the most important ones."

Those sage words have not yet registered with the FBI brass. Even following the attack, the FBI's response at best lacks direction and at worst has begun reverting to the type of behavior that characterized the agency's excesses during the time of J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. Among the troubling indications:

* A blanket roundup of 650 people in the wake of Sept. 11 pulled in many individuals with no terrorist links, including cases of mistaken identity, such as San Antonio radiologist Dr. Al Badr Al-Hazmi, who was held for 13 days because his name was similar to two of the hijackers.

* A police chief in Worcester, Mass., ordered a peace rally to be photographed, saying he had "been instructed by the FBI to take photos of all demonstrations." In that rally, members of the Worcester Peace Works exercised their constitutional rights by holding signs reading "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

* The FBI has attempted to question a Berkeley woman about her peaceful protests against Israel's occupation of Palestinian areas."It's certainly possible," Kate Raphael told the San Jose Mercury News this week, "that the FBI don't understand the difference between a lesbian peace activist and Islamic fundamentalist men who crash planes into buildings. But that's a sad statement about our government."

The squandering of agency resources on non-criminal targets is particularly appalling given Sunday's Los Angeles Times report regarding hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. Added in August to an immigration watch list because of their connections to the bombing of the USS Cole last year, the INS informed the FBI that the two had entered the US already. The FBI forwarded the case to its Los Angeles office around September 9, but did not check California Department of Motor Vehicles records, which would have given them a San Diego address, or Alhazmi's Visa card, which he used to purchase his ticket on Flight 77 for September 11. That plane slammed into the Pentagon.

Clearly, overhaul of the nation's intelligence gathering systems should be a top national priority. Counterterrorism, to be effective, will require good management of information, skilled analysts, a lot more translators, infiltration of terrorist organizations and teams focused on tracking known terrorist groups rather than broad dragnets that compromise the constitutional rights of non-terrorists.

An ill advised campaign to replace poison cigars and Bulgarian umbrellas of Cold War days with profiling, national ID cards and a new generation of invasive spying technologies like Carnivore will no doubt continue. But collecting more data through surveillance won't do any good if agencies fail to act on it, as appears to be the case with the pre-Sept. 11 al-Qa'eda intelligence.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already called for the "transformation of intelligence gathering" in the DOD's Quadrennial Defense Review Report, released Sept. 30.

Fox News reports that attempted to garner support for ousting CIA director George Tenet in the days following Sept. 11. One of them, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, was quoted in the Washington Times, saying, "We cannot afford anything less than the best. We can do better with our intelligence agencies." He added sardonically, "This was not an intelligence success, clearly."

President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, told the Washington Post after the Cole attack, "In 14 years of government service in three administrations I observed many historic crises, and in every one the consolidated product of the intelligence bureaucracy either failed to provide warning, as in Kuwait, or was grossly wrong in its assessment, as in the Yom Kippur War."

Preventative intelligence doesn't photograph as well as retaliation, so it won't be the lead story on Headline News. It's a smart investment though, with knowledgeable, considered execution that avoids overreach, intrigue and obsession with expensive gadgetry.

Dan Pulcrano is editor of the Metro Silicon Valley weekly newspaper.

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