A Cabinet Post for Intelligence?


Permit me to be immodest: You read it here first, a year ago in my article "Terrorist Sleepers - An Ancient Threat," (DefenseWatch, Nov. 28, 2001), unless you lived in San Diego, Cal., because I first published on this subject in 1993 in The San Diego Mensan. I wrote that:

The U.S. government should not hesitate to use its expanded anti-terrorism powers to monitor and surveil all Islamic Clerics who support Muslim extremists. Any non-citizens residing in this country should not be exempt from the full power of the law aimed at thwarting future terrorist strikes, including tribunal hearings and immediate summary executions following conviction of terrorist actions. And the U.S. government should not hesitate to press upon foreign governments to put the same effort to bear on such clerics operating in foreign countries. Furthermore, where such cooperation is not forthcoming, we should take direct action ourselves to eliminate these overt threats.

I made this point a decade ago, and again forcefully just a year ago. So what have we actually done about it?

A better question might be: What have we actually not done about it?

According to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, "There have been more massive failures of intelligence on [George Tenet's] watch as director of CIA than any other director in the history of the agency. Yet he's still there. It's inexplicable to me."

About the FBI, Shelby said: "[The FBI] is fundamentally incapable in its present form of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist threats."

Shelby is a member of the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee that just submitted a report on the 9/11 attacks after an exhaustive, 10-month investigation.

Senator Bob Graham, D-FL, another committee member, said that "George Tenet declared a war on al Qaeda in 1998. The problem is that most of his troops didn't hear that a war had been declared or didn't respond to the trumpet call."

Let's take a close look at some of these intelligence failures.

According to the committee, the FBI failed to grasp the significance of a communication sent from an agent in the bureau's Phoenix office in July 2001. This agent had identified a group of Middle Eastern men with extreme anti-American beliefs who were training as pilots at flight schools in the United States. The FBI did not connect the Phoenix memo with the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was later indicted for complicity in the hijackings. Furthermore, neither the FBI nor the CIA assessed the potential threat he posed in light of the heightened fears of a terrorist attack in the summer of 2001.

In June 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies collected information on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operative who has been linked to several plots, including a 1995 scheme to crash a plane into CIA headquarters and to a key planner of the 1993 trade center bombing, and who was the architect of 9/11. They knew that Mohammed planned to send terrorists to the United States, and to direct their activities here.

The CIA did not alert other agencies about the terrorist links of Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, who had been in Malaysia and who lived in San Diego a year before they took part in the hijackings. The United States had intercepted phone calls from one of these hijackers to a suspected Middle East terrorist facility, but failed to make the connection until after Sept. 11.

The committee accuses Saudi Arabia of not cooperating with the Sept. 11 inquiry. It says the FBI did not aggressively investigate a series of payments from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States to a man who had met with Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi when they living in the United States.

The committee report also attacks the National Security Agency for failing to translate and analyze critical information.

The report identifies disorganization, lack of focus, translation errors, and a lack of collaboration between intelligence agencies for undermining chances of uncovering and preventing 9/11. The prevailing U.S. government assumption before September 11 was that such attacks "could not happen here." According to the report, "there was insufficient effort to alert the American public to the reality and gravity of the threat."

In summary, the report says the agencies failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information, so that the agencies missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining hijackers; to try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work in the United States; and to generate a heightened state of alert.

The report stops short of specific accusations against individuals, but committee member Sen. Shelby is issuing his own supplementary report wherein he is very specific.

Referring to the CIA, Shelby concludes that a new agency and a new director are critical. He says the position should be like the chief executive of intelligence. "Short of that," Shelby said, "we're going to continue to have a lot of principalities, a lot of dukedoms, and no one really in charge of the intelligence community."

Shelby doesn't confine his criticism to the CIA. He says the FBI "is fundamentally incapable in its present form of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist threats."

In principle, I like to see government shrink rather than grow. I also understand that our various intelligence agencies were created, historically, for very specific reasons, and that they serve special interests, especially within the military. Nevertheless, in today's terrorism-driven environment, we simply cannot afford another intelligence fiasco like that described here. We absolutely must find a way to link our various intelligence efforts into a single whole.

Furthermore, assuming we actually accomplish this, we need to prevent the military branches from creating new separate intelligence gathering units that don't report to the unified system. The two-way communication must be complete and reliable, and it must be totally secure. If the military intelligence agencies benefit from the new order while experiencing no down side, no lapses of security, they will be more likely to cooperate fully.

Is this best accomplished by creating a new cabinet post? I'm reluctant to go that route, if only because of the tremendous expansion of government it entails. The CIA already exists. It could become the real central agency for intelligence, in the sense that the director would be the senior intelligence spook, period. All the other agencies would report to him, by law.

In this plan, the CIA would reorganize so that the current agency would become but a sub branch of the new agency, as would the NSA, the various military intelligence agencies, and the other intelligence units scattered throughout the government. Part of the reorganization would entail eliminating duplication within the several branches, and, perhaps, creating one or more new branches that handle elements currently scattered among them all.

Who the new director would report to is not so important as is the consolidation of all the agencies. Homeland Security, Defense, or State seem obvious candidates. It really doesn't matter, so long as the new agency's power over intelligence is absolute.

The FBI needs to remain where it is, but much of its intelligence operations, at least as they relate to terrorism and espionage, should shift to the new, expanded CIA Furthermore, the lines of communication between the two agencies should be open and complete.

A consolidation of intelligence in the United States is doable without creating another cabinet post. Let's take what we have and force it into a new suit of clothes without buying a whole new wardrobe.