Why Counter-Terrorism Is in Shambles
Editor’s Note: A blogger with the PBS’ NewsHour asked former CIA analyst Ray McGovern to respond to three questions regarding recent events involving the CIA, FBI, and the intelligence community in general.
A couple of other individuals were asked identical questions, queries that are typical of what radio/TV and blogger interviewers think to be the right ones. So there is merit in trying to answer them directly, such as they are, and then broadening the response to address the core problems confronting U.S. counter-terror strategies.
After drafting his answers, McGovern asked former FBI attorney/special agent Coleen Rowley, a colleague in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, to review his response and add her own comments at the end. The resulting Q and A is below:
Question #1 – What lapses in the American counter terrorism apparatus made the Christmas Day bombing plot possible? Is it inevitable that certain plots will succeed?
The short answer to the second sentence is: Yes, it is inevitable that “certain plots will succeed.”
A more helpful answer would address the question as to how we might best minimize their prospects for success. And to do this, sorry to say, there is no getting around the necessity to address the root causes of terrorism or, in the vernacular, “why they hate us.”
If we don’t go beyond self-exculpatory sloganeering in attempting to answer that key question, any “counter terrorism apparatus” is doomed to failure. Honest appraisals would tread on delicate territory, but any intelligence agency worth its salt must be willing/able to address it.
Delicate? Take, for example, what Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the “mastermind” of 9/11, said was his main motive. Here’s what the 9/11 Commission Report wrote on page 147. You will not find it reported in the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM):
“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed…from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”
This is not the entire picture, of course. Other key factors include the post-Gulf War stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, widely seen as defiling the holy sites of Islam.
Add Washington’s propping up of dictatorial, repressive regimes in order to secure continuing access to oil and natural gas — widely (and accurately) seen as one of the main reasons for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not to mention the Pentagon’s insatiable thirst for additional permanent (sorry, the term is now “enduring”) military bases in that part of the world.
The writers of the 9/11 Commission Report made a stab at puncturing the myth about “why they hate us” (and actually succeeded in giving the lie to familiar bromides like “they” hate us for our democracy, our freedoms, our way of life, and so forth). See, for example, pp 374-376 of the Commission Report.
But, you may object, I am not answering the first question posed above; I am, rather, fighting the problem.
Not true. I am trying to address the right question…trying to deal with causes, not just symptoms and consequences. The first question, as posed, deals in a familiar way with symptoms of the core problem but not the core itself, and thus tends to obscure the essence of “why they hate us.”
There are over 1.2 BILLION Muslims in the world, many of whom watch nightly TV coverage of the violence resulting from U.S. military and political support for Israel (including, for example, Washington’s acquiescence in the brutal Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza one year ago) and from U.S. actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
And what is the puerile approach taken by not only the politicians but also by the clueless amateurs who now lead the intelligence community: No problem, they say. Technology permits us to build a database of one billion names….easy!
Right. And how to find needles in that haystack. Easy? A database of “only” 550,000 names did not prevent the Abdulmutallab caper, did it?
Can the prevailing vacuum-up-everything-and-follow-every-lead attitude be chalked up to pure adolescent-type inexperience, innocence, incompetence? Not pure — not by a long shot. One has to ask Cui Bono? Who profits?
It is so painfully obvious. Here, in microcosm, is an example of what Eisenhower warned of when he coined “military-industrial complex.” Cui bono? Think the contractors who create marvelous databases — and the mindset of: the-more-contractors-and-databases-the-merrier.
Think also of snake-oil salesmen like former Justice Department and Homeland Security guru Michael Chertoff, who could not resist the temptation over the past several days to keep hawking on TV the full-body scanners marketed by one of the Chertoff Group’s clients.
2 – Has the new intelligence bureaucracy created after the Sept. 11th attacks functioned correctly? How could it be improved, or was it a good idea to create it?
The creation of the post of Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the 170,000-person Department of Homeland Security was the mother of all misguided panaceas.
Bear in mind that the general election of 2004 was just months away when the 9/11 report was published, and lawmakers and administration functionaries desperately needed to be seen to be DOING SOMETHING. And, as is almost always the case in such circumstances, they made things considerably worse.
The 9/11 Commissioners had been fretting over the fact that, in their words, “No one was in charge of coordination among intelligence agencies.” That was true, but only because George Tenet preferred to cavort with foreign potentates and thugs, than to do the job of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).
It was not a systemic problem, but one of personal irresponsibility. Ignoring that, a new systemic “solution” was sought, and implemented, where none was needed. By statute, the Director of Central Intelligence was responsible precisely for coordinating the work of the entire intelligence community, as the principal intelligence adviser to the President (National Security Act of 1947).
This, indeed, was the main reason why Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency and put the DCI in charge not only of the CIA but gave the DCI wider — and equally important intelligence community-wide responsibilities.
The idea was to prevent another Pearl Harbor, where bits and pieces of intelligence lay around with the code-breakers, the Navy, the Army Air Corps, the FBI, Embassy Tokyo, the people monitoring Radio Tokyo, etc., etc. with no central place where analysts could be in receipt of and consider all the evidence.
It was abundantly clear to Truman that, had there been such a place in 1941, adequate forewarning of the Japanese attack would have been a no-brainer.
As for the situation obtaining in the Washington bureaucracies in 2004, this personal vignette, I believe, speaks volumes:
On the day the 9/11 Commission Report was issued BBC-TV had scheduled me for comment on it, minutes after its release, at the BBC bureau in Washington. I drove home the amazing point that NO ONE, NO ONE, NOT ONE SOLITARY SOUL WAS BEING HELD ACCOUNTABLE!
As I left the TV studio for the outer room, in walked 9/11 Commissioners Jamie Gorelick and former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Washington, to present their own commentary to BBC viewers. Gorelick went right into the studio; I took advantage of being one-on-one with Sen. Gorton.
“Sen. Gorton,” I asked, “I don’t quite understand all this talk alleging that ‘No one is in charge of the intelligence community.’ You are surely aware that, by act of Congress, there is such a person, and right now that happens to be Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.”
The avuncular Gorton tiptoed up to me, put his right hand around my shoulder, and with a conspiratorial whisper said, “Yes, Ray, of course I know that. We all know that. But George would not take charge; he would not do what he was supposed to.”
True, this was hardly news to me, but coming from a 9/11 Commissioner? I was about to respond with something like, “So you need to create another layer, a superstructure over existing arrangements, to address that problem?”
But, as it happened, just then the BBC studio door opened, Gorelick emerged, and Horton went in. Gorelick was too busy to answer the question I had posed to Horton.
The new Director of National Intelligence? This post, created by the post-9/11 “reforms,” was/is totally unnecessary — and counterproductive — as was entirely predictable. As my former CIA colleague Mel Goodman has written, the DNI superstructure has actually been very destructive of good intelligence … in more ways than I have space to go into here.
The fact that no National Intelligence Estimate has been completed on Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, is unconscionable. Were the generals and admirals afraid that CIA analysts might come up with politically incorrect judgments?
The National Counterterrorism Center? Also unnecessary; a benighted idea. The recent attempt by Mr. Abdulmutallab to bring down a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight speaks volumes about the NCTC’s effectiveness and the kind of leadership exercised by John Brennan — a clone of George Tenet.
We are told that Brennan is supposed to coordinate things at the National Security Council ... or is Director of National Intelligence Admiral Blair supposed to do that? …. or Panetta? ... or Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security? ... or maybe the FBI? ……… ugh.
Can you tolerate still more? This just in. None other than John Brennan is to lead a full and thorough investigation into how the people under his general aegis screwed up regarding the Abdulmutallab affair. I do not often quote Ollie North, but “Is this a great country, or what!”
As for the Department of Homeland Security… just look, if you will, at what has happened to the Secret Service, not to mention FEMA and Katrina. Double ugh.
3 – What one reform would you recommend that might improve information sharing among agencies working to prevent terrorist attacks?
HOLD ACCOUNTABLE THOSE RESPONSIBLE.
More “reform” is the last thing we need. Sorry, but we DO have to look back.
The most effective step would be to release the CIA Inspector General report on intelligence community performance prior to 9/11. That investigation was run by, and its report was prepared by an honest man, it turns out.
It was immediately suppressed by then-Acting DCI John McLaughlin — another Tenet clone — and McLaughin’s successors as director, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, and now Leon Panetta.
Accountability is key. If there is no accountability, there is total freedom to screw up, and screw up royally, without any thought of possible personal consequences.
Not only is it certain that we will face more terrorist attacks, but the keystone-cops nature of recent intelligence operations …. whether in using cell phones in planning kidnappings in Italy, or in allowing suicide bombers access to CIA bases in Taliban-infested eastern Afghanistan …. will continue. Not to mention the screw-up in the case of Abdulmutallab.
Sadly, instead of accountability, there is likely to be misguided — and counterproductive — vengeance. After all, the word in Langley is “seven of ours” have now been killed. Anonymous intelligence officials are already warning openly about payback!
Wasn’t that the base human instinct, the revenge factor played on so deftly by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to “justify” invading Afghanistan — and then Iraq — after 9/11.
From Coleen Rowley:
Launching PR “wars” on terrorism, drugs, crime, poverty, etc. misleads the average person into believing that these ills can be totally conquered or eliminated. In reality, even if the experts were so enlightened/lucky as to make no mistakes and do everything right, it’s only possible to reduce the frequency of such adverse things.
It IS possible to make terrorist plots less likely to succeed but NOT possible to prevent them all.
It is much harder for the counter-terrorist experts to prevent terrorist plots when, under the law of unintended consequences, U.S. foreign policy contributes to a marked increase in the number of potential terrorists — as it undoubtedly has.
The level of terrorism in the world has increased dramatically since 9/11. So a starting place would be to find out where we are now, as compared to 2001.
The unrealistic expectation of “winning” a “war” against terrorism — that is, preventing all terrorist acts — merely opens the door to crazy “destroy-the-village-to-save-it” kind of actions that result in squaring the error. Such actions radicalize greater and greater numbers of people and create still more “terrorists.”
Fear-based expectations also open the door to:
(1) Reckless “pre-emptive” actions based on mere guesswork, hunches, or prior agendas;
(2) A penchant for fusing agencies, creating multi-agency “centers,” and re-naming bureaucracies — all without much thought to finding out what went awry, who was responsible, holding people accountable, and fixing problems; and
(3) A surge in the fast growing “Surveillance-Security Complex,” a highly lucrative business now rivaling the Military Industrial Complex itself.
“Total Information Awareness”-type programs are a sales trick that brings dividends only to the contractor/creators. Projects involving billions of pieces of private communications and other data that are vacuumed up and put into newly created, massive databases of individuals are a fool’s errand.
No matter how sophisticated or exotic, they are not likely to succeed in helping find needles in haystacks that are constantly fed more hay. Not this decade, anyway.
Keystone Cops and Barney Fife responses are not funny in real life. One only laughs at such travesty for psychological release. The reality is that, in real life, these truly counter-productive responses — creatures of arrogance, ignorance, and excessive fear — are no laughing matter.
No meaningful fixes are possible without accountability for mistakes or wrongdoing.
Equally important, those witnessing innocent mistakes and worse problems must be able to avail themselves of some kind of job protection, should they summon enough courage to blow the whistle. Sadly, no “whistleblower protection” now exists.
Thus there is no antidote to the secrecy and job-jeopardy regularly invoked to muzzle employees who witness fraud, waste, abuse, and illegal acts. In recent years, these have included heinous behavior like torture, kidnapping, and illegal eavesdropping, as well as untold amounts of misfeasance and other malfeasance that create serious threats and risks to public safety.
Ray McGovern and Coleen Rowley are members of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. She came to national attention in June 2002, when she testified before Congress about serious lapses before 9/11 that helped account for the failure to prevent the attacks. She now writes and speaks on ethical decision-making and on balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation.
McGovern, a former Army infantry/intelligence officer, and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During his CIA career he served under nine Directors of Central Intelligence and in all four of the CIA’s chief directorates.
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