There was certainly a failure of intelligence in the run up to 9/11, but like most failures of intelligence it cannot be separated from the failure of policy. U.S. intelligence agencies failed to stave off a surprise attack, which is one of the primary duties of a country’s intelligence apparatus. However, it would not only be unjust but do violence to the historical record to place the blame entirely at the door of the intelligence community.
Firstly, there were no incontrovertible signs that such an attack was coming prior to 9/11, and the tasking of the intelligence community must be dominated by what it believes to be threats of the highest magnitude. That it failed to piece together the fragmentary puzzle of evidence before the attacks was due to the fact the country's intelligence apparatus was not tuned to receive the signals the terrorists gave out about their activity. This was complicated by the second factor of high importance, which was the paucity of available intelligence which existed to be collected on the activities of the terrorists. They gave out few clues as to their intentions, and the significance of the clues they did give out was not recognized until after the fact.
The story of the failure of 9/11 must necessarily begin with the end of the Cold War, which obviously meant the disappearance of the Soviet target. In some ways this made the world more dangerous, as former Soviet clients were likely to become unpredictable – as Saddam Hussein demonstrated when he annexed Kuwait. Although such factors complicated matters for U.S. intelligence, they did not result in a drastically more dangerous world overnight.
It was believed that fewer assets needed to be devoted to intelligence now that the Soviet threat was gone, and the budget of the intelligence community was cut throughout the 1990s. Although there was a general consensus that liberal democracy was on the march, the exact role America should play in promoting this and in the world in general was not clear in the 1990s. In a time of fluidity in American foreign policy not seen since the 1930s, different priorities competed for the attention of policymakers – and intelligence officials. It was by no means clear until 9/11 that al Qaeda would emerge as the nemesis of the United States.
The rise of radical Sunni terrorism did not begin after the Cold War, but the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did precipitate its turning westward. Osama bin Laden and Dr. Abdullah Azzam had founded the Afghan Services Bureau (MAK) in 1984 to organize a jihad against the Soviets. Once the Soviets withdrew, a disagreement ensued within the organization about what to do next.
Azzam was assassinated by car bomb in 1989 and leadership of the organization conveniently passed to bin Laden, who had a somewhat exaggerated idea of his own role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and believed the United States was similarly vulnerable. The 'Arab Afghans' could not return to their own countries, where they would face arrest and execution. Bin Laden hence had ample men with which to run al Qaeda, which was financed through the elaborate network he had set up to fight the Afghan jihad with.
The emerging threat
Al Qaeda quickly became the pre-eminent Islamist terrorist organization, and one which adopted a relatively new modus operandi – it sought to inflict high-profile, mass casualty attacks as an end in itself. Not seeking any concrete political goals, it was not interested in negotiation or dialogue.1 That this was not sufficiently understood in America is demonstrated by the Federal Aviation Authority's conclusions when it considered the scenario that planes might be used as missiles.
Since the arrest of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in 1993, a number of hijackings had taken place by Islamists hoping to use the leverage of hostages to gain his release. The FAA concluded that something similar would be the goal of future hijackings, and that suicide bombing by plane was hence an unlikely strategy to be adopted, as it gave no opportunity for dialogue. This was based on a mistaken analysis of al Qaeda's intentions. The failure to imagine such scenarios before 9/11 turned out to have grave consequences, but we are only really able to say this with the benefit of hindsight. Although the first WTC bombing and the planned 'Day of Terror' (a plan by Rahman's circle to blow up five prominent NYC landmarks) revealed the nihilistic intentions of al Qaeda, they did not – and could not – lead to the tightening of security against every possible scenario of terrorist attack.
One of the problems with open societies is that they are very vulnerable to penetration and attack from within. The intelligence failure of 9/11 was inherent in the nature of American society. Without a devastating attack on American soil, there was little impetus for a dramatic tightening of security or high vigilance. The provisions of what would eventually be the PATRIOT Act, which shared much in common with Clinton's unsuccessful Counterterrorism Bill of 1995, remained unimplemented in the face of a sceptical Congress.
The reaction to the excesses of the CIA and FBI which occurred during the 1970s had left both weakened. The American intelligence community and the FBI had to choose their priorities, and before 9/11 the significance of certain events was not clear. For instance, Zacharias Moussaoui learning to fly a civilian airliner looks in retrospect to be a highly significant event – but as the CIA was not sensitive to the possibility of airliners being used as missiles, no red lights started flashing in George Tenet's office.
A failure of imagination
Indeed, there was little reason why they should have done. There was a failure of imagination at an analytical level, but an entirely understandable one – intelligence analysts could not predict every possible way al Qaeda might seek to attack the American homeland. This is why even now, in an era of highly increased vigilance, it is widely admitted that there is a high likelihood another attack will occur on American soil.
More scenarios might have been considered and more countermeasures adopted were it widely appreciated that al Qaeda represented a huge threat to the American homeland. That this was not appreciated may seem stupendous in the wake of the 1993 WTC bombing, but there are a number of good reasons why it was not.
Firstly, that bombing was not anywhere near as high-profile or national an event as 9/11, being primarily of significance to residents of New York rather than a permanent mark on the national consciousness. Secondly, the plotters of the first WTC bombing displayed a remarkable ineptitude, with Mohammed Salameh returning to collect the deposit on the van used to carry the explosive. Lastly, the 1993 bombing was quickly overshadowed by al Qaeda attacks later in the decade – first, the Khobar Towers attack, and then the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998. In the wake of these bombings, al Qaeda came to be defined primarily as a threat to U.S. interests abroad.
As decisive executive leadership on the threat was not forthcoming, events unfolded along predictable bureaucratic lines – committees sat to review the incidents and unsurprisingly concluded that security needed to be tightened up at military facilities abroad. No review was undertaken of the susceptibility of the American homeland to attack, and no national intelligence review was produced on terrorism – neither the executive branch nor the intelligence community thought terrorism was a threat of a high order of magnitude.
This implies a problem of imagination not just in the intelligence community, but among policymakers as well. With no-one expecting an attack in the form or magnitude of 9/11, the only possible way it might have been discovered and stopped was if good intelligence was collected indicating that it was on the way. No such intelligence was forthcoming.
The open society and its enemies
This brings us back again to the nature of American society, and specifically of communications within it. Given that it is incredibly hard to penetrate terrorist cells, the best way to discover the 9/11 plot would have been to intercept communications between the plotters and discern their meaning. However, this was difficult. The National Security Agency is under incredible strain due to the quickly rising volume of global communications, especially since the rise of e-mail. The most sophisticated data mining techniques in the world do not easily allow analysts at the Agency to join together the dots.
This problem was complicated by laws regarding whose phone can be tapped. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act precludes the tapping of phones operated by U.S. citizens or permanently resident aliens, unless they can be shown to be the agents of a foreign power. Disputes over the legality of listening to the calls of suspected terrorists hampered the ability of the federal government to keep tabs on the activities of suspected terrorists. Again, this failing can be attributed to the surprise element of 9/11 – not expecting a catastrophic attack on American soil, the government did not take steps to reform intelligence-collection to prevent one. Only after 9/11 did President Bush issue an executive order allowing the NSA to bypass FISA rules.
Problems of coordination
What evidence the government did have was insufficiently co-ordinated and understood. There were restrictions on the sharing of information between the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. Fears of 'Big Brother' lay at the root of these restrictions, but they made it hard to bring the entire expertise of the federal government to bear on the problem of al Qaeda. Before a massive terrorist attack had occurred on American soil, there was little impetus to streamline this process and unblock the arteries of information sharing.
Neither the public, the Congress nor the press were chomping at the bit to make the federal government's invasion of privacy easier, and there was a sizable coalition of interest groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association against it. Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations chose to initiate a public dialogue on the threat of terrorism and possible solutions, focused as they were on other problems – the wars in the former Yugoslavia and his welfare agenda for the former, and ballistic missile defence and China for the latter. As it had been traditionally for American presidents, counter-terrorism remained a murky area best kept out of public view.
It is incontrovertible that the surprise achieved by the attacks on 9/11 was the result of an intelligence failure, but it was a failure of much more than just this. Politicians and policymakers simply did not appreciate the magnitude of the threat posed to the American homeland by al Qaeda while it remained hypothetical, and as such did not initiate a big push to face off the looming threat. Even Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorist czar who was more switched-on than anyone in government to the threat of al Qaeda, was worried about 'hundreds' and not thousands of casualties.
For its part, the intelligence community faced a near-impossible task. The amount of information it has to process in the modern world is stupendous, and globalization has made it easier for terrorists to carry out their operations, both in terms of organizing networks and of penetrating American society. The surprise achieved on 9/11 lay mainly in the specifics – a thinking individual could have discerned in the 1990s that a combination of the new style of Islamist terrorism and the vulnerability of American society would lead sooner or later to an attack in America.
However, translating this into specific tasking for the intelligence community in terms of what signs to look out for was nearly impossible, as the details of the future attack were unknown.
Until the attack itself provided the impetus for change and a mass mobilization of resources to combat terrorism, as well as more serious and intensive thinking on how terrorists might strike in the future and how to stop them, the U.S. stood little hope of fully appreciating and moving to counter the al Qaeda threat. The surprise achieved by 9/11 was nearly total, as was evident from President Bush’s face when an unwise advisor informed him of the attacks while he was on video camera.
Unlike the surprise achieved by the Arabs in the Yom Kippur War or the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, al Qaeda achieved surprise in all categories – in time, in place, and in method. Their flexibility was a measure of their status as non-state actors operating with resources that were, on a governmental scale, tiny. Al Qaeda might have succeeded in getting the U.S. government to take them seriously on 9/11, but they also shed light on the answer to the question of exactly what the role of America was in the post-Cold War world.
In turn, the intelligence community’s role – and its importance, given its unique ability to fight international terrorism – became more clearly defined. Arguably, this could not have happened without an incident on the scale of 9/11 to provide a decisive answer. Bureaucratic infighting and inertia remained the rule until decisive executive leadership emerged in the form of President Bush to set out a clear role for America in the world, and for the intelligence community in American policy. To expect policymakers or intelligence officials to have come to the same conclusions prior to the shocking events of 9/11 is a grave anachronism. Yes, intelligence 'failed' on 9/11 – but the failure was unavoidable.
1. The idea that al Qaeda wants something we can give it is sadly a commonplace. What it wants is vague and impossible, like most utopian programs. Its nihilstic aims are clear from the fact it never claims responsibility for the atrocities it commits. It is anyway so highly diffuse an organization that each cell and member has a different idea of priorities and different motivations. Whereas old-fashioned terrorists like Abu Nidal or Carlos the Jackal sought to attract attention to their causes through high-profile terrorist incidents, al Qaeda's modus operandi is simply to kill indiscriminantly.
If you asked Osama bin Laden what he wanted, he would reply that he wants the destruction of the West and the global spread of Islam. All of the lesser tactical goals are subordinate to this over-arching desire. Rather than taking hostages and demanding certain terms, as was common for terrorists in the 1970s and '80s, bin Laden and his team simply seek to spread panic and to destroy: in a word, terrorize.
The 9/11 Commission Report remains the best reading on the specifics of the American intelligence failure. For a longer view, see also Timothy Naftali, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism (New York, 2005).