As the sun rose along the eastern seaboard of the United States on September 11, the Central Intelligence Agency was in a state of what might be called permanent medium alert to detect and prevent terrorist attacks on US citizens and property. For fifteen years the agency had entrusted this task to a Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where as many as two hundred intelligence officers gathered and analyzed information from a wide range of technical and a somewhat narrower range of human sources. For five years there had been a separate task force within the CTC dedicated specifically to the danger posed by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic extremist believed to have been responsible for successful attacks on US troops in Saudi Arabia, US embassies in East Africa, and the USS Cole, almost sunk by a suicide bomber in Aden harbor only a year ago.
The CIA was not alone in its efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. The United States has not been slack in voting funds for numerous interagency committees, offices, divisions, centers, and task forces with substantial budgets focused on the problem of terror, but none of these special-purpose entities has a clearer responsibility for “warnings and indications” than the Central Intelligence Agency, which was established in 1947 as a direct consequence of the failure to foresee the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Terrorism is only one threat to American security tracked by the CIA, but the danger is not remote or abstract; the agency itself has suffered grievous losses from terrorist attacks, notably in 1983, when a suicide bomber in Beirut devastated the US embassy and killed sixty-three people, including all six members of the CIA station. Visiting at the time was a legendary CIA field officer with long experience in the Middle East, Robert Ames, whose death was confirmed by the wedding ring on a hand retrieved from the debris.
The dead chief of station was replaced by another longtime CIA officer, William Buckley, who was kidnapped by terrorists in March 1984 and beaten to death over the following year. Four years later another CIA officer from Beirut, Matt Gannon, was killed when a midair explosion destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Gannon’s wife was also a CIA officer, Susan Twetten, daughter of the agency’s chief of operations, Tom Twetten, now retired and a book dealer in rural Vermont. Other CIA officers have been murdered by terrorists, including two just outside the gates of the agency itself.
The CIA thus has a visceral as well as a theoretical understanding of what terrorism is all about. The director of central intelligence, George Tenet, has often briefed Congress during his four years at the head of the CIA on the dangers of terrorism, on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, and specifically on the worldwide network commanded by Osama bin Laden from his protected refuge in Afghanistan. Less than a year ago Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that bin Laden posed the “most serious and immediate threat” to the United States, and more recently still, probably in August or early September, three foreign intelligence services separately informed the CIA that bin Laden had urged one of his four wives, who was visiting Syria at the time, to return home to Afghanistan immediately—a suggestive sign that something was in the wind.
Neither the United States government nor the CIA were snoozing at their desks as the sun rose along the eastern seaboard of the United States on September 11. Both fully understood the danger of terrorism generally and of Osama bin Laden specifically. Nevertheless, when Logan Airport in Boston and Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., began boarding aircraft that morning, nineteen men dispatched by Osama bin Laden walked through security checkpoints as easily as they had entered and operated throughout the United States during the preceding months—encountering as little interference, and arousing as little alarm, as if the Federal Aviation Administration had never heard the word “hijacking” and the CIA had never heard the word “terrorist” or the name “Osama bin Laden.” By mid-morning on September 11 there can have been few Americans who had not watched—probably over and over—the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The reason for drawing heightened attention to this single greatest failure of American intelligence since Pearl Harbor is that no official steps have so far been taken to find out how it could have happened.
People who deal with terrorism professionally tend to think of it as doctors do diseases with no cure, or as police do crime—as an ill of the human condition to be addressed one case at a time. Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, has thought about the subject long enough to have it in comfortable perspective as a problem to be managed, never solved. In a study for the Brookings Institution, published last April under the title of Terrorism and US Foreign Policy, Pillar argues persuasively that overexcitement is the enemy of sound counterterror practice. On some things, inevitably, September 11 has proved Pillar plain wrong; he cites, for example, “a drastic reduction in skyjackings” as a “major success story” and credits “a comprehensive security system.” But most of what Pillar says holds up well, even when his common-sense approach is now tinged with irony. Put simply, his approach to managing terrorism is to proceed calmly, avoid inflating the significance of any single enemy (he includes bin Laden by name), and remember that, with coalitions, small and few is better than big and many since “limits…are set by the states least willing to cooperate.” Pillar has much else to say. There is, he writes, no substitute for the local influence and expertise of foreign police and intelligence services. Bringing legal cases against terrorists takes time and dries up intelligence sources. International sanctions and resolutions work slowly when they work at all. You can’t ask foreign banks to track financial transactions without providing account numbers. Military retaliation rarely hits the target intended, and for every terrorist killed two more aspire to take his place.
In the weeks following September 11 it was often suggested that really vigorous efforts freed of hand-wringing restraint—assassination of terrorist leaders, use of torture in interrogation, shutting off terrorist funds to the last penny, telling allies to cooperate or else—would solve the problem with finality. Pillar’s advice is to put no hope in drastic measures but remember the current facts of life. There are limits to power, America has become a lightning rod for hatred, we can’t stop people from trying to hurt us, and sometimes they will succeed.
But sensible as this advice is, it is undercut by one aspect of the attacks on September 11—their magnitude. In the counterterrorism business there has been a growing concern over the last two decades, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction—what Pillar calls “the much-ballyhooed danger of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear terrorism inflicting mass casualties,” and referred to by professionals as CBRN. In Pillar’s view such dangers are real but exaggerated; CBRN weapons are difficult to get and to deliver; talking about them only convinces terrorists “how much they frighten people.” For Pillar the one quality essential to “sound counterterrorist policy” is perspective, and nothing undermines it more than lurid American fears of “catastrophic,” “grand,” or “super” terrorism—threats whose consequences are horrifying but whose probability is low.
This would still be a sound point if not for the magnitude of the attacks on the World Trade Center, which killed several thousand people, destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property, pushed the United States deeper into recession, plunged us into a foreign war, precipitated a political crisis throughout the Middle East, and shattered the confidence of Americans that they are safe in their own homes and offices. The cost in dollars will be immense, probably many times the $30 billion annual bill for all American intelligence efforts. The psychic cost of terror cannot be measured, but it ticks up every time someone catches his breath on a plane, thinks twice about getting on an elevator to the eightieth floor, wonders what is in a package, is reassured to know that the FBI can now bug lawyers talking with their clients, or decides to move the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company out of New York City. Pillar, in short, and everybody else in his line of work, is going to have to put “catastrophic,” “grand,” and “super” terrorism at the top of the list because the other guys have a demonstrated ability to think and operate on the grand scale, and their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons could one day succeed.
Much about Osama bin Laden and his organization remains obscure. The son of a Yemeni-born construction tycoon in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was one of fifty-three children and the seventeenth son, who inherited on his father’s death a fortune variously estimated as $50 million or as much as $300 million. The family dynamics among fifty siblings are difficult to imagine, but a hint to bin Laden’s character can perhaps be found in the fact that he was his mother’s only child, that she was the eleventh or perhaps the twelfth wife, and that his older brothers called him “the son of the slave.” This bit of information comes from Simon Reeve, a British journalist who wrote an account of the first World Trade Center bomb attack in 1993 called The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism.
After obtaining a degree in civil engineering—study that usually involves a course on “strength of materials”—bin Laden was recruited, apparently by the head of the Saudi intelligence service, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to support the Mujahideen in the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. Swept away by that success, bin Laden broke with his homeland when it turned to the United States for protection after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, moved to Sudan, built an Islamic extremist network called al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”), and embarked on a campaign of terror.
Under pressure from the United States in 1996, Sudan offered to extradite him to Saudi Arabia. Fearing that bin Laden was too popular to admit back into the country, Riyadh turned down the offer—something they told the Americans only months later—and bin Laden was allowed instead to fly back to Afghanistan where old friends in the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from the anti-Soviet war put him in touch with the Taliban, a religious party strongly backed by Pakistan in the Afghan civil war.
A recent biography of bin Laden by the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Yossef Bodansky, reports in great detail the outward facts of bin Laden’s progress from a builder of hospitals and military barracks in Afghanistan to the world’s most wanted terrorist. Included are the names of many obscure groups, the dates of meetings, reports of individuals getting on and off planes, financial transactions, the movement of arms—all that superstructure of corroborative information which intelligence services like the CIA build into case files. From bin Laden’s own writings and videotaped interviews we know that he wants the United States to pull its forces out of the Muslim world, he wants the UN to end the sanctions imposed on Iraq, and he is angered by the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.
But Bodansky’s thorough book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, tells us little about bin Laden’s character, the people who shaped his thinking, how he came to embrace terrorism and build links with extreme Islamicist groups throughout the world. What the CIA and other intelligence organizations somehow missed between bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan in 1996 and the attacks of September 11 was the transformation of al-Qaeda from an angry group of “Afghan Arabs” into a disciplined organization with the ability to hijack four airliners at roughly the same moment and fly three of them into what the Pentagon calls “high value” targets. At the time of the simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, the CIA officer Milt Bearden told a reporter, “Two at once is not twice as hard. Two at once is a hundred times as hard.” What does that make four at once?
The CIA’s failure on September 11 inevitably raises the question of what it may be missing now. This is not primarily a question of targets and means but of goals and strategies. In the absence of a secret bin Laden position paper one can still try to make sense of the attack on the World Trade Center, and Howard Hart, a retired CIA officer who ran operations against the Soviets in the Afghan war, has recorded his take in an eight-page paper privately circulated among friends. Hart resigned from the agency in 1991 and has seen no classified information since. But drawing on twenty years of experience in the Middle East and South Asia, including operations targeted on terrorist groups, Hart believes that bin Laden is not driven by hatred but is instead pursuing an ambitious grand strategy. His ultimate goal, Hart believes, is “a ‘reborn,’ combative and vigorous Islam” in control of governments throughout the Arabic world.
Bin Laden’s initial targets, in Hart’s view, are the conservative, highly centralized, relatively weak regimes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States, all of which drift uneasily between the allure of Western material culture and the resentments of the poor and devout, who have little access to wealth themselves and are called to reject the modern world by fiery mullahs. Next on bin Laden’s list, in Hart’s view, are the authoritarian, mainly secular regimes of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, whose populations have been cowed by their “savage and highly effective internal security services….”
Bin Laden has no armies to achieve these great ends; his method is the ancient strategy of the weak, using terrorism to precipitate a political crisis which can be expected to drive a deepening wedge throughout the Islamic world between the godless allies of America and the champions of Allah. In Hart’s view the furious American response to the September 11 attacks was part of bin Laden’s plan; he and his al-Qaeda companions expected that the US reaction would drive angry Muslims into the streets. Violent measures to suppress them would escalate a growing crisis
until police and security forces will no longer be willing to fire on their own people, and the targeted governments will collapse. In short, a repeat of events in Iran in 1978– 79. Skeptics should remember that in January 1978 no one in Iran—the Shah, his military, foreign observers, even Khomeini supporters—believed the regime could be toppled by “Islamic extremists.” One year later the Shah’s regime had been destroyed.
Hart watched this happen in Iran, where he arrived in the spring of 1978 to keep tabs on the growing crisis, something the CIA had avoided for years for fear of offending the Shah. The situation he found is ably described by another retired official of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, William J. Daugherty, in the current issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, an indispensable scholarly journal devoted to intelligence history and policy. American policy was to support the Shah unconditionally, Daugherty writes, and following the forced exile of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1965 it was taken for granted in Washington that the opposition had been crippled beyond recovery and the CIA made little effort to reach its own judgment until Hart’s arrival.
Some of Hart’s reports in the spring of 1978 were so pessimistic that the CIA’s chief of station refused to send them on to Washington, where he knew they would arouse fury in the White House. For more than three months during the summer of 1978 the CIA labored to write up a special National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the strength of the Shah’s government. But the estimators could never agree on what was increasingly obvious: the Ayatollah had won control of the streets and the royal palace was next. Eventually the CIA’s director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, shelved the NIE because it was politically too divisive. The result: official shock when the Shah’s government collapsed, and bitter enmity for the United States from the Islamic activists who seized power in Iran.
Hart makes no facile claim that things might have gone the other way if only the CIA had sent a few agents into the souks. Khomeini had divined something the CIA had missed—the deep hostility toward the Shah’s regime of a devout Muslim population being pushed too rapidly into the modern world. But not even Khomeini could foresee how events would unfold, Hart claims. By late 1978 the CIA had penetrated Khomeini’s inner circle, and knew that the Ayatollah’s closest advisers were still preparing to settle for some kind of power-sharing compromise. Having seen the fall of one regime built on sand, Hart is convinced that bin Laden, following a strategy similar to Khomeini’s in the 1970s, can do it again. Whatever happens in the current American effort to hunt him down, he says, bin Laden has now been transformed into a hero of the Arab world. If he lives his charisma will shine all the brighter; if he is imprisoned or killed, others in the al-Queda network will carry on in his name. “The governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are also built on sand,” he says.
Hart’s interpretation is not easily proved or disproved. Pakistan, once thought vulnerable to Islamic revolt, seems to have survived the present crisis without great difficulty. Most scholars think Saudi Arabia is equally secure—but that is what they thought about the Shah of Iran, too, before 1978, and the CIA at the time went on claiming his throne was not in danger almost until the day he left the country. If the war against terrorism is going to persist for years, as the secretary of defense has said, governments in control today may be in trouble tomorrow. Hart knows that official policy and a CIA anxious to please can make it hard to spot—and even harder to report—the moment things start to deteriorate. He watched it happen in Iran, and the CIA’s failure on September 11 makes him worried it could happen again.
Failure is not easily confessed by the CIA. “Though we did not stop the latest, terrible assaults,” George Tenet said in a statement to the agency’s estimated 16,000 employees on September 12, “you—the men and women of CIA and our intelligence community—have done much to combat terrorism in the past.” Failure was not a word Tenet could bring himself to utter. His executive director, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, came closer—a little—when he told a meeting of Washington investors in mid-October that the CIA had been worrying too exclusively about atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. “Over and over again, in public testimony and private briefings, we have warned of a major attack by bin Laden,” he said. “We had the scope correct. We missed the means.”
Like Tenet, most of the CIA people I have talked to in recent weeks have balked at the word “failure,” struggling to say it without saying it. Their reading of the event, stripped to its essence, is that no intelligence service can be reasonably asked to predict every attack mounted by a terrorist group, and that the CIA’s performance is more fairly measured by what has followed—identifying the likely suspects, mounting a major investigation, calling on friendly intelligence services for help in blocking further attacks, and playing a vigorous and conspicuous role in the US military campaign to overthrow the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The performance of the CIA, therefore, should be measured on what an intelligence service can do—respond quickly and accurately—and not on what it can’t do, no matter how good it is. By any fair measure, therefore, the CIA did not fail.
Behind this defensiveness is a lively fear of the CIA’s perennial nightmare—reorganization under the prod of Congress. Like all directors of central intelligence, Tenet has done some reorganizing himself; one of the first things his friend Buzzy Krongard did as executive director was to abolish the Directorate of Administration, thereby drawing under his immediate control the former DA’s five separate offices for in-house management—finance, security, personnel, and the like—long famous for their independence.
The history of the CIA is a record of constantly changing offices and lines of authority, usually to reflect shifting priorities in the White House. What the agency fears is not new decision trees but radical surgery. Until he retired a year ago Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan openly advocated doing away with the CIA entirely as an unwieldy relic of the cold war. Other would-be reformers have suggested splitting covert action from intelligence analysis, perhaps even going so far as to give covert action to the Pentagon and analysis to the State Department—despite the fact that neither wants it.
Former director John Deutch, who ran the agency for eighteen months under President Clinton, published an article in Foreign Affairs in 1998 arguing that the agency’s Counter-Terrorism Center should be transferred to the FBI. “Senators and congressmen all think they know what intelligence is all about,” I was told by Richard Helms, who ran the CIA for six years until President Nixon sent him to Iran in 1973. “Reorganization is their main delight, but I myself don’t think they’re going to achieve anything by it.” Most longtime intelligence professionals believe, like Helms, that basic intelligence work remains the same, however much the flow charts and diagrams are changed. President Bush appears to agree. Earlier this year he asked for a comprehensive intelligence review, still unwritten on September 11. But in the days following the attacks Bush made a point of being photographed in earnest discussion with his chief advisers—Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and George Tenet. The message appeared to be clear: the President is sticking with the agency and the director he has got.
But there is a group of intelligence dissidents in Washington who think this would be a historic mistake. They argue that the CIA’s failure to grasp the scope of al-Qaeda’s plans reveals deep structural problems within the agency that go far beyond ordinary questions of funding and who reports to whom, and that no attempt to identify weaknesses or correct problems can go forward while George Tenet remains in charge. The criticisms come not from think tanks or bureaucratic rivals of the CIA like the FBI, but from a vocal group of former intelligence officers—mostly young, mostly field officers from the Directorate of Operations (DO), mostly well-respected and destined for solid careers until they chose to leave—who believe that the CIA is in steep decline. The most vocal of these critics is Robert Baer, a twenty-year veteran of numerous assignments in Central Asia and the Middle East whose last major job for the agency was an attempt to organize Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s—shuttling between a desk in Langley and contacts on the ground in Jordan, Turkey, and even northern Iraq.
That assignment came to an abrupt end in March 1995 when Baer, once seen as a rising star of the DO, suddenly found himself “the subject of an accusatory process.” An agent of the FBI told him he was under investigation for the crime of plotting the assassination of Saddam Hussein. The investigation was ordered by President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who would be nominated to run the agency two years later. The Baer investigation was only one of many reasons that the intelligence organizations resisted Lake, forcing him to withdraw his name in 1997, and clearing the way for George Tenet.
Eventually, the case against Baer was dismissed with the help of the Washington lawyer Jeffrey Smith, who served as the agency’s general counsel under John Deutch. But for Baer the episode was decisive. “When your own outfit is trying to put you in jail,” he told me, “it’s time to go.”
Baer’s was one of many resignations in recent years; the dissidents’ portrait of the agency which follows comes from him, from Howard Hart, from another veteran DO operator and former chief of station in Amman, Jordan, named David Manners, and from others who preferred not to be identified. They have differing career histories and views but on some things they agree. The Clinton years, in their view, saw a crippling erosion of the agency’s position in Washington. Its leadership is now timid and its staff demoralized. Top officials, they say, worry more about the vigilantes of political correctness than the hard work of collecting intelligence in the field. The shock of discovering Aldrich Ames in 1994 was followed by a period of destructive self-criticism.
“That was the beginning of the ‘Shia’ era in the agency,” said Manners. He was referring to the branch of Islam, centered in Iran, which stresses the unworthiness and sinfulness of man. “We all had to demonstrate our penance,” Manners told me. “Focus groups were organized, we ‘reengineered’ the relationship of the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence.” This meant dropping the bureaucratic wall between the analysts and the covert operators and introducing “uniform career standards.” Henceforth a year in some country where it was dangerous to drink the water would get you no farther up the ladder than a year pushing paper in Langley. When John Deutch came in he appointed as chief of operations an analyst, David Cohen, who had never supervised an agent or even asked the chief of a foreign intelligence service to share information from his files. This was the era of “process action teams” which studied managerial questions like what sort of paperwork to use for agent handling. A committee of a dozen, split between case officers and analysts, might spend half a day wrestling with such questions twice a week for a year or more. “Navel gazing,” Manners calls it.
In the reengineered CIA it was possible for Deborah Morris to be appointed the DO’s deputy chief for the Near East. “Her husband was thrown out of Russia in 1994,” said one of the dissidents, referring to James L. Morris, the Moscow station chief expelled during the Ames affair. “She worked her way up in Langley. I don’t think she’s ever been in the Near East. She’s never run an agent, she doesn’t know what the Khyber Pass looks like, but she’s supposed to be directing operations—telling the operators if some pitch [i.e., plan] is a good idea.”
The dissidents argue that “uniform career standards” did nothing to improve intelligence analysis but hurt field operations badly. Many DO veterans resigned and others lost heart when they saw what happened to Richard Holm, the Paris station chief who was yanked back after an attempt to recruit French officials went awry in 1995. US Ambassador Pamela Harriman fumed that whatever Holm was after, “it isn’t worth the embarrassment to me.” The word went forth from Langley—no more flaps, which meant don’t stick your neck out, which meant safe operations or none at all. When Deutch arrived, Holm left, a harsh back of the hand for one of the agency’s legendary operators. To fill the gap came a new emphasis on “reports”—the number of separate pieces of paper forwarded to Langley, whatever their quality. “What use is a Cray supercomputer at the Counter-Terrorism Center,” Baer asks, “if you’ve got nothing to put into it?”
With the end of the cold war the agency cut back on recruiting agents, closed down many stations including most of those in Africa, and even quit accepting defectors from the old KGB in 1992—several years before the CIA uncovered Aldrich Ames and another DO spy, Harold Nicholson, less celebrated but almost as damaging—he was known around the DO as “Ranger Jim.” At the same time the DO dismantled all the Counterespionage Groups, staffed mainly by “little old ladies” who knew the old cold war targets backward and forward but were no longer needed. Spies were a thing of the past; the new order of the day was to “manage intelligence relationships.” In Morocco, the station chief told Baer he was crazy for trying to mount ambitious operations. “We were told to stand down,” another dissident said. If you had checked the books you would have found just as many code names for secret agents, the dissidents say, but it was mainly window dressing—routine CIA informants puffed up in reports.
Along with the pullback in recruiting, the dissidents say, came a turn inward. Once operators had prided themselves on their grasp of local language and culture; now they stayed home watching American videos on TV. The CIA has long been wary of letting officers become too closely identified with any single country, language, or region; the British once called it “going native,” the CIA calls it “falling in love.” But the great operators in the past tended to speak languages like the natives, weren’t afraid of the water, had a feel for the way national politics and culture were interconnected. That, at any rate, was what the dissidents had hoped to be when they joined the agency. Howard Hart, a graduate of the University of Arizona, was sent by the agency in 1966 to India, where he learned Urdu and Hindustani; later he added “passable German.” Robert Baer learned French, German, Arabic, and even the Farsi dialect known as Dari when he was stationed in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. No Dari speakers served in Dushanbe after Baer left, and the agency has since closed the station down. “Do you know how many Pashto speakers the CIA has got?” he asks, citing the language of the principal ethnic group in Afghanistan, including most of the leadership of the Taliban. “The agency will tell you some imaginary number but I am telling you none. Do you know how many were sent to learn it after the embassy bombings? None.”
With the mass resignations from the DO in recent years the match between station chief and country got ever more arbitrary; one recent chief in Beijing, a dissident says, picked for the job by Deutch’s executive director, Nora Slatkin, spoke no Chinese and suffered from a conspicuous skin disease which the Chinese find particularly offensive. The loss of language speakers was not limited to the agency; the National Security Agency, a dissident claims, has only one Pashto speaker—a problem solved by sending transcripts of intercepted communications to Pakistan for translation by the ISI, an organization with a long history of involvement with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Some intelligence officials even believe that it was the ISI who warned bin Laden to get out of Khost before American cruise missiles struck in August 1998 in retaliation for the embassy bombings.
The dissidents say that the CIA is still staffed with hard-working people of talent and dedication and that it can still do competent work. They know how vast the agency’s resources are and are familiar with the technical marvels which collect intelligence. Above all, they recognize that the apparent success of the military effort in Afghanistan seems to have reassured the public that things are now going well. But all the same the dissidents insist that things have gone badly wrong at the agency. Years of public criticism, attempts to clean house, the writing and rewriting of rules, and efforts to rein in the Directorate of Operations have all conspired to make the agency insular, risk-averse, and gun-shy. So have catch-up hiring of women and minorities, public hostility that makes it hard to recruit at leading colleges, complacency following victory in the cold war, the humiliation of the Ames case, even the long economic boom which put CIA salaries farther and farther behind routine offers to recent graduates by business and industry. The dissidents don’t say that all of these problems are somehow the doing of George Tenet, but they do say they have undermined the CIA’s ability to follow terrorists through the streets of the Arab world. A few months ago theirs was only the opinion of a group of disaffected officials; since September 11 it ought to be considered seriously.
It is hard to find anyone in the intelligence community who dislikes George Tenet. He is an open-faced, hefty man, a reformed cigar smoker, friendly in manner, a slapper of backs and a clutcher of arms, earnest, interested, quick to take a point, and open to new ideas. “The outgoingness is a genuine gift,” said Helms, who has watched many directors of central intelligence come and go. “Who else could lecture Arafat on the Middle East—up close with his hand on Arafat’s lapel—and get away with it?” Tenet’s confirmation in July 1997 also brought a welcome end to the revolving door on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters, where Tenet replaced Deutch, who had replaced James Woolsey, who had replaced Robert Gates, with a number of failed nominations in between. Tenet has set a recent record for peaceful tenure of the DCI’s long, wood-paneled office overlooking the imposing main entrance to the building which Tenet renamed (before the last presidential election) the Bush Intelligence Center. The Bush in question is the President’s father, who was director for ten days short of a year in 1976– 1977 and is still remembered as the ideal intelligence consumer when he was in the White House.
The bureaucratic clout of DCIs can be measured by how often they meet with the president. With some it’s practically never; with most it starts often and fades off. In the case of Tenet and the current President Bush it is reported to be every day, with the arrival of the DCI at the White House carrying the President’s Daily Brief, a printed document reporting much as a newspaper might the classified intelligence take and hot issues of the moment. Trust and personal liking of this sort is rare and CIA officials, happy to have the attention of the Oval Office, don’t want to mess with it.
Tenet got the job by an unusual route through a succession of staff jobs dealing with intelligence issues for congressional committees. After several years as an aide to Senator John Heinz, Tenet joined the forty-member staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1985. Four years later he was appointed staff director and then in 1993 he moved to the White House, where he handled intelligence matters for the National Security Council and met John Deutch, who brought him out to Langley in 1995 as deputy director of central intelligence. Even Tenet’s admirers concede he got the top job mainly because Clinton did not want to risk another confirmation failure after Lake bowed out, and Tenet had already been confirmed once by the Senate. “George is a service kind of guy,” said an officer who worked with him at the agency. “He knew what congressmen wanted and needed and he dealt with the White House the same way.” What is remarkable about Tenet’s career is that he had no intelligence background or experience of the usual kind; his expertise was all learned in the corridors of power where the deciding question is what will fly. His largely trouble-free years at the CIA prove that he knows how to navigate the maze of a political town.
Three years ago Tenet invented a new position—“counselor” to the DCI—and hired the sixty-four-year-old lawyer and businessman A.B. Krongard to fill it. A Princeton graduate and martial arts enthusiast, Krongard had recently retired after selling his share in a Baltimore stock brokerage firm to Bankers Trust for $70 million. Last March Tenet moved Krongard up into the job of executive director, where he is in charge of managing the agency, including its secret operations, while the director deals with broader issues of policy and strategy. The dissidents say that Krongard may know how to run a financial firm and make a pot of money, and George Tenet may know how to keep out of bureaucratic fights he can’t win; but neither one of them, the dissidents say, really knows in any depth what effective intelligence requires, and on-the-job training isn’t enough. It is impossible for any outsider to fairly judge what the dissidents are saying—and certainly not anyone as far outside as a journalist like myself. That is a matter for some official body.
When things go awry in the intelligence business it is customary to do a damage report. The Ames damage report—a four-hundred-page document written by then CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz—in effect cost James Woolsey his job. In 1961, by the time the agency’s inspector general, Lyman Kirkpatrick, got around to writing his assessment of the embarrassing failure of a CIA-trained and -financed rebel army at the Bay of Pigs, the DCI at the time, Allen Dulles, was already gone. That disaster was big enough to get a second report from a blue-ribbon panel headed by General Maxwell Taylor. The problem wasn’t simply that the rebel army got shot to pieces as soon as it crossed the beach; it was that the agency had deceived itself about the real support throughout Cuba for Fidel Castro. The agency’s plan couldn’t work, and Taylor’s job was to make sure that never happened again.
When I began to work on this article, the first person I called was the CIA officer I have known longest, a man who started his career during World War II, joined the CIA at its birth, and worked closely with just about every chief of covert operations until he retired after the first round of CIA scandals and subsequent reengineerings in the early 1970s. This man remains extremely active in retirement. He is a member of numerous study groups, panels, and commissions, and he rarely misses a conference on intelligence. He hates to criticize the agency he served all his life, but the failure of September 11 is not something he is ready to pass over in silence. “I don’t think even Pearl Harbor matches this one,” he said. “How often do you lose half a division in a day? Nothing has ever happened on this scale before. This was totally beyond anybody’s beliefs or dreams. Nobody wanted to think the unthinkable.”
Was anybody talking about an investigation—a post-mortem to figure out what went wrong?
“I don’t understand it,” said my friend. “There was a little talk but then it suddenly quieted down. Not even [Senator Richard] Shelby [former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee]—he knows he can’t raise his head. Nobody is pushing for an investigation.”
Is it possible to handle the problem—whatever the problem—without an investigation?
What would an investigation require?
“You need presidential and congressional authority. You can’t just do it in-house.”
Could it be done while Tenet was still running the CIA?
“If he’s still there everybody will know he’s watching. People won’t tell you the truth. Everybody will be covering his ass, protecting his boss. They try to get rid of rivals. They hide paper and destroy evidence. I’ve seen it. You can overcome it by being a sonofabitch but only if the top guy is gone.”
There is nothing this man hates more than the way politics has torn apart the CIA over the years. I would say he about half agrees with the dissidents—not 100 percent on half what they say, but 50 percent on all of it. But he has little sympathy for people who talk out of school, and he knows how hard it is for investigators to keep political meddlers at bay, get to the bottom of what went wrong, and fix what isn’t working. He was the first one to tell me, like someone describing a jewel, that Tenet had the President’s ear, which meant the agency could do its job. To give that away, take your chances with someone new, open up a whole can of worms by asking how this could have happened… Talking about it he sounds like a man facing open-heart surgery.
“It ought to be done. He ought to go.”
—December 19, 2001