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The Trouble with the CIA

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.

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