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The Trouble with the CIA

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.

2.

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.

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