The Trouble with the CIA

George Tenet
George Tenet; drawing by David Levine

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…

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