Agencies knew Bin Laden's men in US were learning to fly

Intelligence mistakes
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The Independent US

The US intelligence community is likely to come under scathing attack when investigators consider how the attacks on Washington and New York slipped through the net.

"It's an absolute indictment of our intelligence system that an operation of this size was not detected,'' said Curt Weldon, the Republican congressman who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness.

The problem is not that the US has failed to put its bureaucracy to work. The CIA and the FBI both have counter-terrorism centres and there is a national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism within the National Security Council. Richard Clark, who held the post under Bill Clinton, is one of the few senior figures to stay on under George Bush, providing rare continuity. The director of the CIA, George Tenet, has held the post since 1997.

Nor have they failed to identify the threat. The US has monitored Osama bin Laden probably more intensively than any other individual since the bombing of the US embassies in Africa in 1998. It has even drawn up plans to insert special forces to kill him, and has regularly sent US soldiers into the region.

Yet it seems to have missed vital clues. The FBI and CIA have known for three years that associates of Mr bin Laden were trying to get hold of aircraft and receiving flight training in the US. The details emerged during investigations into the bombing of two US embassies in Africa in 1998.

Essam al Ridi, a naturalised American of Egyptian descent, went to flight school in Texas. He testified that he had bought a military aircraft in Arizona and flown it to Sudan on Mr bin Laden's instructions. Ihab Ali Nawawi lived in Orlando, Florida – where many of the suspects in last week's attack lived – and trained at a flight school in Oklahoma.

"The tragedies quite clearly astonish and shock me and the country,'' Robert Mueller, the FBI's director, said last week. "The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to have received training at flight schools here is news, quite obviously. If we had understood that to be the case, we would have ... perhaps one could have averted this.''

In part, the issue is technology. Though there is widespread paranoia about the ability of the world's intelligence agencies to monitor communications, in fact they face far greater obstacles than in the past. "The National Security Agency [NSA] is America's most important asset for technical collection of terrorism information, yet it is losing its capability to target and exploit the modern communications systems used by terrorists, seriously weakening the NSA's ability to warn of possible attacks," said the National Commission on Terrorism last year.

In part, the problem is the lack of human intelligence. Groups like those around Mr bin Laden are hard to penetrate, and the way that organisations like the CIA work makes it harder still. The National Commission report noted: "Complex bureaucratic procedures now in place send an unmistakable message to Central Intelligence Agency officers in the field that recruiting clandestine sources of terrorist information is encouraged in theory but discouraged in practice."

But the largest single impediment is the change of mentality required. In the Cold War, threat assessments focused on the capabilities and intentions of the enemy. The capabilities could be physically measured. Intentions were always harder to assess, but analysts gained knowledge of their opponents through human, electronic and signals intelligence. Now, the capabilities of a terrorist group may be as simple as a Stanley knife. Intentions, too, are far harder to connect with a threat: just because an individual is hostile to America does not mean they are planning an operation.

Indeed America's focus on Mr bin Laden may have hampered a more widespread attempt to target threats, analysts said. "The Americans tend to focus on one individual or organisation. It blinds them to wider patterns," said one analyst.

"Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, bureaucratic thing," said the report of the US National Commission on Terrorism. "It includes neglect of responsibility but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected."

The report was quoting from a book on the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it may just as well have been reporting directly on last week's tragedy.