CIA needs five more years to develop the capability to take on al-Qa'ida, says Tenet

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The Independent US

The head of the CIA said yesterday it would be at least five years before the United States developed the sort of intelligence capabilities to take on terrorists such as al-Qa'ida and admitted that his agents had flatly failed to penetrate the 11 September plot.

The head of the CIA said yesterday it would be at least five years before the United States developed the sort of intelligence capabilities to take on terrorists such as al-Qa'ida and admitted that his agents had flatly failed to penetrate the 11 September plot.

George Tenet, whose agency was criticised by the independent commission investigating the 11 September 2001 attacks, said he and his colleagues had failed those people who died in the strikes in New York and Washington. "We all understood [Osama] bin Laden's attempt to strike the homeland. We never translated this knowledge into an effective defence of the country," Mr Tenet testified before the commission. "No matter how hard we worked, or how desperately we tried, it was not enough. The victims and the families of 9/11 deserved better."

The failures outlined in a statement made by the commission, which issues reports before testimony is given, and admitted to by Mr Tenet, were not failures of effort or of intention. Rather, a picture emerged of an intelligence community still grounded in the challenges of the Cold War and ill-prepared to deal with the threat presented by stateless terrorists using unconventional means of attack.

"With the important exception of attacks with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, the methods developed for decades to warn of surprise attacks were not applied to the problem of warning against terrorist attacks," the commission's report said.

It added: "Most [importantly], our interviews with policymakers in [the Clinton and Bush] administrations revealed a fundamental uncertainty about how to regard the threat posed by bin Laden and al-Qa'ida. After 9/11, the catastrophic character of the threat seems obvious. It is hard now to recapture the old conventional wisdom before 9/11."

Mr Tenet, the senior intelligence official in the US and the man who usually provides President George Bush with his daily intelligence briefing, said while changes were being made, it would be another five years before America will "have the kind of clandestine service our country needs".

The independent commission, appointed by Mr Bush to investigate the circumstances surrounding the 11 September attacks, has in recent days presented a picture of intelligence and law enforcement communities that often crucially failed to communicate with each other and that, as a result, potentially vital information was not collated and passed to relevant people.

This revelation is fuelling a debate about whether the US needs a covert security service similar to Britain's MI5.

The commission's report said the CIA missed the big-picture significance of "tell-tale indicators" of impending terrorist attacks, partly because of its culture of a piecemeal approach to intelligence analysis.

However, the commission has also uncovered evidence that will support the view of those who say there were clues that al-Qa'ida was preparing to attack and that they were simply ignored or even suppressed.

Its report, for example, contradicted claims by Bush administration officials that there was no evidence to suggest terrorists were seeking to attack using aircraft.

It said: "Threat reports mentioned the possibility of using an aircraft laden with explosives. Of these the most prominent asserted a possible plot to fly an explosives-laden plane into a US city. This report was circulated in September 1998 and originated from a source who walked into an American consulate in East Asia." Others included reports of a plan to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994, and of flying a plane into CIA headquarters. The report added: "A 1996 report asserted that Iranians were plotting to hijack a Japanese plane and crash it into Tel Aviv."

The Bush administration, as it campaigns for re-election, is seeking to fight off accusations that it could and should have done more in the spring and summer of 2001 to prevent the al-Qa'ida attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.

The controversy was initially fuelled by comments from Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief who said senior officials had routinely ignored his warnings about al-Qa'ida. These accusations have been denied.

At a press conference on Tuesday night, Mr Bush said he would have moved "heaven and earth to prevent an attack".

"The truth of the matter is, most of the country never felt that we'd be vulnerable to an attack such as the one that Osama bin Laden unleashed on us. We knew he had designs on us. We knew he hated us. But there was nobody in our government ... and I don't think the prior government [who] could envision [anyone] flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale."

However, he did not apologise to the families of the victims.

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