by Austin BayDoes a year make a difference? When the issue is the efficiency, competence and foresight ofU.S. intelligence agencies, one hopes the passage of 365 days is more than acalendric event. Of course, Sept. 11, 2001, is the critical mark on that timeline. Its tragic spike moved "the intelligence issue" from the theoreticaland obscure to the immediate and focused. The pros, however, were well aware of America's intelligencedeficiencies prior to 9-11. During his Senate confirmation hearings in mid-January 2001,then-Secretary of Defense-designate Donald Rumsfeld was asked if he couldname "one thing" that "kept him up at night" more than any other specificthreat, terror or trouble the Pentagon confronts. Rumsfeld's answer was "intelligence." Rumsfeld made the comment prior to his elevation to media star.As far as Oprah, Geraldo and the TV squawk show gang were concerned, whatkept Rummy tossing and turning at night wasn't news. I watched those hearings on C-SPAN, America's real window ongovernment. Let me quote from a column I wrote right after that hearing:"Rumsfeld's response fingered what is the major American foreign policy anddefense weakness, even in this era of extraordinary American economic,political and military strength. ... America's "intelligence vulnerability"is intricate, detailed and complex. The penalty for intelligence failure,however, is often cruelly simple. In the defense business, what you don'tknow will kill you. To draw an even finer bead, what you know but understandpoorly, or what you know well but fail to use decisively, will also cost youin blood, money and political capital." Sept. 11 was that cruel simplicity, so blunt a horror. Give the Senate committee scrutinizing Rumsfeld's nomination an"A" for asking the right question and Rumsfeld an "A" for the right answer.However, does the intelligence community (CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA) collectivelyrate an "F" for Sept. 11? I sense a reluctance on the part of Congress to investigate the"intelligence failure," perhaps because the intelligence failure hasnumerous political roots that quickly and uncomfortably tangle with, well,Congress. While the United States has first-class intelligence talent, forthe last two decades the best and the brightest have had to think twiceabout intel careers. Pay's an issue; so is prestige. Some point toStansfield Turner's decapitation of the CIA during the Carter administrationas a source of decline. The covert career also extracts personal costs. Operating indark alleys and hard corners requires moral trade-offs, like payingGuatemalan thugs for tips. Enter congressional and executive-branch zealotswho crucified CIA pros for keeping such thugs on the payroll. However, thugsknow thugs. Ten thousand bucks can elicit information that saves a hundredthousand lives. The terrorist incidents CIA thwarts don't make the news.Professional credit is hush-hush. Spies can't get on Larry King and gushabout success. The lives lost due to "intelligence failures" -- well, thatelicits wall-to-wall media coverage. It also appears the Clinton administration must bear a highdegree responsibility for the "intelligence failure." Particularly troublingare the allegations made by Sudanese businessman and former Clinton campaigncontributor Mansoor Ijaz that a deal to extradite Osama bin Laden wascompletely fumbled by Clinton. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month,Ijaz concluded "Clinton's failure to grasp the opportunity to unravelincreasingly organized extremists, coupled with Berger's assessments oftheir potential to directly threaten the U.S., represents one of the mostserious foreign policy failures in American history." I suspect Congress istired of investigating Clinton. Political fatigue, however is no excuse fordereliction of duty. Has U.S. intelligence improved since 9-11? Our knowledge of Al Qaeda specifically and global terrorism ingeneral has improved dramatically. That "increased granularity," however,proceeds from (1) focusing our high-tech intel assets (satellites,electronic surveillance, etc) or (2) getting cooperation from once-reluctantsources who, either out of fear or sudden good judgment, now wish to talk(this group runs the gamut from Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners to theSudanese government). Our larger deficiencies, however, still hinder the intelligenceeffort: (1) aging high-tech collection capabilities; (2) low morale in theintelligence community; (3) too few qualified, multilingual, culturallysavvy human spies; (4) the legacy of ill-conceived policies that crimpintelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination; and (5) the legacy ofpoor leaders who failed to act on good intelligence information in timelyand decisive fashion. Given 9-11's tragedy, it's time American leaders exhibited thepolitical spine to correct the problems and get Don Rumsfeld a good night'ssleep.
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