What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? I

By the end of the 20th century the CIA was “an organization capable of attracting extraordinarily motivated people, but institutionally averse to risk, with its capacity for covert action atrophied, predisposed to restrict the distribution of information, having difficulty assimilating new types of personnel, and accustomed to presenting descriptive reportage of the latest intelligence.” (p. 137.)

How had this situation come into being?

First, “although covert actions represent a very small fraction of the [CIA’s] entire budget, these operations have at times been controversial and over time have dominated the public’s perception of the CIA.” (p. 126.) Furthermore, whenever covert actions turned into highly public exploding cigars, the Presidents who ordered them have left CIA officers to carry the can. The CIA became very reluctant to engage in them. (p. 132.) Eisenhower’s initiation of and JFK’s approval of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs scheme offered an important early example of this behavior. Allen Dulles lost his job as head of CIA and Dick Bissell got fired. It would not be the last time. The Global War on Terror involved “extraordinary rendition,” “secret prisons,” and torture, all under presidential order. Now there is a public shaming of the CIA officers who acted on those orders.

Second, Counter-Intelligence chief James J. Angleton’s long obsession with a Soviet “mole” in the CIA, then the Aldrich Ames case in 1994, left the Agency security conscious almost to the point of paralysis. The CIA disliked everything that it heard about the then-new Internet communications and it established almost impossible barriers to the recruitment of agents who could be used against foreign terrorist groups. (pp. 134-135.)

Third, intelligence agency budgets were sharply reduced from 1990 to 1996, then kept flat from 1996 to 2000. Policy-makers insisted upon ever more-robust technological capabilities in intelligence gathering, without providing additional funds to procure them, so intelligence agencies cannibalized both human intelligence and analysis to get the money. (p. 136.)

In the Clandestine Service the budget cuts of the Nineties meant the loss of many experienced officers and the closure of facilities abroad. The CIA adapted to this by relying heavily upon foreign intelligence service liaison, and by “surging” (running around putting out brushfires instead of covering regions with experts).

After the end of the Cold War, the Directorate of Intelligence’s “university culture with its version of books and articles was giving way to the culture of the newsroom.” (p. 133.) That is, analysts began churning out descriptive reports on more subjects based on a shallower understanding than had been previous reports.

People recognized that a problem existed at CIA. In 1997 George Tenet was appointed DCI with the mission of rebuilding the agency. In 1998 and 1999 two panels (the second chaired by Donald Rumsfeld) that evaluated the CIA warned of “the dispersal of effort on too many priorities, the declining attention to the craft of strategic analysis, and security rules that prevented adequate sharing of information.” (p. 134.)   Tenet obtained expanded budgets for all aspects of the CIA. (pp. 512-513.) In 1998 Tenet persuaded both Congress and the Clinton administration to begin rebuilding the Clandestine Service, but the 5-7 years of training needed to bring a new officer up to full speed meant that it would be 2005 or 2006 before the first recruits were of any real use to anyone. (p. 133.)

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

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