What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXIX.

The tricky issue of Personality and Culture.

The foreign intelligence community did a pretty good job of centralizing information and analysis on threats to American interests abroad and of coordinating a response. However, there was no centralization of information and analysis on domestic threats, no co-ordination of response, and no adequate communication between foreign and domestic intelligence. No one seems to have realized that the domestic agencies had no formal plans or procedures for how to respond to terrorism; no one told the agencies to develop such plans and procedures. (pp. 378-379.) There was no central co-ordination of intelligence analysis or threat assessment. “The mosaic of threat intelligence came from the [CIA’s] Counterterrorist Center, which collected only abroad. Its reports were not supplemented by reports from the FBI.” (p. 294.)

“Beneath the acknowledgement that Bin Laden and al Qaeda presented serious dangers, there was uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced.” (p. 491.) Richard Clarke failed in repeated efforts to get the Clinton administration to recognize al Qaeda as a first order threat, and he was still trying to get a decision on this from the new Bush administration in early September 2001. However, no one—even Richard Clarke—ever forced an open debate on the issue. (p. 491.)

NB: A point worth considering. The above analyses fairly frequently point out the deficiencies of the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department because all three of them privilege the local commanders (so to speak) over central authority. Local offices tend to have autonomy about what they do and how they do it within the broad outlines of general policy defined from the center. However, at the start of Chapter Five, “Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland,” there appears the following remark. “Bin Laden and his chief of operations,…, occupied undisputed leadership positions atop al Qaeda’s organizational structure. Within this structure, al Qaeda’s worldwide terrorist operations relied heavily upon the ideas and work of enterprising and strong-willed field commanders who enjoyed considerable autonomy.” (p. 210.) How could the same system work FOR al Qaeda and AGAINST the United States?

President Clinton apparently grew impatient with the inability of the United States government to make Bin Laden just go away. President Clinton once remarked to JCS Chairman (and Green Beret and former commander of all Special Forces) Hugh Shelton that “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.” Shelton subsequently declared that he didn’t remember Clinton making the statement and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that he thought the President might have been making a hypothetical statement, however Clinton has repeatedly stated that he said this. (p. 272.) NB: It’s like listening to my 13 year-old—when he was younger.

“According to Clarke, [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger upbraided DCI [George] Tenet so sharply after the Cole attack—repeatedly demanding to know why the United States had to put up with such attacks—that Tenet walked out of a meeting of the principals.” (p. 278.) In Summer 2001 Tenet engaged in a lot of hand wringing about ordering a lethal attack on Bin Laden. “Are America’s leaders comfortable with the CIA doing this, going outside of normal military command and control? Charlie Allen told us that when these questions were discussed at the CIA, he and the Agency’s executive director, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, had said that either one of them would be happy to pull the trigger, but Tenet was appalled, telling them that they had no authority to do it, nor did he.” (reported, p. 305.) NB: What would Dulles, or Helms, or Colby have said?

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What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVIII.

So, there were flaws in how the government professionals responded to the danger posed by al Qaeda. How did elected officials do?

 

The Carter administration began the practice of having counter-terrorism co-ordinated by an NSC staff member in the White House. A civil servant, Richard Clarke, took over the function of co-ordinating policies on trans-national crime, narcotics, and terrorism (“drugs and thugs”) in the Reagan administration after Olly North’s “arms for hostages enterprise ran aground. The Clinton administration kept Clarke on. Beginning in 1995 the Clinton administration took a considerable interest in resisting terrorism: the anti-terrorism budget of the FBI was substantially increased and the budgets of the CIA ceased to decline; the US leaned on foreign countries to stop providing shelter to terrorists; and Richard Clarke was promoted to be “national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism.” (pp. 144-150.) In theory, Clarke was supposed to report through the Deputies Committee; in practice Clarke reported directly to a restricted sub-group of the Principals. (p. 288.)

However, Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in February 1998, but neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush went to Congress for a corresponding declaration of war against Osama Bin Laden. This limited the possibilities for action against Bin Laden. (NB: On the other hand, how do you declare war against one guy living in a cave in the most backward place on earth?)

 

In the wake of the Watergate scandals, Congress created House and Senate select committees to over-see the work of the intelligence agencies (and to keep them from making a mess on the carpet). However, the Armed Services committees have real authority over the intelligence agencies, so the intelligence budgets rise and fall with the over-all levels of defense spending.

The grab for a “peace dividend” in the 1990s by cutting defense budgets also drove down intelligence budgets; Congress wasn’t interested in terrorism as a problem; and Congress has become progressively less capable of exercising over-sight of the executive branch in recent decades. Instead of carefully reviewing the implementation of laws and programs, Congressional committees have shifted to “a focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention.” (Quoted, p. 155.) They certainly did nothing to push the executive branch to reorganize itself to deal with the post-Cold War world. (pp. 150-157.) NB: The general coarsening of American public life showed up here as well.

 

What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVII.

The Federal Aviation Administration thought that security was not much of an issue and that a bombing was more likely than a hijacking, let alone a suicide-hijacking. Even so, FAA security was “seriously flawed prior to 9/11.” (p. 123.) Its intelligence assessment was focused overseas and in any event was ignored by the FAA leadership. No one in the other sections of the government (CIA, FBI, State Department) ever bothered to pass the multiple thousands of names on government terrorist “watch lists” to the FAA for inclusion on its passenger pre-screening lists. Many tests of passenger boarding security indicated that it could be easily breached, but no one ever took the matter seriously because effective measures would make air travel more cumbersome and even more of a pain in a neck that it was already. There were only 33 air marshals, and they guarded overseas flights.

Air carriers—or the security firms to which they contracted out the work—simply ignored requirements for continuous random searches of carry-on luggage. Previous experience with hijackings led to a common prescribed strategy of cooperation and conciliation. (pp. 121-126.)

The State Department had dominated the making and implementation of American foreign policy until the end of the Eisenhower administration in 1960; the Kennedy-Johnson administrations shifted leadership to the Defense Department, which took up the task with a will; the Nixon administration then concentrated leadership in the National Security advisor.   Budgets followed function, reducing the means the diplomats possessed to match their declining importance. (pp. 137-138.)

In the Sixties and Seventies terrorism wasn’t very important, so it was left to the State Department. Thereafter, terrorism policy became a tin can kicked from one place to another: in the Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski seized control of the issue during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1981; in the Regan administration Secretary of State George Schultz adopted an aggressive stance on the matter in the Eighties, but found himself blocked by Caspar Weinberger’s resistance to military solutions; the Clinton State Department was largely indifferent to the issue relative to more pressing tasks. (pp. 138-140.)

Since the Eighties the military services have emphasized “jointness” (or you don’t get promoted). This has tended to homogenize the military advice provided to political leaders and it definitely shifted the balance of power within the services to favor the regional commands over the central authority of the Joint Chiefs. (pp. 140-141.) [NB: You will notice the parallel to the autonomy of CIA station chiefs and FBI SAICs.]

Once the Israelis whacked the Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe (1976) and the West Germans did the same at Mogadishu (1977), the Army created Delta Force. Delta Force suffered a humiliating catastrophe during the attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages (1980), then Hezbollah truck bombed the Marines in Beirut; then Army Special Forces suffered a perceived defeat in Mogadishu (1993). The American military took from these reverses a belief that special operations required “maximum preparation, overwhelming force, and a well-defined mission.” (p. 142.) Conversely, air strikes against Libya (1986) and against Iraq (1993) in response to acts of state-sponsored terrorism seemed to the American military to define an effective use of conventional military power against unconventional enemies. (pp. 143-144.)

Conversely, foreign terrorists may have taken the lesson that the Americans could be forced into retreat by relatively minor casualties suffered in spectacular acts of terrorism, and would respond to attack by blowing up a building, then going away. (pp. 143-144.)

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXV.

What Went Wrong?

The truck bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993 had several noteworthy features. First, it heralded the arrival of a new sort of terrorism intended to create massive casualties among American civilians. Second, the American government responded in a devastating fashion through its law enforcement agencies. Third, the successful law enforcement response led American officials to both underestimate the new danger facing the country and to over-estimate the ability of the government to respond to that danger. (pp. 105-107.)

 

Adaptation—and Non-adaptation—in the Law Enforcement Community.

Superficially, it appeared that the FBI was taking strong action against terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986 Congress authorized the FBI to investigate anti-American terrorism abroad; in 1989 Congress authorized the FBI to arrest people abroad without the consent of the host country. (pp. 109-111.) Louis Freeh (Director of the FBI, 1993-2001) established a Counterterrorism Division in the FBI, created a five year plan for counterterrorism (1998), multiplied the number of “legal attaches” abroad and urged them to co-operate with the local CIA stations.

The reality was very different. First, the FBI grants a lot of autonomy to each of its 56 Special Agents in Charge (SACs) to run their field offices; assesses performance on the basis of conventional crime statistics; rewards the “office of origin” for success in operations that involve more than one field office; and promotes on the basis of performance. Hence, FBI agents had powerful disincentives to investigate terrorism or espionage, or to co-operate with an investigation in a different field office. (pp. 108-109.)

The tendency toward local autonomy was strongly reinforced by Louis Freeh’s tenure as Director of the FBI (1993-2001). Moreover, Freeh never forced the re-allocation of budget resources to s upport counterterrorism and never forced the field offices to actually direct their efforts toward combating terrorism. This showed up in the hiring and deployment of analysts, the allocation of agents to intelligence and counterterrorism work, and the failure to create an effective system of information processing and communication with regard to terrorism. (pp. 111-114.)

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXIV.

At about 9:45 the President told the Vice President that “We’re at war… somebody’s going to pay.” (p. 61.) According to Richard Clarke, on the evening of 12 September 2001 President Bush told him to “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.” (p. 478.)

 

In a Principals meeting on 13 September 2001 the group “concluded that if Pakistan decided not to help [deal with al Qaeda and the Taliban], it too would be at risk.” Richard Armitage then gave the ambassador from Pakistan and the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service a list of American requirements that same day. (p. 473.) Pakistan immediately (that same day) agreed with the American requests. (p. 474.)

 

On 9/11 the Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs, General Hugh Shelton, was out of the country. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld therefore worked closely with the Vice Chairman, General Richard Myers. (p. 59.) On the afternoon of 9/11, Rumsfeld told Myers that his instinct was to attack Saddam Hussein as well as Bin Laden. Rumsfeld explained to the Commission investigators that he considered it possible that either one of them was responsible for the attack. (pp. 478-479.)  In a conference of leading officials late on 11 September 2001, “Secretary Rumsfeld urged the President and the principals to think broadly about who might have harbored the attackers, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, and Iran. He wondered aloud how much evidence the United States would need in order to deal with these countries, pointing out that major strikes could take up to 60 days to assemble.” (p. 472.) NB: Decide who you are going to hit, get the preparations going, then turn to looking for evidence so that you can act as soon as you lay the evidence out in the court of international public opinion.

Between 12 and 14 September 2001 the Defense Department prepared a paper for inclusion in the briefing book for the Camp David meeting. This paper argued that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraq formed the most pressing targets in the war on terrorism. Iraq was linked to support for terrorism and to the quest for WMDs. (p. 479.)

On the week-end of 15-16 September 2001 Bush brought his war council to Camp David. According to Condaleeza Rice, at the first session Rumsfeld asked what should be done about Iraq and Wolfowitz argued in favor of hitting Iraq during “this round” of the war on terrorism. (p. 478.)   According to Colin Powell, “Paul [Wolfowitz] was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with. And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.” (Quoted, p. 479.) Wolfowitz’s views did not prevail in the discussion. President Bush subsequently told Bob Woodward that the council decided against attacking Iraq in the first session on the morning of 15 September 2110. (pp. 479-480.)

Wolfowitz is not a guy to take “No” for an answer. On 17 September 2001 he sent Rusmfeld a memo in which he reviewed Saddam Hussein’s record of supporting terrorism and the theories that Ramzi Yousef had been an Iranian agent. He concluded by arguing that Saddam Hussein should be eliminated even if there was only a ten percent chance of Iraq’s involvement in the attacks. (p. 480.) On 18 September 2001 Wolfowitz sent Rumsfeld another memo or a note adding the information that Ramzi Yousef’s co-conspirator in the Manila plot had also talked about crashing a plane into CIA headquarters. (p. 480.)

On 18 September 2001 Clarke sent to Rice a memo on a “Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraqi Involvement in the September 11 Attacks.” Clarke found no compelling evidence of Iraqi involvement and several reasons why Iraq and al Qaeda would not cooperate. (p. 478.)

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXIII.

The first thing to say is that the suddenness of the attacks overwhelmed all concerned, both in the air and on the ground. The seizures of the planes took place between 15 and 45 minutes after take-off. The planes crashed between 20 and 45 minutes after seizure. The attackers were eager to get it done. The planes were seized over the course of about an hour and a quarter. People on the ground became aware that hijackings underway over the course of an hour and thirteen minutes. (Even before being informed of the fourth hijacking, FAA’s Command Center ordered a nationwide “ground stop.” That is, everyone was ordered to get their planes on the ground as soon as possible and no more flights were allowed to take off.) The planes crashed over the course of an hour and seventeen minutes. This prevented an effective response.

What would have constituted an “effective response”? Shooting down the first three planes before they hit their targets. Fomenting revolts by cell-phone on the first three planes on the grounds that “you’re all going to die anyway.”

The second thing to say is that there was some confusion on the ground. Thus, AA 11 hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM. At 9:16 was AA HQ aware that AA 11 had hit the WTC.

At 9:20, FAA HQ informed the Boston Air Traffic Control (ATC) Center that AA 11 was still airborne. At 9:21, Boston ATC Center informed North American Air Defense Sector (NEADS) that AA 11 was still airborne and headed for Washington. Thus, between 8:56 and 9:05, a radar glitch left Indianapolis ATC Center blind to real position of AA 77. Indianapolis ATC assumed that the plane had crashed. Meanwhile, by 9:05, AA HQ had become aware that AA 77 had been hijacked. Between 9:05 and 9:10, AA 77 reappeared on Indianapolis radar headed east. However, observers had stopped looking for it because it was believed to have crashed and they did not notice it. It flew east for another 36 minutes undetected. Thus, only at 9:34 did the FAA informally—almost accidentally–advise NEADS that AA 77 was missing. At 9:36 NEADS was informed that there is a fast-moving, unidentified aircraft in-bound toward Washington. At 9:37 AA 77 hit the Pentagon.

The American Air Traffic Control system is not a battlefield management system. It does something else.

The third thing to say is that the federal bureaucracy appears to promote people based on their ability to follow established procedures, with a bias toward not getting people riled up. In the case of AA 11, the first plane seized, between 8:25 and 8:32 the Boston ATC Center notified the chain of command above that a plane had been hijacked. At 8:32, the FAA Command Center, Herndon, VA, informed FAA HQ of the hijacking. However, FAA HQ did not inform National Military Command Center (NMCC) as protocol required. On the other hand, between 8:34 and 8:38, the Boston ATC Center by-passed the established protocol and directly contacted NEADS. By 8:38, Boston ATC notified NEADS of hijacking.

Between 8:38 and 8:46, NEADS obtained approval from the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to scramble the fighters. At 8:46, NEADS ordered fighter jets from Otis AFB to “scramble” (get in the air ASAP). This was the same moment that AA 11 hit the WTC North Tower. By 8:53, the NEAD jets from Otis were airborne.

There is a certain resemblance between the Boston ATC people bypassing procedure to directly contact NEADS and the improvised manhunt for al Qaeda terrorists already in the United States conducted in Summer 2001 by junior officers at CIA and FBI. Never buck anything up the line because someone will say “No.”

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXII.

Back in the 1990s both the FBI and the Federal Aviation Authority became concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks on US airlines. The chief concern of the security officials was that someone might buy a ticket, check luggage containing a time-bomb, and then not board the flight (allowing some anxious college student traveling stand-by to heave a sigh of relief and rush to take the seat suddenly made available). To address this problem, a Computer-Assisted-Passenger-Pre-Screening (CAPPS) system was created. The system cross-checked names of passengers against security “watch lists.” If a passenger name appeared on a “watch list,” the passenger’s checked luggage was held off the plane until the passenger had actually boarded the plane and could be screened for explosives. No supplementary examination of the passenger took place.

CAPPS formed the chief line of defense for the airlines on 11 September 2001.

Airlines and government security officials did not anticipate either suicide bombings or hijackers turning the planes themselves into cruise missiles. Was there any basis for anticipating such acts?

A dozen airliners were hijacked in the 1960s; 42 were hijacked in the 1970s; 24 were hijacked in the 1980s; 16 had been hijacked in the 1990s; and 6 were hijacked in 2000 or early 2001. It would have been easy to assume that this problem was well on its way to being controlled. Occasionally–once in 1987, once in 1988, and twice in 1994–there had been failed attempts to seize an airliner to use as a cruise missile against a building. In 1991 Shamil Besaev, a leader of the Chechen opposition to Russia, had hijacked a jet.

In 1983 Hezbollah suicide bombers had attacked the American embassy, and the U.S. Marine and French barracks in Beirut. About fifty other suicide attacks followed.

Between 1987 and 2000 the Tamil Tigers carried out many perhaps as many as 175 suicide bombings.

Between July 1989 and December 2000 Hamas and Palestinian Jihad had carried out 28 suicide attacks directed against Israel. The attacks had killed 170 people. Between January and August 2001, Hamas and Palestinian Jihad had conducted 26 suicide attacks directed against Israel. The attacks had killed 52 people. So, a sudden spike in suicide attacks.

In Summer 2000, Chechen suicide attacks on Russian troops took place in the North Caucasus region. These were ordered by Shamil Basaev.

Most pertinently, Al Qaeda had used suicide bombers to attack the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000.

That amounts to a lot of disparate pieces of the jig-saw puzzle to put together.

Boston: American 11 and United 175. In Portland, Maine, boarding his connecting flight to Logan Airport, Mohamed Atta had been identified by CAPPS as subject to special security precautions: his checked luggage was held aside until it was confirmed that he had boarded the plane. (p. 4.) At Logan, three other members of his team were identified by CAPPS and the same restriction on loading luggage was applied. (p. 5.)

Washington Dulles: American 77. Three members of the hijacking team were selected by CAPPS; two others were picked out by a suspicious counter agent. All five had their checked luggage held off the plane until it was confirmed that they had boarded the plane. (pp. 5-6.)

Newark: United 93. One of the hijacking team members was selected by CAPPS. His checked bag was checked for explosives, then loaded on the plane when none were detected. (p. 7.)