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After an immense intelligence failure, A bold shake-up?
International Herald Tribune

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on June 4th, 2002

Disarray rather than radical reform is the order of the day as congressional hearings begin this Tuesday and Washington finally grapples with the immense intelligence failure that preceded the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

No heads rolled in September. The CIA director, George Tenet, stayed on even though he was a Clinton appointee. Robert Mueller had taken over the FBI only a week before the attack, which made him an implausible scapegoat. The Bush administration was new to office. The CIA in particular mounted an astonishingly successful public relations defense.

Democrats in Congress started the political fighting a few weeks ago, intoning the dread words "What did the president know and when did he know it?" This followed discovery of buried memoranda and warning letters showing that the FBI and the CIA had more data than they had admitted, but failed to communicate with each other or the executive branch.

The Democratic leadership backed off as the blame trail began to lead back to Clinton. His administration hobbled intelligence gathering ability, with executive orders banning, for example, contact with persons suspected of crimes or human rights violations. (How then do you interview possible terrorists?) Some areas of investigation became knownas off-limits for fear of embarrassing discoveries, or of those requiring difficult action.

The deeper problem is bureaucratic sclerosis and complacency. The CIA's new building with its glass walls and immaculate plantings brings to mind C. Northcote Parkinson's observation that the demise of an enterprise begins with its move to new headquarters.

Take language and area competence. Why has so little been learned about Al Qaeda from the detainees in Guantanamo? Is it because the prisoners are hardened professionals, trained to resist all the interrogators' tricks? No, the problem is a simple shortage of qualified Americans who speak their languages.

The U.S. forte in intelligence gathering is electronics and imagery. For local knowledge, Washington depends far more than is healthy on other countries' intelligence services.

Various U.S. databases cannot communicate with one another. A Princeton computer professor, James Shinn, has proposed some improvised solutions that could be applied cheaply and in months, but he has no takers. The bureaucracy prefers the multi-year, multi-billion-dollar approach.

Add to this the inability to identify key pieces of information in the mountains of chaff collected, or to integrate various types of intelligence. This latter problem is aggravated by bureaucratic rivalries that today have key players not on speaking terms.

Obviously, drastic housecleaning is in order. But we will likely see instead familiar American-style congressional posturing and continuing cover-ups, especially at the CIA.

Tenet has buried an authoritative report that, according to the press, found severe fault with the agency's China operations. It was commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with experts led by General John Tilelli. Access to the document has been denied to high administration officials and even to most of the senators who requested it.

Mueller's attempts to fix the FBI are perhaps sincere, but his agency has almost none of the language and foreign knowledge resources for counterintelligence on American soil.

One hope exists. It is that as the Sept. 11 intelligence failure becomes a political issue, George W. Bush may decide to stop protecting those who were part of it. A bold shake-up could be in the works.

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