Friday, August 24, 2007

Worth Saving?

Unfortunately, the demands of other projects delayed our comments on the recently-declassified (and released) executive summary by the CIA Inspector General, assessing the agency's performance in the years leading up to 9-11.

The assessment, which was requested by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), has been sitting on the shelf for more than two years, and the agency vigorously fought to prevent its release. The current CIA Director, Air Force General Mike Hayden, claims that release of the report could be "distracting."

"I thought release of this report would distract officers serving their country on the front lines of a global conflict," Hayden said. "It will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well-plowed."

CIA's desire to keep the summary confidential is reflected in its former classification markings. The entire document was once marked with the ORCON caveat, which stands for "originator controlled." While ORCON is often used for classification purposes, it also has a useful administrative function. Had that caveat remained in effect, anyone in government wishing to cite or republish the report would have to secure permission from the CIA. And, if you think such permission would have been forthcoming from Langley, you must believe that George Tenet really had a comprehensive plan for getting Osama bin Laden.

If there's any good news in the executive summary, here it is: As far as the IG can determine, CIA employees broke no laws in their counter-terrorism activities before 9-11. The bad news? The agency's efforts in the years before the attacks were characterized by bureaucratic incompetence and bungling on a scale that is almost unimaginable.

Apparently, bin Laden and his Al Qaida operatives had little to fear from the CIA; as the IG discovered, the agency was beset by ineffective leadership, serious resource shortfalls, squabbles with other agencies, and the lack of a viable plan for analyzing--and combating--the terrorist organization, among other problems. Describing the agency as an intelligence calamity waiting to happen would be charitable. Among the IG's key findings:
  • [Director of Central Intelligence] Tenet and the agencies under his supervision lacked a comprehensive strategic plan to counter al-Qaida prior to Sept. 11.
  • The CIA's analysis of the terror threat before September 2001, was lacking.
  • Counter terror funding was ineffectively managed.
  • The CIA station monitoring bin Laden was overworked and lacked expertise and training.
  • Information about two of the hijackers including their travel to the U.S. in the summer of 2001 was not shared in a timely manner with law enforcement agencies.
The stunning, substantive details of those failures are well-documented in the summary, suggesting that the CIA was adrift, rudderless and unaccountable in the years leading up to 9-11. Mr. Tenet steadfastly maintains that he had a plan to counter Al Qaida, but (according to the IG), that plan was never effectively communicated or implemented within the agency. Analysis of the terrorist organization was slipshod; prior to the 9-11 attacks, the CIA's last major assessment on bin Laden was completed in 1993.

And, if that weren't enough, the agency was often scrambling to fund its counter-terrorism efforts. At one point, Director Tenet had to "go around" the Clinton Administration and obtain $1 billion in supplemental funds through then-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Cooperation with other agencies was notably lacking; within the CIA, officers viewed "detailees" from other organizations as "informants," and they were rarely assigned meaningful work.

The atmosphere of mutual distrust engulfed other agencies as well. The National Security Agency (NSA), then run by General Hayden, refused to share unedited transcripts of communications intercepts (COMINT) with the CIA. While the IG summary doesn't specify the reason for that policy, NSA staffers were undoubtedly concerned about the CIA's reputation for leaks, and feared that some of their most sensitive information could wind up on the front page of The New York Times. The IG does note that NSA offered to allow an officer from the CIA-run Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) to be detailed to Fort Meade, and cull the transcripts for useful information.

Predictably, the CTC sent only one of its staff to NSA for a brief period in 2000, missing another opportunity to glean significant information on Al Qaida leaders and the group's activities. More distressingly, the CIA Director did nothing to resolve the impasse between his agency and the NSA, despite the "priority" he assigned to the counter-terrorism issue.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the IG summary is its recommendation for Accountability Boards to review the performance of (a) the former DCI, Mr. Tenet; (b) the CIA Executive Director in the late 1990s; (c) the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) and (d) the two senior officers who served as Director of the CTC during the same period. In other words, the IG is inferring that CIA management--at the organization's highest levels--failed miserably at their responsibilities in going after Al Qaida, and should be held accountable for their desultory performance (emphasis mine).

To our knowledge, there has never been a similar indictment of senior leadership in the modern history of the intelligence community. But, as the CIA IG observes, the failures leading up to 9-11 were systemic, indicating an organization that was unprepared for the Al Qaida mission, and whose failures contributed to the disaster on 9-11.

The blunt assessment of CIA failures begs another, critical question: has the agency really changed since the late 1990s? Loyalists would say yes, noting the thousands of new employees, new leadership, and better inter-agency cooperation. But call us skeptics; read Kent's Imperative (or other blogs that focus on the intelligence community), and you'll discover that some of the training and experience issues that hobbled the CTC a decade ago still exist. There are also legitimate concerns about the poisonous, political atmosphere that persists within the agency, as illustrated by selective leaks of National Intelligence Estimates and the Valerie Plame affair.

Which brings us to the bottom line: given the failures outlined in the IG summary, is the CIA worth saving? We believe the jury's still out on that one. The new leadership team has made efforts at reform, and to its credit, the CIA has scored some victories in the GWOT. But the agency's reluctance to release the summary suggests a hide-bound organization that can't come to terms with its glaring failures, and remains resistant to change.

That's why we can't wait until the next intelligence failure to determine what's wrong with the CIA. The SSCI should commission another, independent assessment, comparing the CIA before 9-11 against its performance today. Hopefully, that inquiry would show an organization that is much improved and more effective than the CIA of ten years ago. If not, then we need to consider how the Central Intelligence Agency can be replaced.


DebbieKinIL said...

Your last paragraph, said exactly my own thoughts. Check them NOW and also the FBI.

antithaca said...

Doesn't the "slam dunk" (Iraq & WMD) represent your "next intelligence failure"?

Aren't we past the question: Is it worth saving?

Beyond a new name (ie, something other than CIA) it seems to me that what we need is a new institution. Completely re-organized with an entirely new culture.

But hey, I'm just a poorly informed observer looking in. All I see are results. I don't see the process underlying it all.

And maybe that's the point.