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U.S.: Did Intelligence Failure Allow Terror Attacks?

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. military and intelligence services have the world's most sophisticated technology to protect the American people from attack. And yet on 11 September, terrorists were able to commit what is certain to become the worst act of terrorism in history. RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with security analysts to find out whether U.S. intelligence agencies could have -- and should have -- prevented these attacks.

Washington, 13 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of the most persistent questions arising from the 11 September terrorist acts in New York and Washington is whether they could have been prevented.

The U.S. is now the only legitimate superpower, endowed not only with a powerful military but also with powerful electronic hardware that minimizes American casualties and gathers information voraciously.

So how did a group of terrorists manage to hijack four commercial jetliners and mount the attacks on the political and financial capitals of America?

Some analysts say the country has been victimized by a failure of its intelligence services. One is Kenneth Allard, a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy institute in Washington. Allard is unequivocal on the subject.

"It's very clear that not only was there an intelligence failure, but I strongly suspect that when we do the inquiry to find out what did the intelligence agencies know and when did they know it, what we're going to find is that we have been handicapped by a far-too-great reliance on the antiseptically clean and very expensive technical intelligence means that we've contented ourselves with over the years."

He says the U.S. must rely more on people -- spies, in other words -- to gather the kind of information that a camera or a computer cannot gather.

Anna Nelson, a historian at American University in Washington who specializes in national security issues, says the source of America's reliance on high-tech spying is the Cold War.

"We were worried about missiles and we were worried about nuclear bombs, and those things could be seen by U-2 [spy] planes and finally by satellites. We now have a situation where the enemy is very amorphous and can come from many different angles, and I don't think the intelligence agencies have adjusted to that."

Nelson says she also thinks these terror attacks were made possible -- in part, at least -- because there may have been bad management of information gathered by America's two chief intelligence gathering services: the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, which is limited to foreign intelligence, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, which is limited to domestic intelligence.

Nelson says that in the past, the FBI and the CIA were known to have guarded their intelligence so jealously that they often refused to share it with each other. She says the two agencies now claim to have corrected that problem, but she still harbors doubts about such cooperation.

But beyond these doubts, Nelson says she believes the 11 September attacks demonstrate not so much a failure of intelligence, but the limits of intelligence when dealing with terrorist cells.

Nelson says such cells, particularly in the Middle East, are virtually impossible to penetrate because they tend to include people from a single village, even relatives. She notes that an outsider would be quickly discovered. Therefore, she says, the only way to infiltrate these groups is to use a double agent -- essentially someone willing to betray his people, even his family.

This view is also held by Simon Serfaty, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy institute in Washington. He says he doubts that the U.S. could have reasonably anticipated these recent attacks.

Serfaty told RFE/RL that investigators eventually will discover that there were hints that the assaults were going to be made. But such warnings tend to be so numerous that not all can be reasonably taken seriously.

Instead, Serfaty says, the failure was more immediate -- not catching the terrorists before they hijacked the planes later used as flying bombs.

"If there was a failure, I think it was at the airports."

But like Nelson, Serfaty does believe the U.S. intelligence community should pay more attention to what are known as "human assets," and not rely so much on technology. Still, he says there is no guarantee that they would be able to infiltrate terrorist cells, particularly the older ones.

"Some of those cells have become so well established now that, indeed, entering them will be enormously difficult, though not impossible."

Serafty says the relative impenetrability of such cells may not make them entirely invulnerable. He says that any terrorist group capable of mounting attacks like the ones that struck America on 11 September seems to have gone beyond being a target of extradition for trial or intelligence surveillance.

He says the U.S. should take them at their word -- that they are at war with America -- and respond in kind: with military assaults.

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