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Corruption Watch: August 7, 2003

7 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 27

Part 3 of the series "Naftohaz Ukrayiny -- A Study In State-Sponsored Corruption" will appear in the next issue of "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch."
(More on the Report of the Joint Inquiry into "Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001")

By Roman Kupchinsky

Prior to World War II, the United States not only lacked a systematic intelligence-collection and -analysis ability, it prided itself on this fact. Thomas Troy, in his 1981 history of the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) titled "Donovan and the CIA," reminds the reader: "Writing in 1967, George F. Kennan recalled that the 'suspicious Soviet mind' had labeled the Russian research section in the Riga embassy, where he worked from 1931 to 1933, as a 'sinister espionage center,' but, observed the former ambassador, 'the United States Government had not yet advanced to that level of sophistication.' The section, said Kennan, 'had no secret agents, and wanted none.'"

One decade later, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor radically changed American thinking about the need for secret agents. The Office of Special Services (OSS) was formed to gather information about the enemies' strengths and intentions and to warn of possible attacks. In 1947, the CIA was formed to perform permanent intelligence gathering for the U.S. government.

In 1955, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (1953-55) -- also known as the Hoover Commission, formed to examine the structure of the federal government -- declared: "The CIA may well attribute its existence to the attack on Pearl Harbor and to the postwar investigation into the part Intelligence or lack of Intelligence played in the failure of our military forces to receive adequate and prompt warning of the impending Japanese attack."

The memory of Pearl Harbor also reinforced fear of a surprise attack by the new enemy, the USSR. This prompted the formation in 1954 of a "Surprise Attack Study" headed by a prominent scientist, James Killian. This study group concluded that U.S. superiority in nuclear weapons would last only until 1958�60. The study group warned that the USSR was ahead in long-range delivery systems and would soon achieve its own secure nuclear deterrent. The panel recommended the rapid construction of a distant early warning (DEW) radar line in the Canadian Arctic, strengthened air defenses, and measures to increase intelligence-gathering capabilities, both to verify arms-control treaties and to avoid overreaction to Soviet advances. The Killian report provided the rationale for the U-2 spy plane -- which began overflights of the USSR, out of range of Soviet air-defense systems -- in 1956 and the start of a research program to develop reconnaissance satellites to observe the USSR from outer space.

The "level of sophistication" Kennan wrote about reached its height during the Cold War. In his memoirs, published in 1985, titled "Secrecy and Democracy -- the CIA in Transition," former CIA Director Admiral Stanfield Turner, who headed that agency from 1977 till 1981, wrote: "We have the best intelligence capability in the world and have ample justification for believing so."

The early warning systems that were put in place as a result of the Killian report provided a bare minimum of time in order for U.S. forces to launch retaliatory attacks. Fortunately, these early warning systems were never put to the ultimate test, and the Soviet Union has since collapsed. Nevertheless, a devastating attack did occur after the end of the Cold War, and it too came as a surprise despite the ring of early warning systems still in place. As it turned out, the highly efficient reconnaissance satellites that replaced the DEW line could not protect the United States from Al-Qaeda; nor could they forecast Osama bin Laden's intentions.

One partial explanation for the "intelligence failure" of 11 September 2001 can be traced to the weapons and delivery systems developed during the Cold War. The advent of nuclear weapons, launched from missiles high above the Earth's surface and capable of reaching their targets in minutes, forced nations to develop sophisticated and expensive technical countermeasures. Human Intelligence, also known as HUMINT (or better yet, espionage), was tasked with trying to learn the targets and the political and military intentions of the enemy. Were Leonid Brezhnev and his comrades in the Politburo willing and able to push the button that launched the rockets? HUMINT had ceased fulfilling the function of being an early warning system, which it clearly could not accomplish given the nature of nuclear warfare. As technological warning systems rapidly ate up diminishing budgets, the human factor was further relegated to the background.

Allegations of improprieties by agents of the United States translated into another important factor in the downgrading of HUMINT at the time. After a 1974 series in "The New York Times" by Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA had conducted "massive" illegal spying activities against American antiwar protesters and dissidents, Congress and the executive branch convulsed into action. Three separate bodies were created to investigate the intelligence services: Senator Frank Church's committee in the Senate, Otis Pike's committee in the House of Representatives, and a commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

The work of these three investigative bodies led to the formation of congressional intelligence oversight committees to monitor the activities of the CIA. Soon thereafter, stringent limits were placed on the use of agents and their activities. And while some of these restrictions were undeniably needed, some observers believe they had the collateral effect of weakening morale and placing undue restraints on activities in which agents may engage. According to the article "Congressional Oversight and the Crippling of the CIA" by Stephen F. Knott ( "The [Church and Pike] committees increased the number of CIA officials subject to Senate confirmation, condemned the agency for its contacts with unscrupulous characters, prohibited any further contact with these bad characters, insisted that the United States not engage or assist in any coup which may harm a foreign leader.... There is almost universal agreement that the CIA remains overly reliant on technological tools in gathering information on very human, very political, problems. Yet Congress is partly responsible for this, for the intelligence committees (with the support of some in the executive branch)...were determined to keep America's hands clean. Technology was safer -- it kept us at a distance from the 'dirty stuff.'"

By the end of the 1970s, the intelligence community was undergoing rapid changes. In 1977, in what came to be known as "the Halloween Massacre," 820 staff positions were cut from the CIA's Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) -- the former name of the operations section that is now known as the Directorate of Operations, the division responsible for human intelligence.

In late 1979, the situation with HUMINT had become severe and was eliciting criticism from many circles in and out of government. Michael Handel of Harvard University's Center for International Affairs prepared a paper for the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, the text of which is published in its study "Intelligence Requirements for the 1980's �- Analysis and Estimates." In it, Handel wrote: "International terrorism may increasingly be a problem in the 1980's. Better intelligence to counter terrorist activities cannot be based on technological intelligence (e.g. photography, radio and traffic intelligence) but must be based on clandestine agents' activities, or what is called HUMINT -- a method that seldom has any substitutes in fighting terrorism."

A few minutes before dawn on 23 October 1983 on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, a smiling young man drove a yellow Mercedes Benz truck loaded with more than 5,000 kilograms of dynamite past a lone U.S. Marine sentry and slammed his vehicle into the four-story building housing the Beirut Battalion Landing Team, killing 241 U.S. servicemen. The congressional inquiry that investigated the massacre, known as the Long Commission, complained of a failure of HUMINT to provide any warning. Former Director of Central Intelligence Turner had this to say about the Long Commission's criticism: "It was unreasonable to expect the CIA to have anticipated this particular threat far enough in advance to have placed an agent in every terrorist organization. Spies cannot be recruited overnight."

Suddenly, seemingly without warning, a new enemy had appeared. Armed with low-tech weapons such as explosives loaded onto a truck driven by a suicide bomber (such explosives were later carried in body vests), this enemy was killing more Americans than any Soviet Army had. In the case of the 11 September hijackers, linoleum knives were used to murder a pilot and intimidate passengers while the aircraft itself became the actual weapon of mass destruction.

On 12 October 2000, the "USS Cole" was the target of a terrorist attack in the port of Aden, in Yemen. The subsequent Defense Department commission that investigated this attack stated: "Intelligence priorities and resources have shifted from Cold War focus to new and emerging threats only at the margins. We, like other commissions before us, recommend the reprioritization of resources for collection and analysis, including human intelligence and signal intelligence, against the terrorist. Intelligence production must be refocused and tailored to overwatch transiting units to mitigate the terrorist threat. Furthermore, an increase in counterintelligence (CI) resources dedicated to combating terrorism and development of clearer CI assessment standards is required." (The full report is available at

The attackers of the "USS Cole" in October 2000, the Khobar Towers in June 1996, and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, as well as the 11 September attackers, simply bypassed the established high-tech early warning system and played on the dogmas of an intelligence and defense community financially and ideologically wedded to fighting a high-tech war. By September 2001, all components of the government were in agreement that terrorism, and Al-Qaeda in particular, was a threat to the interests of the United States and the Western alliance. But the threat was generally perceived as distant from lower Manhattan, and, according to the recently released joint House-Senate report in the wake of the attack, the chances of it reaching across the ocean in the near future were deemed slim.

DCI Turner's 1985 statement that the U.S. intelligence community was the best there was, while arguably correct at the time, came into doubt after 11 September. The 858-page congressional report states: "This Inquiry has uncovered no intelligence information in the possession of the Intelligence Community prior to the attacks of September 11 that, if fully considered, would have provided specific, advance warning of the details of those attacks."

This conclusion was reached after hundreds of hours of testimony by members of the intelligence community and the U.S. armed forces, and the study of thousands of pages of documents provided to the committee by different agencies of the government. In reaching its conclusion, the joint committee made a number of findings, many of which pointed to serious deficiencies in communications between intelligence agencies and a general belief that if an attack on U.S. personnel were to take place, it would be outside the continental United States. The report (as in the Long Commission report and the DOD report on the "USS Cole" attack) pointed to serious funding problems for U.S. intelligence agencies and a lack of importance attached to the collection of human intelligence by these agencies.

One of the findings of the report concludes: "Finding: Prior to September 11, 2001, the Intelligence Community did not effectively develop and use human sources to penetrate the [Al-Qaeda] inner circle. This lack of reliable and knowledgeable human sources significantly limited the Community's ability to acquire intelligence that could be acted upon before the September 11 attacks. In part, at least, the lack of unilateral (i.e., U.S.-recruited) counterterrorism sources was a product of an excessive reliance on foreign liaison services."

The report further states: "The penetration of [Al-Qaeda] by an Intelligence Community human asset is an exceptionally difficult task. Intelligence Community officials in several agencies told the Joint Inquiry that members of [Osama bin] Ladin's inner circle have close bonds established by kinship, wartime experience, and long-term association. Information about major terrorist plots was not widely shared within [Al-Qaeda], and many of bin Ladin's closest associates lived in war-torn Afghanistan. The United States had no official presence in that country and did not formally recognize the Taliban regime, which viewed foreigners with suspicion. Pakistan is the principal access point to southern Afghanistan, where [Al-Qaeda] was particularly active, but U.S.-Pakistani relations were strained by Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 and a military coup in 1999. This was an exceedingly difficult operational environment in which to conduct clandestine operations. (Nevertheless, CIA officials recognized the imperative of penetrating [Al-Qaeda], particularly at the leadership level. A CTC (Counter Terrorist Center at the CIA) presentation made to the CIA senior leadership on December 2, 1999 noted:

"Without penetrations of [the Osama bin Laden] organization...[Section deleted] While we need to disrupt operations,... we need to also recruit sources inside [Osama bin Laden's] organization. [Section deleted] Realize that recruiting terrorist sources is difficult,... but we must make an attempt.

"On the next day, the CTC briefed the National Security Council Small Group about the CIA's lack of sources and the importance of recruitment: We will continue with disruptions of operations and renditions...but with an increased emphasis on recruiting sources; at this time, we have no penetrations inside [Osama bin Laden's leadership].

"Because this target was such a high priority, the CIA tried many unilateral avenues to obtain access to [bin Laden] and his inner circle. Interviews of CIA officials and documents provided to the Joint Inquiry indicate the CIA tried to...[Section deleted]

"According to documents reviewed by the Joint Inquiry Staff... [Section deleted]

"Despite these creative attempts, former CTC officers told the Joint Inquiry that before September 11 the CIA had no penetrations of [Al-Qaeda's] leadership, and the Agency never got actionable intelligence."

As a result of this investigation by Congress, many have raised the question of whether the U.S. intelligence community relied too much on the technical collection of intelligence about terrorist intentions (such as National Security Agency monitoring of terrorist communications) while relying for HUMINT on the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and, at the same time, not relying enough on HUMINT generated by CIA sources themselves. In the congressional report, there are no clear-cut answers to this question, only suggestions that HUMINT was not fully utilized by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), or the FBI.

The report notes that the terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda prior to the 11 September attacks (the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the "USS Cole") provided justification for declaring a war against terrorism. However, the gathering of HUMINT about the intentions of a shadowy, tightly knit group of international terrorists who operated on a low budget (the report found that the 11 September attacks cost $150,000-250,000 to stage) was deemed difficult at best and, according to the congressional report, not the method of choice.

In the "additional views" section of the congressional report, Senator Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama), the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, writes the following about the uses of HUMINT: "The status quo of IC approaches to human intelligence (HUMINT) was tested against the [Al-Qaeda] threat and found wanting. The CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO) has been too reluctant to develop non-traditional HUMINT platforms, and has stuck too much and for too long with the comparatively easy work of operating under diplomatic cover from U.S. embassies. This approach is patently unsuited to HUMINT collection against nontraditional threats such as terrorism or proliferation targets, and the CIA must move emphatically to develop an entirely new collection paradigm involving greater use of nonofficial cover (NOC) officers. Among other things, this will necessitate greater efforts to hire HUMINT collectors from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds, though without a fundamental shift in the CIA's HUMINT paradigm diversity for diversity's sake will be of little help. The CIA should also spend more time developing its own sources, and less time relying upon the political munificence of foreign liaison services."

Senator Shelby also notes: "As former DCI James Woolsey has observed, '[o]ne needs to use non-official cover officers to recruit spies inside terrorist organizations,' because 'not too many [Al-Qaeda] supporters and friends attend embassy cocktail parties.... Visiting one's liaison counterpart at his office is rather less hazardous than actually developing sources in the souk, and 'State Department' employees are unlikely to be invited to many radical Islamist meetings anyway."

Senator Shelby's views clearly coincide with the observations of Sun Tzu, who in his essays on "The Art of War," written in China in 500 B.C., noted: "What is called 'foreknowledge' cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation."

Can the exact date and place of any possible Al-Qaeda attack in the future be accurately forecast by HUMINT? As Handel wrote in the above-mentioned article: "I have assumed...that it is impossible to avoid surprises entirely (especially as to the time of predicted developments). Therefore, more effort should be devoted to formulating contingency plans and other countermeasures. Learning to know the limitations of even the best intelligence is as important as trying to improve it."