A New Look at the CIA’s Pre-9/11 Mindset Reveals Uncomfortable Truths About Intel
An inspector general report shows what’s gotten better in the past decade — and what’s still a problem.
Last week, in response to long-standing FOIA requests, the CIA declassified—with significant redactions—five documents related to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The most notable was a June 2005 Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report into CIA accountability regarding the findings of the Report of the Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, which was produced by the House and Senate intelligence committees. That joint inquiry was published in December 2002—long before the 9/11 Commission report—and served as the most comprehensive public investigation into Intelligence Community (IC) shortcomings. The 2005 OIG report reviewed the joint inquiry’s central findings to determine if senior CIA officials should be reprimanded for their actions.
Most attention on the OIG report has focused on the now-declassified finding about allegations of Saudi Arabia’s support for al-Qaeda. Those who believed that the CIA had intentionally hid evidence of Saudi Arabia-al-Qaeda connections were surely disappointed by this key passage:
The [OIG Accountability Review] Team encountered no evidence that the Saudi Government knowingly and willingly supported al-Qa’ida terrorists. Individuals in both the Near East Division (NE) and the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) [redacted] told the Team they had not seen any reliable reporting confirming Saudi Government involvement with the financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11, although a few also speculated that dissident sympathizers within the government may have aided al-Qa’ida. (p. 440)
Beyond this brief declassified portion of the OIG report, there were many fascinating findings and insights, which are useful to understand the IC’s approach to terrorism before 9/11, as well as the type of constraints and organizational biases that make intelligence analysis so inherently difficult. One wonders which of these pre-9/11 shortcomings—so obvious with the benefit of hindsight—are having a comparable impact on intelligence collection and analysis today.
The following consists of the top ten insights from the June 2005 CIA OIG report, with context and commentary provided for each:
The Team found:
• No comprehensive strategic assessment of al-Qa’ida by CTC or any other component.
• No comprehensive report focusing on UBL since 1993.
• No examination of the potential for terrorists to use aircraft as weapons, as distinguished from traditional hijackings.• Limited analytic focus on the United States as a potential target.
• No comprehensive analysis that put into context the threats received in the spring and summer of 2001.
That said, the CTC’s analytic component, the Assessments and Information Group (AIG), addressed aspects of these issues in several more narrowly focused strategic papers and other analytic products. The personnel resources of AIG were heavily dedicated to policy support and operational-support activities. Analysis focused primarily on current and tactical issues rather than on strategic analysis. (pp. xvii-xviii)
(3PA: Intelligence analysts, then and now, rarely have the amount of time that they would like to conduct the sort of in-depth strategic analyses that policymakers want. Another document that the CIA published last week, with fewer redactions than previous versions, was an August 2001 OIG Inspection Report of the DCI Counterterrorism Center (CTC) Directorate of Operations. That report found that the CTC’s primary analytical arm, the AIG (Assessment and Information Group) devoted “a significant amount of time—interviewees estimated between 30 and 50 percent—to counterterrorism operations support, working closely with their colleagues in the [redacted] operations groups on targeting and planning aimed at penetrations, recruitments, renditions, and disruptions.” In other words, they were helping to capture and kill terrorists rather than undertake long-range analysis of terrorism.)
…Differences between the CIA and the Department of Defense over the cost of replacing lost Predators also hampered collaboration over the use of that platform in Afghanistan. The Team concludes, however, that other impediments, including the slow-moving policy process, reduced the importance of these CIA-military differences. (p. xxii)
(3PA: The pre-9/11 fight between the Pentagon and CIA over who would pay for the Predator, and have the final authority to approve drone strikes, was what led to the CIA becoming the lead executive agency for drone strikes after 9/11. This historical act of bureaucratic happenstance was never intended to be a permanent solution, yet remains with us today.)
…The intelligence priorities in place on 11 September 2001 were based on Presidential Decision Directive (PDD)-35, signed by President Clinton on 2 March 1995. [redacted]
The Intelligence Community’s approach to priorities in the years following PDD-35 was to add issues to the various tiers, but not to remove any. Nor was there any significant effort to connect intelligence priorities to resource issues–providing increases to some while decreasing resources provided to lower priority issues. The 9/11 Team believes that a formal reprioritization of intelligence priorities in the years leading up to 9/11 might have provided important context for resource decisions relating to counterterrorism. A number of senior leaders, including the DCI, have stated that the IC had to deal with major challenges that competed for available resources. Indeed, as a Tier 1B issue, terrorism remained at the same level–at least in the formal prioritization [redacted] until after 9/11. (pp. 137-139)
(3PA: It is amazing to think that this was the haphazard manner by which the IC provided guidance for intelligence collection and analysis, with such incomplete prioritization. Starting in February 2003, this process was replaced by the more rigorous National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is reviewed annually, at least, by the president and senior national security officials.)
…The budget-related actions of the former Chief of CTC might also have contributed to a negative perception of CTC within OMB. [redacted] stated that OMB officers were skeptical when the Agency pushed for permanent increases in its counterterrorism budget because they thought a lot of it was “crying wolf;” this officer recalled that the then-Chief of CTC would give what he called the “dead baby” speech. (pp. 191-192)
(3PA: Employing the threat of terrorist fatalities to obtain more resources remains a consistent tactic, as does the disbelief of budget officials and congressional appropriators that more money is needed by the military and IC.)
…CTC also hired contractors to help address personnel needs. The number of term employees (blue-badge contractors) was relatively small, however, the Team was unable to obtain reliable data on the number of independent and industrial contractors working in the CTC during FY 1996-2001. Thus, the Team was not able to assess the full extent of CTC’s efforts to augment its staff using contractors. (p. 197)
(3PA: Just as today, the military and IC use contractors to enhance their workforce, but fail to compile good data about those contractors, or use that data to employ contractors in a more effective and less costly manner. In July 2010, when the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked how many contractors were in the IC, he replied, “We can certainly count up the number of government employees that we have, absolutely. Counting contractors is a little bit more difficult.”)
…The Team therefore cannot accurately determine the overall size of the analyst cadre devoted to working on al-Qa’ida immediately prior to 9/11. The Team believes it is probably somewhat higher than the Joint Inquiry’s figure of “fewer than 40” but, based on our analysis, it is below the 49 – 34 in AIG plus 15 in the DI–which CTC offered in 2002 as the number of analysts working on al-Qa’ida prior to 9/11. (p. 228)
(3PA: Before 9/11, there were only forty to fifty analysts working on al-Qaeda.)
…AIG analysts in [redacted] who worked most closely on al-Qa’ida undertook only limited alternative analysis in the years prior to 9/11, however. In a review of analytic papers produced by [redacted] the Team found only one example of such analysis; [redacted]. In interviews, most of the analysis in [redacted] recall utilizing no alternative analysis, and “did not have the luxury to do so.” That said, the [redacted] FY 02 Research Plan listed a paper, “Key UBL Assumptions Check,” which was to take a comprehensive look at the key assumptions underlying analysis of the entire Bin Ladin issue and which likely would have employed alternative analysis techniques; 9/11 occurred before the branch could get to this paper.
Probably in response to this dearth of pre-9/11 alternative analysis, on 12 September 2001, the DCI created the Red Cell, a unit of senior DI analysts and other IC officers tasked with thinking “outside the box” on counterterrorism. In short order, the Red Cell’s nontraditional approach began receiving praise from the President, Vice President, and other senior policymakers. Later, the Red Cell’s mandate expanded to other intelligence topics. (pp. 247-249)
(3PA: IC analysts and policymaker-consumers constantly express their desire to produce and receive alternative analysis, which is distinct from main-line authoritative analysis. However, the “tyranny of the inbox” often makes this an impractical task—a concern that remains prevalent in the CIA and elsewhere to this day. Also, my forthcoming book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, includes a case study on the creation and development of the CIA’s Red Cell.)
…The price of the dashed hopes of action against the UBL by the tribal assets became clearer in December. On 20 December, [redacted] reported Bin Ladin’s return to Kandahar where the tribal assets could most easily monitor his activities. This set up an intense period during which the assets considered a ground attack on Bin Ladin, while policymakers and CIA considered a cruise missile attack. [redacted] After some delays, on 23 December they picked either 25 or 26 December for their operation to capture Bin Ladin.
The Chief of the UBL Station, [redacted] meanwhile, reported [redacted] on 22 December that [redacted]. He predicted that the interest in this [redacted] among the CIA leadership and at the NSC would be “intense.” Asset-reporting problems on the 22nd prevented any action on that date. On 23 December, at noon and then again at 7:30 pm Islamabad time, [redacted] reported that Bin Ladin [redacted].
With this information in hand, the CIA and policymakers, including the National Security Advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Attorney General, the DCI, and the Assistant DCI for Collection (ADCI/C), among others, deliberated on launching a cruise missile attack against Bin Ladin while he slept. Recollections vary slightly in detail but agree on the most important point: the outcome of the meeting. The CIA presented its information derived from the tribal assets. CTC appeared confident that the information was accurate, initially offering an estimate of 75-percent reliability; under questioning from the National Security Advisor [Sandy Berger], however, it lowered the estimate to 50 percent.
According to one participant [in the White House meeting], in response to concerns from some Principals about the potential for killing innocent civilians, the military presented two estimates that diverged greatly on the anticipated extent of collateral damage. One participant recalls that the JCS-2 asserted that the collateral damage would be tolerable. Then officers from the [redacted] gave numbers perhaps three times as high as those from the J-2. In the end, the session ended with the decision not to act. The DCI in his testimony later said that, in this case, as in others where policymakers contemplated missile attacks against Bin Ladin, information on the Saudi terrorist’s location was based on a single thread of intelligence, and they made the decision that it was not good enough. Others told the Team that the estimated collateral damage was also an important factor.
The ADCI for Collection recalls that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Gen. Hugh Shelton] pulled out charts estimating a high number of deaths and injuries and that he said the proponents of launching the missiles “want me to kill 600 people.” (pp. 375-376)
(3PA: The CIA lowering its probability estimate of the accuracy of the intelligence from 75 percent to 50 percent after questioning from Berger violates every principle of providing analytical support to policymakers. Similarly, different military officers providing differing estimates of the collateral damage from a cruise missile strike against bin Ladin is not the sort of sound military advice that civilian officials require when authorizing the use of force.)
…A more general explanation for deciding against collective action that was applicable to all contemplated cruise missile attacks was the inherent delay in the process. According to UBL Station’s late May 1999 assessment of the 13-16 May period, even with improvement in timeliness, the normal delays from the time [redacted] observed events to the time the information about those events arrived at CIA Headquarters would be from one to three hours. The time needed first to process the information at Headquarters and to get the National Command Authority decision to launch missiles and then for the cruise missile to arrive at their target made for great uncertainty whether the person targeted (Bin Ladin) would remain in place long enough to be hit. (p. 378)
(3PA: The impossibility of knowing bin Ladin’s location one to three hours into the future was what compelled the Clinton administration to push the CIA and military to find a weapons platform that would “collapse the kill chain.” Thus, by February 16, 2001, the United States had successfully developed and tested the armed Predator drone.)
…Judging by the available evidence, the Agency was unable to satisfy the demands of the top leadership in the US military for precise, actionable intelligence before the military leadership would endorse a decision to deploy US troops on the ground in Afghanistan or to launch cruise missile attacks against UBL-related sites beyond the 1998 retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. The military demanded a precision that, in CIA’s view, the Intelligence Community was incapable of providing.
Military interviewees offered their views on why senior military officials (and policymakers) generally were reluctant to act on intelligence. One senior military interviewee [redacted] told the 9/11 Team that the military had a cultural reluctance and distrust about working with CIA prior to 9/11. [redacted] saidsome in the military feared that, if the military went into Afghanistan and the going got rough, the CIA would leave them in the lurch. (p. 401)
(3PA: Again, it is difficult to remember that the military and CIA once had an inherent dislike of each other, and routinely protected their own bureaucratic interests at the expense of achieving shared national missions.)
This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.