Actionable Intelligence

This seemed like a good time to write on an issue that was key to the failure to protect America from the attacks of 2001, an issue that has once again come to the fore in an alarming fashion.

I’ve written about this here and in other places at length so I won’t belabor the point aside from pointing out that the actual foreign intelligence collection in 2000/2001 was actually quite good, and could very well be better today than it was then – emphasis on “could”.

In the period of late 1999 through the summer of 2001 the CIA, working with other governments, had managed to build a reasonably good network around a truly challenging adversary, al Qaeda. In the fall of 1999 the Agency and the Clinton Administration counter terrorism director went to the president’s national security advisor with warnings about Millennium attacks. As always, threat intelligence is only of value when it becomes “actionable”, which means someone at an executive level forces the nation’s security system to respond to it. President Clinton accepted his national security directors (and the CIA’s) concerns and did just that. The result was that a variety of so called “millennium attacks” were interdicted and aborted – but for many reasons, including political ones, you hear nothing about that these days (nor about the aborting of the Bojinka airline attack plot).

Virtually the same warnings were issued beginning in the late summer of 2001, but there was no significant executive response, the intelligence did not become actionable and it stayed down within the system – within the CIA and more importantly within the FBI.  Regardless of warnings from the intelligence community and special briefs to the president from the CIA, special action would have had to been directed towards the FBI and agencies such as the FAA to deal with the threat.  That did not happen, the attacks did.

The point being that in 1999 the president trusted the intelligence community and acted. In 2001 for a variety of reasons, the president did not act. Now, in 2019 we have an American president largely divorced from his national intelligence community, clearly not trusting them, and indeed appearing to trust foreign sources more than what is arguably the best threat intelligence capability on the planet.

Worse yet, due to his disclosures of national security information, the intelligence community does not trust the president – his violations range from exposing details of foreign intelligence collections capability to sharing information which could very well expose foreign assets.

And yes, the CIA did pull an asset out of Russia, it would be insane for them to publicly admit that – and if you buy the Secretary of State’s denial you are probably willing to think the Taliban can be trusted to honor their agreements in Afghanistan (attitude disclosure statement). As to the national security director as a backup, that’s not working out all that well these days.

Possibly even worse than all that – if possible – at this point in time any allied nation intelligence agency who would have previously shared highly security information with the United States has to pull back to save themselves and their sources  – which undermines literally decades of trusted relationships.

Bottom line – not acting on intelligence can have terrible consequences.  Handling it in a compromising fashion can be equally bad.

10 responses »

  1. Anonymous says:

    Larry, you really ought to be reading the transcript of this podcast, showing (as do works by Ali Soufan and Lawrence Wright, but in more detail here) that actionable intelligence on the Al Qaeda Malaysia summit of January 2000, followed by the entrance of two 9/11 hijackers into the US on visas originating at the US consulate in Saudi Arabia, was withheld from FBI by CIA officers at Alec Station until the eve of 9/11, at which time it became unactionable intelligence under the new Bush admin. Why was it held unactionable by CIA in the last days of Clinton?

    • David Andrews says:

      Larry, you really ought to be reading the transcript of this podcast, showing (as do works by Ali Soufan and Lawrence Wright, but in more detail here) that actionable intelligence on the Al Qaeda Malaysia summit of January 2000, followed by the entrance of two 9/11 hijackers into the US on visas originating at the US consulate in Saudi Arabia, was withheld from FBI by CIA officers at Alec Station until the eve of 9/11, at which time it became unactionable intelligence under the new Bush admin. Why was it held unactionable by CIA in the last days of Clinton?

      Larry – Sorry, that’s me up above, forgetting I have to sign in for each comment. Do read that transcript.

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    I’ll have to look back to verify but I’m pretty sure that I covered this in Surprise Attack, in some detail. I reviewed a variety of actionable intelligence held back within the CIA through the end of the Clinton Administration and into the early Bush months. The intel was held back by CIA because they did now want certain individuals picked up or monitored, blowing their surveillance…that was especially true of individuals who entered the U.S. In turn, the FBI had actionable intelligence at several locations which was actually reported to HQ and not referred to other field offices or allowed to be pursued for a variety of reasons including perceived civil rights violations. That occurred primarily in the Bush months prior to 9/11.

    The issues within the CIA related more to its own standard practices and calls made by certain officers; within the FBI the issue was primarily in certain headquarters calls and the priorities of the new Bush Administration attorney general.

    As usual it was complex situation, involving both agencies…I guess my question is whether or not you have read Surprise Attack and my analysis of the issues of actionable intelligence in regard to 9/11 in that work?

    • David Andrews says:

      I’ll re-read the sections of Surprise Attack and get back to you. However, I had hoped you would notice the unanswered question in Mark Rossini and Doug Miller’s complaints about CIA not alerting FBI to Al Qaeda in Malaysia bound for the US on visas. Rossini was a protege of John O’Neill’s, saw him socially, and in summer 2001 was picked to accompany him to Spain for a speech (ostensibly because his Spanish was better than O’Neill’s. In all that time – March 2000 through O’Neill’s August 2001 retirement – why did Rossini not verbally alert O’Neill that Malaysia Summit guys were entering the US, and CIA at Alec Station had put a kill order on the memos Rossini and miller had drafted for FBI? Chain of command has been violated for much less.

  3. larryjoe2 says:

    The honest answer is that I thought I had discussed the withholding of information in regard to the Malaysia transit and US travel in Surprise Attack – but I wouldn’t dare try to answer a specific question in regard to the people you mentioned without diving into a good deal of reread and research. At present I’m in edit on a new book and that is pretty well consuming my time and gray cells.

    It sounds like an interesting question but I’ve learned not to talk off the top of my head – I’ve covered too much ground over too many years to do that with any level of confidence and have definitively become aware of my own limitations.

  4. larryjoe2 says:

    OK, now I’ve had a chance for a brief review – anyone who has Surprise Attack will find this addressed on pages 351-354 and again in pages 366-367. I’m not going to try to repeat all that here but in short the NSA and CIA were both aware that people involved in both the first failed NYC attack and the Bojinka airliner plot were traveling, getting together and ultimately had documents for travel to the US. That information was passed as high as the NSC during the Millennium counter terrorism efforts.

    After that Alec Station began to fail to pas information…actually it claimed it had notified FBI, FBI said no way and the 9/11 Commission supported the FBI, pointing the blame at the CIA – but no disciplinary actions were taken.

    However everyone had another chance at interdiction in August, 2001, when FBI liaison Margaret Gillespie isolated the fact that the key terrorist was indeed back in the US and informed the CIA via Dina Corsi. At that time Corsi made some real mistakes in handling how that information was routed. It appears that there was an order to locate and pick up up to interview but with no real priority – I go into that mistake and others in the next few pages of SA. Clearly there should have been consequences for the mistakes that were made and actually the CIA IG proposed that; his proposal was ignored by the Director.

    That’s what is in the book. as to Rossini, O’Neill etc…that’s not something I know enough to comment on. What I do know is that both CIA and FBI did know that Al Queda terrorists were in the US, with a history of attacks on NYC as well as airline attacks and both agencies failed at multiple levels at that point. That is was a known threat within the system is quite clear by now.

  5. David Andrews says:

    Thanks again, Larry. You don”t have to hurry to respond when you’re committed elsewhere.

  6. larryjoe2 says:

    Thanks David; I do have to control my urge to reply from memory…grin. One broad comment in regard to this I can make is that the threat and warnings system was and I suspect remains compromised by priorities at the highest level – you can see that in the CIA warnings briefings to Bush in Texas where he literally said thanks but did nothing and escalated no response levels. The National Security Advisor could have stepped in at that point, as Clinton’s did earlier, but Rice chose to stay with Bush’s priorities.

    We also suffer from intense competition to protest sources between the various agencies, there is always the temptation to hold off on bringing in a known suspect in order not to blow surveillance on their contacts and to trap someone higher up. That never changes, its endemic.

    • David Andrews says:

      I know, Larry, but CIA took over a year to do nothing about al Midhar and Hazmi in the US – nothing, such as attempting to turn them, that the Agency could trumpet as exculpating after 9/11. Then (if you check the podcast transcript, and read Ali Soufan;s book) the Agency made a limited hangout exposure of al Midhar to FBI in August 2001, and just after 9/11 finally spilled al Midhar’s Malaysia Summit surveillance photo to Ali Soufan. I would call this CYA by CIA, but i also begin to suspect that Mark Rossini’s and Doug Miller’s post 9/11 revelation of their CIA-suppressed memos to FBI on these hijackers also smells of CYA, especially given Rossini’s propinquity to John O’Neill.

  7. larryjoe2 says:

    I would agree that the CIA was covering itself, for that matter the 9/11 commission clearly felt the same way. It was bad enough that the CIA IG recommended disciplinary action although the Director passed.

    However many of us have seen this type of CYA repeatedly, with both the FBI and the CIA; it happens when they literally make mistakes, but it also happens when they are trying to conduct various types of stings and penetrations that backfire on them.

    I also know there can be other and more sinister interpretations. But personally, even after reviewing some of the better sources on that angle (I actually use one for certain information in Surprise Attack) I’ve just seen nothing that suggests what we see is anything other than consistent with that long term pattern of CYA over mistakes and failed practices.

    That’s not to imply I like the practices or endorse the CYA, to me both have produced negative (sometimes extremely negative) consequences repeatedly. But I also recognize that its a tough and nasty game and mistakes are going to be made – and that institutionally nobody ever wants to admit that or officially take the blame. Not that we don’t have more than enough examples to make that point in Washington right now.

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