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.