Amy Zegart Guest-Blogging This Week:

I'm delighted to report that Prof. Amy Zegart from the UCLA School of Public Affairs will be guest-blogging from Tuesday to Friday. Amy is one of the nation's leading experts on intelligence reform; she worked on the National Security Council staff in 1993, during the Clinton Administration, and also was a foreign policy advisor to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000. She's also the author of the just-released Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11; here's a brief summary from the book jacket (paragraph break added):

Zegart shows how and why the intelligence system itself left us vulnerable [to 9/11].

Zegart argues that after the Cold War ended, the CIA and FBI failed to adapt to the rise of terrorism. She makes the case by conducting painstaking analysis of more than three hundred intelligence reform recommendations and tracing the history of CIA and FBI counterterrorism efforts from 1991 to 2001, drawing extensively from declassified government documents and interviews with more than seventy high-ranking government officials. She finds that political leaders were well aware of the emerging terrorist danger and the urgent need for intelligence reform, but failed to achieve the changes they sought.

The same forces that have stymied intelligence reform for decades are to blame: resistance inside U.S. intelligence agencies, the rational interests of politicians and career bureaucrats, and core aspects of our democracy such as the fragmented structure of the federal government. Ultimately failures of adaptation led to failures of performance. Zegart reveals how longstanding organizational weaknesses left unaddressed during the 1990s prevented the CIA and FBI from capitalizing on twenty-three opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot. Spying Blind is a sobering account of why two of America's most important intelligence agencies failed to adjust to new threats after the Cold War, and why they are unlikely to adapt in the future.

[Amy Zegart (guest-blogging), September 11, 2007 at 11:53am] Trackbacks
9/11: My Top 5 Most Depressing Findings.

Many thanks, Eugene, for inviting me to blog about the ghosts of intel failures past, present, and future.

I thought I'd kick off by sharing my top 5 depressing findings about 9/11 from my new book -- all confirmed by unclassified government documents or at least two government sources.

1. The FBI failed to find 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi 19 days before 9/11 even though they were hiding in plain sight. On the night of 9/11, an FBI search of public records found al-Mihdhar's correct San Diego address within hours. Unbeknownst to the Bureau, both terrorists had lived with an FBI informant in San Diego, made contact with several targets of FBI counterterrorism investigations, and used their real names on everything from credit cards to telephone listings.

2. Just weeks before 9/11, the FBI's own highly classified counterterrorism review gave failing grades to every single one of the Bureau's 56 U.S. field offices. (The report was considered so embarrassing, only a handful of copies were ever made).

3. A January 2002 internal FBI review found that 66% of the FBI's 1,200 analysts (the people who "connect the dots") were unqualified to do their jobs.

4. Twenty months before 9/11, the CIA got wind that al Qaeda operatives might be gathering in Malaysia for a planning meeting -- what one intelligence official described to me as "the al Qaeda convention." Two of the participants turned out to be 9/11 hijackers. The CIA established surveillance, but lost track of them as soon as the meeting disbanded. Management was so hosed up that one CIA official believed, and kept telling his bosses, that the terrorists were being monitored 5 days after they had disappeared into the Streets of Bangkok.

5. The CIA and FBI missed a total of 23 opportunities to potentially disrupt the 9/11 plot.

More later....

[Amy Zegart (guest-blogging), September 12, 2007 at 12:50am] Trackbacks
9/11: Hindsight Bias?

Several comments about my 9/11 book SPYING BLIND raise a crucial question: can I really talk about the causes of 9/11 without commmitting hindsight bias? The answer is you bet. 340 reasons explain why.

I was deeply worried about this question, so spent two years tracking what happened to every unclassified intelligence reform recommendation from 1991 to 2001. I found that a dozen unclassified studies examined the CIA, FBI, intelligence overall, and US counterterrorism capabilities during the decade. These weren't obscure little groups, but high profile blue ribbon commissions, government studies (Clinton's reinventing government initiative, the FBI's own strategic plan, to name just 2), and nonpartisan think tank task forces sponsored by places such as the Council on Foreign Relations. Together, these studies issued 340 recommendations for reforming intelligence agencies. But almost none of the suggested fixes were implemented before 9/11. Most -- 268 to be exact, or 79% of the total-- produced no action at all. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Only 35 were fully implemented, and these were mostly "study the problem more" suggestions. Here's the kicker: in retrospect, these pre-9/11 reform recommendations were right on target: 84% focused on just 4 key problems:

1. Information sharing 2. The inability of the CIA, FBI, and other intel agencies to work as a unified team 3. Weaknesses in setting priorities 4. Poor human intelligence.

Sound familiar? These are the same deficiencies the 9/11 Commission and Congressional intellgence committees' Joint Inquiry into 9/11 identified as crucial weaknesses that left us vulnerable.

There's more. Much more. Hindsight bias is all about the historical record. And in this case, the historical record is clear: the CIA Director told Congress publicly that terrorism ranked among the top threats to U.S. national security every year from 1994 (when the threat assessment was first made public) to 2001; President Clinton mentioned terrorism in every State of the Union address from 1994 on; in 1999, Secretary of Defense Cohen even wrote an op-ed to an obscure little paper called the Washington Post in which he explicitly predicted a terrorist attack on American soil. That's just a preview of the highlight reel.

It's a smart and fair question to ask whether we really could have seen it coming before disaster struck. But evidence suggests that years before 9/11, intelligence officials and elected lawmakers were aware of the al Qaeda threat, and understood the imperative for intelligence reform. But they were unable to get the fixes they believed were vitally necessary. Sometimes hindsight isn't as biased as it appears.

[Amy Zegart (guest-blogging), September 12, 2007 at 2:59pm] Trackbacks
Why Haven't We Been Attacked Since 9/11?

Why haven't we been attacked since 9/11? The Bush administration has suggested two main reasons: dumb and dumber.

Argument #1: "we're fighting them over there so they don't attack us over here." Yes, and the Tooth Fairy is real. This argument takes the prize for being both misleading and stupid, suggesting that Iraq's civil war and regional instability are offset by that invisible fence in Anbar province that magically corrals the world's terrorists and keeps them right where we want them.

Argument #2: "We've hardened the target by making dramatic improvements in homeland security, intelligence, and counterterrorism here at home." This one sounds more reasonable on the face of it. We've seen a number of changes since 9/11. Among them: The FBI has doubled its analyst corps, the intelligence budget has increased an estimated 25%, and counterterrorism "fusion" centers are popping up like mushrooms--with more than 40 of them across the U.S.

Two problems here. The first is your view of progress. Government officials love to report about the half full glass. It's the half empty part that worries me more.

Take the FBI: Yes, the Bureau has twice as many analysts today as it had on 9/11. But analysts --the lifeblood of domestic intelligence — are still treated as second class citizens. 9/11 Commission poo-bahs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton made this point in last Sunday's Washington Post. The Justice Department's Inspector General also highlighted the problem — with data, and specific recommendations — in its April 2007 report. At Quantico, new analysts and special agents still don't train together (unless you count one 4-hour exercise over a several week course). And as of last year, I'm told they even wore different colored shirts (analysts wore tan, agents wore blue). Nothing says "not on the same team" more loudly. Hiring more analysts sounds good. But dot connecting can't be valued unless the dot connectors are.

The more alarming problem is logic.

Just because we haven't experienced tragedy does not prove we are doing things right. This is causality 101, and it's something we drum into UCLA MPP students in their first year. Causal connections have to be examined, not assumed, or you'll get into trouble.

My 92 year-old grandmother, whom I love dearly, still drives a car in Miami. Incredibly, she's had no accidents since 9/11. But I'd never conclude that her driving acumen is responsible for her traffic record, or that she's become a better driver over the past 6 years.

The "we haven't been attacked" argument suffers from the same logical weaknesses. Why haven't we seen another 9/11 since 9/11? A million possible reasons. Many it's al Qaeda's long planning cycles. Maybe it's the disruption of al Qaeda Central in Afghanistan. Maybe it's sheer dumb luck. Maybe it's those ziploc bags at the airport. But the most dangerous explanation is the one that works backwards, inferring causes from outcomes and suggesting success when there may be none.