‘Blind Spots and Inefficiencies’: The CIA Before and After 9/11

As seen in VICE News

On a Friday night last June, the CIA quietly released an internal accountability report focusing on the lead-up to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The declassified report was not new. Titled “Office of Inspector General Report on Central Intelligence Agency Accountability Regarding Findings and Conclusions of the Report of the Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” it had first been released in 2007 in a heavily redacted state. The version released last June, however, had far fewer redactions — and also included never-before-seen rebuttal letters from then-CIA Director George Tenet.

The new version of the report absolves Saudi Arabia for any complicity in the attacks. It also paints a fascinating picture of a corporate culture at the CIA in which backstabbing and turf wars were common. The relationship between the CIA and the FBI — specifically the one between the CIA’s Usama bin Laden station and the FBI’s New York Field Office, which was responsible for al Qaeda-related matters — was described as “troubled at best and dysfunctional at worst.” Additionally, the “significant differences” found to have existed between the CIA and the NSA “remained unresolved well into 2001 in spite of the fact that considerable management attention was devoted to the issue, including at the level of the Agency’s Deputy Executive Director.”

The CIA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the CIA had a “readiness level of only 30 percent in the most critical terrorism-related languages.” It didn’t have an “operational profile” of bin Laden until April 2002, eight months after the 9/11 attacks. And although the head of the bin Laden station had “both formal operations training and relevant overseas experience, he was gone frequently, leaving his deputy — who had neither — in charge.”

Tenet wrote two scathing memos to Inspector General John Helgerson about the findings in the OIG report, objecting to the fact that he had been “accused of not devoting professionalism, skill, and diligence to countering terrorism as DCI [director of Central Intelligence].” Both of the once-secret documents were originally classified “Top Secret/Codeword Sensitive,” which means access was on a strict need-to-know basis.

“In responding to your assessment of my performance as Director of Central Intelligence in the period leading up to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I must tell you in the strongest possible terms that your report has mischaracterized my leadership of both the Intelligence Community and the CIA with regard to the strategy, plans, and actions which I directed to deal with a very difficult problem,” Tenet wrote. “The segment of the report that I read portrays almost no understanding of the resource context in which the Intelligence Community was operating, the programmatic priorities established by me, the obstacles I had to overcome to secure more resources, both dollars and people, to meet all of our highest priorities.”

Tenet also accused Helgerson of “ignoring” the fact that a counterterrorism strategy was “forcefully put in place in 1999” — meaning that even though the CIA wasn’t able to prevent the 9/11 attacks, the response was more robust than it might have been if the new programs hadn’t already been underway.

“We did not have to go from a standing start to war footing immediately after September 11, because the Intelligence Community was already well engaged,” Tenet wrote.

The OIG’s finding that counterterrorism funding had been given short shrift at the CIA was disputed by Tenet, who noted that while the agency’s budget declined by 18 percent during the 1990s, its funding level for counterterrorism immediately prior to 9/11 was more than 50 percent higher than it was in 1997. He said the report did not reflect his “active engagement, sometimes on a daily basis, with the National Security Advisor, with (National Coordinator for Counterterrorism) Richard Clarke, and with other members of the national security team,” nor his “strong, personal relationships with the Directors of NSA, NIMA, DIA and other leaders of the Intelligence Community.”

He concluded, “I take this challenge to my reputation very seriously.”

Tenet does make valid points, says Glenn Carle, a veteran CIA operative who was responsible for interrogating a number of high-level al Qaeda terrorists.

“Helgerson’s report was on the money, but I would agree with Tenet’s rebuttals too,” Carle told VICE News. “Yes, there were a lot of blind spots and inefficiencies, but he and President Clinton recognized in a coherent and insightful way the nature of the terrorist threat we faced — far more than the subsequent Bush administration who never understood anything, really.”

Carle believes Tenet’s reorganizations actually “saved” the Directorate of Operations, which he said had been gutted after the fall of communism.

“I think that America confuses resources with capabilities, and we say that more is better, though that’s not true — better is better,” Carle said. “But better requires a conceptual shift, and right now, we’re plugging holes while the foundation is collapsing.”

* * *

The OIG review team didn’t find any instances of laws being broken by CIA employees. They did, however, find that “Agency officers did not always perform their Agency duties in a satisfactory manner — that is, they did not, in a particular instance, act ‘in accordance with a reasonable level of professionalism, skill, and diligence,’ as required by Agency regulations.” The OIG identified specific officers responsible for doing things they shouldn’t have, or in some cases, not taking action when they should have, though they did not refer any of them to the CIA’s Accountability Board.

Joseph Wippl is a 30-year CIA veteran who served both overseas and in domestic headquarters positions. When he was invited to speak to a group of agency personnel about management issues, he says he named CIA supervisors he thought were effective managers, and also named those he thought were ineffective.

“That was the last time I was asked to speak on the topic,” Wippl said. “There are always these calls for accountability, but then when real accountability takes place, they don’t like it.”

The CIA has seen a significant decline in expertise among personnel over the years, Wippl says. That skills gap doesn’t go unnoticed in the OIG report, particularly when it comes to agents’ language capabilities.

Almost 20 years ago, according to the OIG, the Directorate of Intelligence — the division in which analysts work — identified a critical need for speakers of Farsi and other languages. However, language proficiency was never deemed a “core capability” for intelligence analysts in general, nor was language capability made a requirement for membership in the Senior Analytical Service.

Larry Johnson, an ex-CIA officer who worked both as an operative and an analyst, said that when he was working on the Central American desk in 1986, there were only five analysts out of 50 who spoke fluent Spanish.

“This mythology that you’ve got a whole bunch of people at CIA with impressive levels of expertise is just horse shit,” Johnson said. “The unfortunate thing with CIA is that it’s become a perverse place where politics has taken precedence over merit. Thirty years ago it was a meritocracy, but started changing during the Reagan administration, and the precedents of politics over merit have accelerated.”

The OIG report is focused largely on the CIA’s attempts to track bin Laden. Johnson said the officer who supervised the bin Laden station, a man Johnson nicknamed “Crazy Mike,” didn’t speak Arabic and staffed the station largely with several Soviet affairs analysts that “had no experience in Islamic affairs, nothing.”

With the exception of the station chief, the OIG report reveals that none of the officers in Alec Station, as the unit came to be codenamed, had operational backgrounds, meaning they hadn’t spent time in the field. The station’s operations branch chief was an analyst “with no formal operational training as of early 2000.”

The OIG report refers to a “declining appreciation for the significance of ‘KSM'” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks — inside the CIA. From mid-1999 through September 11, 2001, the report says they “made little effort” to look at KSM’s connections to bin Laden, which might have helped them better understand how al Qaeda operated, and how KSM fit into the overall puzzle. While the CIA’s Renditions Branch, which tracks down terrorists and captures them, maintained a high level of interest in KSM’s whereabouts, the report says it had “little apparent interest in who he was and what he might be planning.”

“Never underestimate the power of bureaucracy to completely fuck everything up, then protect or promote everybody who was responsible for the failure,” Johnson said. “All the people identified as dropping the ball in those reports, nobody got fired, nobody got punished.”

Tenet stayed on at the CIA until 2004, when he resigned and joined Allen & Company, a New York investment bank. His 7-year term as DCI was the second-longest in American history.

* * *

The exact number of employees working for the CIA is classified, but former agency counterterrorism analyst Aki Peritz told VICE News that there are about 20,000 in all, approximately half of whom were hired after 9/11. As a result, he says he saw the agency’s case officers and analysts start to look much younger after the attacks.

Peritz’s observation is supported by the OIG report: As the bin Laden station staffed up, the amount of agency experience each member had went from an average of 12.8 years at the end of 1998 to 7.4 years at the end of 2001.

When the OIG team spoke with bin Laden station personnel, they heard the work atmosphere described as “chaotic,” with “no single supervisor fully aware of activity underway at any point in time.” The OIG team also learned that so much of the analysts’ time was spent answering emails and receiving overwhelming amounts of data and intelligence traffic that they found themselves unable to read entire field reports, or cables. In fact, according to the OIG, analysts were so overloaded they “routinely” spent less than 10 seconds, on average, looking at each cable, according to computer logs.

“At the end of the day, these are just people, with all the fallibilities, all the eccentricities, all the failures and successes that come with being one of the human race,” said former CIA officer Jack Rice. “You know, we desperately want our intelligence officials to be superheroes, and it’s always a little disappointing when we realize that they look just like us.”