News / USA

    9/11 Attacks Forced Changes in US Intelligence, al-Qaida

    Gary Thomas

    Among governmental institutions, the U.S. intelligence community was one of the most deeply scarred by the events of September 11, 2001.  It was the intelligence agencies’ job, after all, to detect and intercept attacks on American interests at home and abroad. The intervening 10 years has seen major changes at both the U.S. spy agencies and the terrorist groups they track.

    Michael Hayden was in his office as the director of the National Security Agency, the nation’s electronic intelligence arm that intercepts communications, when the planes struck on September 11th.   He got an urgent call from his counterpart at the Central Intelligence Agency, Director George Tenet, that morning.

    “He simply said, ‘Mike, what do you have?’  I said, ‘George, they’re celebrating,'" Hayden recalls.  "We could hear the kind of congratulatory messaging throughout the al-Qaida network throughout the world.  And I said, ‘George, I don’t have anything hard, but it’s clear who did this.’ We all knew.  We all knew it was al-Qaida.”

    Intelligence lapse

    But if they knew who it was, why did they not stop it beforehand or warn of the impending attack?  It is the question that has hung over U.S. intelligence agencies since that fateful day.  Critics have called it the biggest intelligence lapse since the failure to detect Japan's 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Hayden, who went on to replace Tenet as CIA chief, attributes the September 11 lapse to a “lack of imagination.”

    “The al-Qaida pattern had been to attack America, but to attack America through its interests overseas - a naval combatant [ship] near Yemen, embassies in East Africa," explains Hayden. "And so, although we knew we were in great danger, we lacked the imagination to perceive the height of the evil that could be mounted against us, and that in fact these attacks would be mounted against the American homeland.”

    The special 9/11 Commission that looked into the intelligence failure concluded different intelligence agencies had different bits of information but that no one put the pieces of information together - or, as intelligence professionals like to say, connected the dots of the puzzle.

    Report sparks changes

    Acting on the commission’s recommendations, Congress created a new cabinet-level post in 2004 to coordinate all U.S. intelligence efforts: the Director of National Intelligence.  

    Dennis Blair, who held the job from 2009 until May 2010, says the problem was not so much the lack of sharing information as it was being overwhelmed by it.

    “We did a very careful investigation and found that information-sharing was not a problem," Blair says. "In fact, a greater part of the problem was information overload. So much information had flooded into that place that the combination of people and machines that we had there was not able to pick out the really important from the huge amount of information.”

    Blair, a retired Navy admiral, says the information sharing has improved, but that the DNI still does not have enough muscle to overcome resistance from some intelligence agencies.

    “The organizations within the intelligence community - it’s true for any organization, I saw it in the Department of Defense, you see it in other places - you think, ‘oh, I’m just fine doing these things on my own, I will coordinate with other organizations, when I need to, I don’t need this group on top of me telling me what to do.’ But, frankly, that’s just not correct," Blair says.  "You do need someone with the wider view who’s making the resource allocations, who’s forcing the [information] sharing to do it.”

    Counterterrorism

    Congress also created the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, to get representatives from the CIA, FBI, NSA, and all the other government intelligence agencies to share information.

    Michael Leiter, who was NCTC chief from 2007 until May 2010, says that 10 years after 9/11 there is still too much information to process it all, but that that is better than having too little.

    “You can’t, at the front end of counterterrorism work, know what’s going to be important at the back end," notes Leiter.  "And that’s why you need all this information to come in. You need the tools to analyze it because, again, you’re not going to know until after the fact what tidbit of information was really critical to, you hope, cracking the plot.

    Some analysts have suggested that pressure on al-Qaida in the intervening 10 years, including the killing of Osama bin Laden this year, has pushed it to the verge of extinction.  Former NCTC chief Leiter says that while the Pakistan-based core al-Qaida is in dire straits, its franchises are thriving.

    “Organizations like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Shabab organization, which is aligned to al-Qaida in Somalia, and the threat of homegrown terrorists that are inspired by al-Qaida’s ideology in the U.S. and the West still do pose a real threat," he says.  "So I think that we should be happy and pleased with the progress we’ve made against core al-Qaida, but we still have some other elements of al-Qaida there that still need a lot of focus.”

    Current threat

    Former DNI Dennis Blair says the danger in the U.S. today is more from small-scale plots, such as the shootings at Fort Hood in 2009 or the attempted bombing in Times Square in New York the following year.  

    “I think that the kind of multi-team, coordinated, big attack that was 9/11 would be something that we would be able to detect before it happened and stop now," Blair says. "The threat now has sort of atomized to these small, one or two person attacks, which can still be very harmful.  But they’re really not on the scale of 9/11. So we are safer.”

    Former NCTC chief Leiter says that even though counterterrorism officers have thwarted plots and scored major successes against terrorist groups since 9-11, a 100 percent success rate cannot be guaranteed.

    “The counterterrorism community, of which I was a part, works as hard as it possibly can every day of the year," Leiter says. "It is a 24-7, 365 day-a-year operation globally.  But, no matter how good we are, no matter how much we improve information-sharing, no matter how much we improve our information technology, no matter how much we improve our cultural and language expertise, things are going to get through.”

    Ten years after September 11, 2001, the tactics and combatants have changed, but intelligence officers remain locked in a shadowy struggle with violent Islamic extremists.

    You May Like

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.