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

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs