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Fighting Terror Requires a New Kind of Counter-Intelligence - 2003-02-27


No significant terrorist attack on the United States has occurred since September 11, notes General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency and author of the recently published book, Fixing Intelligence.

Is this due to U.S. competence or terrorists’ incompetence? Nobody knows for sure, General Odom says. But there are no grounds for complacency, particularly if the United States goes to war with Iraq. Should that occur, terrorists threaten to strike again.

To deal with this possibility, the U.S. government is rapidly reorganizing many different agencies that are not accustomed to working together.

“Getting them organized and working together so they can be coordinated is a long hard job,” the general says. “And the fewer agencies you are trying to bring together, the quicker you can have them up and going as a single entity. In this case, you are trying to bring so many together that getting there is going to be difficult, fraught with all sorts of setbacks and unlikely to be achieved in the near term.”

There is the normal amount of bureaucratic bickering. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Customs Service are arguing over which will investigate funding of terrorists.

Four different agencies are involved in security at the nation’s airports: Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Agriculture Department’s inspection service and the Federal Aviation Administration. According to The Wall Street Journal newspaper, the White House complains these agencies do not communicate with one another.

Communication remains a problem at the FBI, the agency charged with fighting crime in the United States, says James Bamford, author of the books Body of Secrets and The Puzzle Palace.

“The FBI has got to join the rest of us in the 21st century in terms of computerization and modernization of communications systems. They were totally inadequate in communicating information prior to September 11,” he says. “They were still talking about memos, and should this memo go here or this memo go there, which is basically 1950’s talk. They should be talking about inputting information into databases that can be shared jointly by agents and bureaus all over the country.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller says his agency is working hard to upgrade its computer services and analytical abilities.

A much different kind of analysis is needed now than in the Cold War, Mr. Bamford says. It was easier to keep track of the Soviet Union than today’s mobile terrorists.

“It was a country that never went anywhere. It just sat right there. It was always there,” he says. “The Army, Navy and Air Force always had fixed bases and they communicated constantly. So there was a tremendous amount to intercept, to eavesdrop and a lot of targets to focus on. It is completely the opposite with terrorism. They are few and far between. They move all the time. They do not communicate very often, and when they do communicate, it may be countries that we are not even focused on.”

Focus requires a new U.S. counter-intelligence agency, asserts General Odom. The existing ones tend to be parochial and are often caught up in turf battles that stymie progress.

“Then we would have a comprehensive picture of what the hostile intelligence services and terrorists are trying to do to us,” he says. “Today we have a fragmented picture. The FBI has its picture. The Army, Navy and Air Force each have their pictures. The CIA has its pictures. And they are not congruent, and there are big scenes between them, which hostile intelligence services exploit.”

General Odom adds that the FBI is conditioned to fight homegrown criminals rather than agents from abroad. He cites the FBI’s lack of success in apprehending Soviet spies during the Cold War. “Spies will always defeat cops, policemen. Law enforcement against crime requires a different set of skills and has a different organizational ethos,” General Odom says. “Criminals are different from spies. They behave differently. They tend not to be nearly as clever. They do not have nearly as long a time horizon. Spies tend to be much smarter, and therefore much more of a challenge.”

Mr. Bamford thinks that challenge is not beyond the FBI and says there is no point in setting up a new agency when the government is trying to bring together existing ones.

A major problem, says Mr. Bamford, is the recruitment policies of the intelligence community.

“They hire people who come right out of Ivy league schools to a large degree, who could be salesmen for IBM, but they are not necessarily the kind of people that you need to penetrate these organizations,” he says. “What that means is they have not hired enough people that have the ethnic or linguistic capabilities to penetrate al-Qaida, and they have not hired enough people who can translate the information coming from intercepts of al-Qaida.”

Some argue that it is nearly impossible to infiltrate highly secretive terrorist groups. But Mr. Bamford cites the example of the eccentric, young American who was captured with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

“John Walker Lindh showed that. He was a twenty-year old who grew a beard, who studied the Koran and wandered around the Middle East for a few years and managed to be accepted into al-Qaida," says Mr. Bamford. So they can be penetrated, and I think that is one of things the CIA has been deficient in and is trying to make up for lost ground now.”

Whatever progress the United States makes in combating terrorism, General Odom says there are limits. He thinks the war on terrorism should be redefined.

“It is not really a war against terrorism. It is really a war against al-Qaida. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. You cannot defeat a tactic. It is like a war on crime. Nobody ever expects a New York police force to have a victory against all crime,” the general says.

To some degree, terrorism, like crime, will always be with us, he adds.

We must also search for the causes of terrorism, Mr. Bamford says. He believes a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be of immense help in reducing terrorism.

Meanwhile, patience is needed along with perspective, he warns. Do not expect the unattainable.

“The FBI has never been able to prevent bank robberies. The United States has never been able to prevent drunk driving accidents,” Mr. Bamford says. “And terrorism is in the same sort of category, to some degree not preventable. You can have a police state in the United States and still not prevent terrorism. It has always been hit and miss, and I think it will always be hit and miss.”

The point, Mr. Bamford says, is to have many more hits than misses.