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The National Security Act of 1947 created the position of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Independent from the departments of Defense, State, Justice, and other policy departments, the DCI heads the U.S.intelligence community and provides intelligence to federal entities.

The sole element of the intelligence community independent from a cabinet agency is the CIA. As an independent agency, it collects, analyzes, and disseminates intelligence from all sources. The CIA's number one customer is the president of the United States, who also has the authority to direct it to conduct covert operations.64 Although covert actions represent a very small fraction of the Agency's entire budget, these operations have at times been controversial and over time have dominated the public's perception of the CIA.

The DCI is confirmed by the Senate but is not technically a member of the president's cabinet. The director's power under federal law over the loose, confederated "intelligence community" is limited.65 He or she states the community's priorities and coordinates development of intelligence agency budget requests for submission to Congress.

This responsibility gives many the false impression that the DCI has line authority over the heads of these agencies and has the power to shift resources within these budgets as the need arises. Neither is true. In fact, the DCI's real authority has been directly proportional to his personal closeness to the president, which has waxed and waned over the years, and to others in government, especially the secretary of defense.

Intelligence agencies under the Department of Defense account for approximately 80 percent of all U.S. spending for intelligence, including some that supports a national customer base and some that supports specific Defense Department or military service needs.66 As they are housed in the Defense Department, these agencies are keenly attentive to the military's strategic and tactical requirements.

One of the intelligence agencies in Defense with a national customer base is the National Security Agency, which intercepts and analyzes foreign communications and breaks codes. The NSA also creates codes and ciphers to protect government information. Another is the recently renamed National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which provides and analyzes imagery and produces a wide array of products, including maps, navigation tools, and surveillance intelligence. A third such agency in Defense is the National Reconnaissance Office. It develops, procures, launches, and maintains in orbit information-gathering satellites that serve other government agencies.

The Defense Intelligence Agency supports the secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and military field commanders. It does some collection through human sources as well as some technical intelligence collection. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have their own intelligence components that collect information, help them decide what weapons to acquire, and serve the tactical intelligence needs of their respective services.

In addition to those from the Department of Defense, other elements in the intelligence community include the national security parts of the FBI; the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department; the intelligence component of the Treasury Department; the Energy Department's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, the former of which, through leveraging the expertise of the national laboratory system, has special competence in nuclear weapons; the Office of Intelligence of the Coast Guard; and, today, the Directorate of Intelligence Analysis and Infrastructure Protection in the Department of Homeland Security.

The National Security Agency

The National Security Agency's intercepts of terrorist communications often set off alarms elsewhere in the government. Often, too, its intercepts are conclusive elements in the analyst's jigsaw puzzle. NSA engineers build technical systems to break ciphers and to make sense of today's complex signals environment. Its analysts listen to conversations between foreigners not meant for them. They also perform "traffic analysis"--studying technical communications systems and codes as well as foreign organizational structures, including those of terrorist organizations.

Cold War adversaries used very hierarchical, familiar, and predictable military command and control methods. With globalization and the telecommunications revolution, and with loosely affiliated but networked adversaries using commercial devices and encryption, the technical impediments to signals collection grew at a geometric rate. At the same time, the end of the Cold War and the resultant cuts in national security funding forced intelligence agencies to cut systems and seek economies of scale. Modern adversaries are skilled users of communications technologies. The NSA's challenges, and its opportunities, increased exponentially in "volume, variety, and velocity."67

The law requires the NSA to not deliberately collect data on U.S. citizens or on persons in the United States without a warrant based on foreign intelligence requirements. Also, the NSA was supposed to let the FBI know of any indication of crime, espionage, or "terrorist enterprise" so that the FBI could obtain the appropriate warrant. Later in this story, we will learn that while the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA Court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role. It also did not want to be viewed as targeting persons in the United States and possibly violating laws that governed NSA's collection of foreign intelligence.68

An almost obsessive protection of sources and methods by the NSA, and its focus on foreign intelligence, and its avoidance of anything domestic would, as will be seen, be important elements in the story of 9/11.

Technology as an Intelligence Asset and Liability

The application of newly developed scientific technology to the mission of U.S. war fighters and national security decisionmakers is one of the great success stories of the twentieth century. It did not happen by accident. Recent wars have been waged and won decisively by brave men and women using advanced technology that was developed, authorized, and paid for by conscientious and diligent executive and legislative branch leaders many years earlier.

The challenge of technology, however, is a daunting one. It is expensive, sometimes fails, and often can create problems as well as solve them. Some of the advanced technologies that gave us insight into the closed-off territories of the Soviet Union during the Cold War are of limited use in identifying and tracking individual terrorists.

Terrorists, in turn, have benefited from this same rapid development of communication technologies. They simply could buy off the shelf and harvest the products of a $3 trillion a year telecommunications industry. They could acquire without great expense communication devices that were varied, global, instantaneous, complex, and encrypted.

The emergence of the World Wide Web has given terrorists a much easier means of acquiring information and exercising command and control over their operations. The operational leader of the 9/11 conspiracy, Mohamed Atta, went online from Hamburg, Germany, to research U.S. flight schools. Targets of intelligence collection have become more sophisticated. These changes have made surveillance and threat warning more difficult.

Despite the problems that technology creates, Americans' love affair with it leads them to also regard it as the solution. But technology produces its best results when an organization has the doctrine, structure, and incentives to exploit it. For example, even the best information technology will not improve information sharing so long as the intelligence agencies' personnel and security systems reward protecting information rather than disseminating it.


The CIA is a descendant of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which President Roosevelt created early in World War II after having first thought the FBI might take that role. The father of the OSS was William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer. He recruited into the OSS others like himself--well traveled, well connected, well-to-do professional men and women.69

An innovation of Donovan's, whose legacy remains part of U.S. intelligence today, was the establishment of a Research and Analysis Branch. There large numbers of scholars from U.S. universities pored over accounts from spies, communications intercepted by the armed forces, transcripts of radio broadcasts, and publications of all types, and prepared reports on economic, political, and social conditions in foreign theaters of operation.

At the end of World War II, to Donovan's disappointment, President Harry Truman dissolved the Office of Strategic Services. Four months later, the President directed that "all Federal foreign intelligence activities be planned, developed and coordinated so as to assure the most effective accomplishment of the intelligence mission related to the national security," under a National Intelligence Authority consisting of the secretaries of State, War, and the Navy, and a personal representative of the president. This body was to be assisted by a Central Intelligence Group, made up of persons detailed from the departments of each of the members and headed by a Director of Central Intelligence.70

Subsequently, President Truman agreed to the National Security Act of 1947, which, among other things, established the Central Intelligence Agency, under the Director of Central Intelligence. Lobbying by the FBI, combined with fears of creating a U.S. Gestapo,71 led to the FBI's being assigned responsibility for internal security functions and counterespionage. The CIA was specifically accorded "no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions."72 This structure built in tensions between the CIA and the Defense Department's intelligence agencies, and between the CIA and the FBI.

Clandestine and Covert Action. With this history, the CIA brought to the era of 9/11 many attributes of an elite organization, viewing itself as serving on the nation's front lines to engage America's enemies. Officers in its Clandestine Service, under what became the Directorate of Operations, fanned out into stations abroad. Each chief of station was a very important person in the organization, given the additional title of the DCI's representative in that country. He (occasionally she) was governed by an operating directive that listed operational priorities issued by the relevant regional division of the Directorate, constrained by centrally determined allocations of resources.

Because the conduct of espionage was a high-risk activity, decisions on the clandestine targeting, recruitment, handling, and termination of secret sources and the dissemination of collected information required Washington's approval and action. But in this decentralized system, analogous in some ways to the culture of the FBI field offices in the United States, everyone in the Directorate of Operations presumed that it was the job of headquarters to support the field, rather than manage field activities.

In the 1960s, the CIA suffered exposure of its botched effort to land Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. The Vietnam War brought on more criticism. A prominent feature of the Watergate era was investigations of the CIA by committees headed by Frank Church in the Senate and Otis Pike in the House. They published evidence that the CIA had secretly planned to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. The President had not taken plain responsibility for these judgments. CIA officials had taken most of the blame, saying they had done so in order to preserve the President's "plausible deniability."73

After the Watergate era, Congress established oversight committees to ensure that the CIA did not undertake covert action contrary to basic American law. Case officers in the CIA's Clandestine Service interpreted legislation, such as the Hughes-Ryan Amendment requiring that the president approve and report to Congress any covert action, as sending a message to them that covert action often leads to trouble and can severely damage one's career. Controversies surrounding Central American covert action programs in the mid-1980s led to the indictment of several senior officers of the Clandestine Service. During the 1990s, tension sometimes arose, as it did in the effort against al Qaeda, between policymakers who wanted the CIA to undertake more aggressive covert action and wary CIA leaders who counseled prudence and making sure that the legal basis and presidential authorization for their actions were undeniably clear.

The Clandestine Service felt the impact of the post-Cold War peace dividend, with cuts beginning in 1992. As the number of officers declined and overseas facilities were closed, the DCI and his managers responded to developing crises in the Balkans or in Africa by "surging," or taking officers from across the service to use on the immediate problem. In many cases the surge officers had little familiarity with the new issues. Inevitably, some parts of the world and some collection targets were not fully covered, or not covered at all. This strategy also placed great emphasis on close relations with foreign liaison services, whose help was needed to gain information that the United States itself did not have the capacity to collect.

The nadir for the Clandestine Service was in 1995, when only 25 trainees became new officers.74 In 1998, the DCI was able to persuade the administration and the Congress to endorse a long-range rebuilding program. It takes five to seven years of training, language study, and experience to bring a recruit up to full performance.75

Analysis. The CIA's Directorate of Intelligence retained some of its original character of a university gone to war. Its men and women tended to judge one another by the quantity and quality of their publications (in this case, classified publications). Apart from their own peers, they looked for approval and guidance to policymakers. During the 1990s and today, particular value is attached to having a contribution included in one of the classified daily "newspapers"-- the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief--or, better still, selected for inclusion in the President's Daily Brief.76

The CIA had been created to wage the Cold War. Its steady focus on one or two primary adversaries, decade after decade, had at least one positive effect: it created an environment in which managers and analysts could safely invest time and resources in basic research, detailed and reflective. Payoffs might not be immediate. But when they wrote their estimates, even in brief papers, they could draw on a deep base of knowledge.

When the Cold War ended, those investments could not easily be reallocated to new enemies. The cultural effects ran even deeper. In a more fluid international environment with uncertain, changing goals and interests, intelligence managers no longer felt they could afford such a patient, strategic approach to long-term accumulation of intellectual capital. A university culture with its versions of books and articles was giving way to the culture of the newsroom.

During the 1990s, the rise of round-the-clock news shows and the Internet reinforced pressure on analysts to pass along fresh reports to policymakers at an ever-faster pace, trying to add context or supplement what their customers were receiving from the media. Weaknesses in all-source and strategic analysis were highlighted by a panel, chaired by Admiral David Jeremiah, that critiqued the intelligence community's failure to foresee the nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, as well as by a 1999 panel, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, that discussed the community's limited ability to assess the ballistic missile threat to the United States. Both reports called attention to the dispersal of effort on too many priorities, the declining attention to the craft of strategic analysis, and security rules that prevented adequate sharing of information. Another Cold War craft had been an elaborate set of methods for warning against surprise attack, but that too had faded in analyzing new dangers like terrorism.77

Security. Another set of experiences that would affect the capacity of the CIA to cope with the new terrorism traced back to the early Cold War, when the Agency developed a concern, bordering on paranoia, about penetration by the Soviet KGB. James Jesus Angleton, who headed counterintelligence in the CIA until the early 1970s, became obsessed with the belief that the Agency harbored one or more Soviet "moles." Although the pendulum swung back after Angleton's forced retirement, it did not go very far. Instances of actual Soviet penetration kept apprehensions high.78 Then, in the early 1990s, came the Aldrich Ames espionage case, which intensely embarrassed the CIA. Though obviously unreliable, Ames had been protected and promoted by fellow officers while he paid his bills by selling to the Soviet Union the names of U.S. operatives and agents, a number of whom died as a result.

The concern about security vastly complicated information sharing. Information was compartmented in order to protect it against exposure to skilled and technologically sophisticated adversaries. There were therefore numerous restrictions on handling information and a deep suspicion about sending information over newfangled electronic systems, like email, to other agencies of the U.S. government.79

Security concerns also increased the difficulty of recruiting officers qualified for counter-terrorism. Very few American colleges or universities offered programs in Middle Eastern languages or Islamic studies. The total number of undergraduate degrees granted in Arabic in all U.S. colleges and universities in 2002 was six.80 Many who had traveled much outside the United States could expect a very long wait for initial clearance. Anyone who was foreign-born or had numerous relatives abroad was well-advised not even to apply. With budgets for the CIA shrinking after the end of the Cold War, it was not surprising that, with some notable exceptions, new hires in the Clandestine Service tended to have qualifications similar to those of serving officers: that is, they were suited for traditional agent recruitment or for exploiting liaison relationships with foreign services but were not equipped to seek or use assets inside the terrorist network.

Early Counter-terrorism Efforts

In the 1970s and 1980s, terrorism had been tied to regional conflicts, mainly in the Middle East. The majority of terrorist groups either were sponsored by governments or, like the Palestine Liberation Organization, were militants trying to create governments.

In the mid-1980s, on the basis of a report from a task force headed byVice President George Bush and after terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Athens, the DCI created a Counterterrorist Center to unify activities across the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence. The Counterterrorist Center had representation from the FBI and other agencies. In the formal table of organization it reported to the DCI, but in fact most of the Center's chiefs belonged to the Clandestine Service and usually looked for guidance to the head of the Directorate of Operations.81

The Center stimulated and coordinated collection of information by CIA stations, compiled the results, and passed selected reports to appropriate stations, the Directorate of Intelligence analysts, other parts of the intelligence community, or to policymakers. The Center protected its bureaucratic turf. The Director of Central Intelligence had once had a national intelligence officer for terrorism to coordinate analysis; that office was abolished in the late 1980s and its duties absorbed in part by the Counterterrorist Center. Though analysts assigned to the Center produced a large number of papers, the focus was support to operations. A CIA inspector general's report in 1994 criticized the Center's capacity to provide warning of terrorist attacks.82

Subsequent chapters will raise the issue of whether, despite tremendous talent, energy, and dedication, the intelligence community failed to do enough in coping with the challenge from Bin Ladin and al Qaeda. Confronted with such questions, managers in the intelligence community often responded that they had meager resources with which to work.83

Cuts in national security expenditures at the end of the Cold War led to budget cuts in the national foreign intelligence program from fiscal years 1990 to 1996 and essentially flat budgets from fiscal years 1996 to 2000 (except for the so-called Gingrich supplemental to the FY1999 budget and two later, smaller supplementals). These cuts compounded the difficulties of the intelligence agencies. Policymakers were asking them to move into the digitized future to fight against computer-to-computer communications and modern communication systems, while maintaining capability against older systems, such as high-frequency radios and ultra-high and very-high-frequency (line of sight) systems that work like old-style television antennas. Also, demand for imagery increased dramatically following the success of the 1991 Gulf War. Both these developments, in turn, placed a premium on planning the next generation of satellite systems, the cost of which put great pressure on the rest of the intelligence budget. As a result, intelligence agencies experienced staff reductions, affecting both operators and analysts.84

Yet at least for the CIA, part of the burden in tackling terrorism arose from the background we have described: an organization capable of attracting extraordinarily motivated people but institutionally averse to risk, with its capacity for covert action atrophied, predisposed to restrict the distribution of information, having difficulty assimilating new types of personnel, and accustomed to presenting descriptive reportage of the latest intelligence. The CIA, to put it another way, needed significant change in order to get maximum effect in counter-terrorism. President Clinton appointed George Tenet as DCI in 1997, and by all accounts terrorism was a priority for him. But Tenet's own assessment, when questioned by the Commission, was that in 2004, the CIA's clandestine service was still at least five years away from being fully ready to play its counter-terrorism role.85 And while Tenet was clearly the leader of the CIA, the intelligence community's confederated structure left open the question of who really was in charge of the entire U.S. intelligence effort.

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© 2004-2012, David A. Desrosiers. unauthorized reproduction of this work is forbidden by law.