Blaming the bureaucrats first

With the exception of the 9/11 Commission’s report, most accounts of the intelligence failures leading up to the terror attacks six years ago can be grouped into several predictable categories. President Bush’s critics heap blame on the White House for failing to place high-level attention on the al Qaeda threat in the spring and summer of 2001, while conservatives argue that President Clinton emboldened Osama bin Laden by failing to respond more vigorously to the 1998 African embassy bombings and the 2000 USS Cole attack. And intelligence insiders such as former CIA Director George Tenet have produced books with self-preservation in mind, usually pointing fingers at personal rivals.

Amy Zegart, a political scientist at UCLA, has produced a dispassionate account that is neither personal nor political. Instead, she argues that organizational weaknesses deeply embedded in the CIA and the FBI explain the agencies’ multiple failures to disrupt the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. Government bureaucracies in particular, she writes, have a natural self-interest to hoard information, resist change and selfishly fight for resources rather than taking a broader view of national priorities.
As Zegart sees it, this fatal weakness explains why the CIA lost track of two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, before they entered the United States and then failed to watch-list them and alert the FBI when they arrived. It also accounts for why the agency did not share information with the FBI about the two well into the summer of 2001. The FBI was, if anything, even more hide-bound and ill-equipped, botching the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and failing to follow up on a critical July 2001 memo warning of terrorists at U.S. flight schools — just to name some of the best-known examples.

The intelligence failures that Zegart recounts are well-known, but the book’s originality lies in her analytical recasting of these events. A good example is her shredding apart of the famous August 2001 memo to President Bush, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” Critics have cited this CIA brief to argue that Bush was lackadaisical about terrorism warnings before the attacks. But Zegart makes a strong case that such arguments miss a key point: The report itself was a “tragically shoddy piece of intelligence analysis that provided unimportant information, false reassurances … and failed to include the best information available about al Qaeda operatives.” Indeed, the memo was overly historical; it gave the incorrect impression that the FBI actively was pursuing 70 full field investigations; and said nothing about the most recent intelligence, including on al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi.

Zegart’s framework, however, leaves open the question of whether individual accountability matters at all. She gives example after example of an official or agent who tried to make a difference and break down old barriers, but who failed because of bureaucratic inertia. If the organization rather than the individual is really to blame, the logical conclusion is that the buck really does stop nowhere — even at the highest levels of government.

Another flaw in this otherwise lucid and rigorous book is Zegart’s attempt to assess intelligence reform since 2004, when Congress passed a historic bill that created the position of the director of national intelligence (DNI) and attempted to overhaul the spy agencies. In this case, she picks a moving target that is still a work in progress. The book was completed too soon to take note of the fact that DNI Mike McConnell generally has gotten stronger marks than his predecessor, John Negroponte, on moving intelligence reform forward, and both the pending House and Senate intelligence authorization bills this year include provisions that strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence. Last but not least, Bush signed into law this summer a bipartisan bill that enacted many of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on homeland security.

What is most striking about this book, however, is that it reminds the reader how much the public debate over intelligence has changed in the last three years. Since 2005, revelations of the CIA’s secret prisons, the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program and the FBI’s exploitation of national security letters have taken public attention away from intelligence reform proper and shifted it toward civil liberties concerns. In turn, these debates have produced a Congress that is far more skeptical about the potential abuse of power among the spy agencies than it has been since the 1970s. This skepticism will frame future debates over intelligence reform well after the Bush presidency — something that advocates of intelligence reform, on and off the Hill, will have to take into account as they press their cause.