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.”
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.”
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.”
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.