Thursday, April 15, 2004

Intelligence Failure? (V)

Part I is here.

If only we had connected the dots....

That's been a constant refrain since 9-11. If only our intelligence agencies had seen the pattern in the information, the attack on the WTC would never have happened. It has been repeated so often that it is almost unassailable conventional wisdom. It makes for good headlines and is a good hook for endless op-ed pieces. That doesn't change the fact that it is a cliché that deserves immediate retirement. Not only is it simplistic, the underlying idea is pernicious.

Connect the dots. That's a kid's game on the place-mat at the Ground Round. Can a serious person really think that threat analysis is child's play?

Two post 9-11 books rely heavily on the missed dots motif. Peter Lance, 1000 Years for Revenge and Murray Weiss, The Man Who Warned America. Read either book and you will curse the stupid bureaucrats who were too blind to see. Read both, however, and you find that they themselves only connect some of the dots and when they do, often, they draw two different pictures.

For instance, who captured Ramzi Yousef? For Lance, the heroes are the Diplomatic Security Service. The FBI was late to the party, only showed up when Yousef was in handcuffs, then claimed all the credit. For Weiss, it was an FBI triumph orchestrated by John O'Neill. The DSS barely rates a mention.

Admittedly, any writer is limited by the sources available to them. But that is even more true of secret intelligence. Remember that Lance and Weiss are writing retrospectively about an event that has already happened and their sources are officials in a democratic government. Further, they had all the time they wanted to get their facts together. Now compare that to the FBI investigator trying to discern what might happen in the future, who has to depend on fragments of information gleaned from shadowy criminal conspiracies, and who is under intense time pressure to produce answers for policymakers and prosecutors.

A little understanding is in order and a little less finger-pointing.

Each book is full of other examples that undercut their claims that the dots and connections were obvious. O'Neill, dubbed "The Man Who Knew" by PBS, ended his FBI career investigating bin Laden and failing to convince the government that al Qaeda was a serious domestic threat. Yet, O'Neill was also convinced that there was a nationwide, centrally directed conspiracy to kill abortion providers. He fought to keep FBI resources focused on this "threat" even after Janet Reno recognized that no evidence existed of such a conspiracy. So O'Neill was not infallible and his superiors knew that. There was no reason for them to accept his threat assessment and demands for resources without questioning his evidence and logic. There was room for honest disagreement. He had, after all, been wrong before in his grand theories.

Lance lays out the background on the Phoenix Memo in great detail. It is one of the fattest dots that he thinks was ignored. But, as he presents it, the memo is nowhere close to a smoking gun.

First, he argues that it may have been a mere CYA gesture. The FBI agent who wrote it had been given the information from his source over four years before. The source was about to go public with his dissatisfaction at his treatment by the agent which may have triggered the memo to Washington.

Second, the source was romantically involved with a woman suspected of being a Chinese spy. He refused to break-off the relationship when ordered to do so by the FBI and became a vehement public advocate of the woman's innocence. So, his credibility and judgment are at least open to question.

And what was the hot intel this source provided? That radical Islamisists were taking flight training. Did the source point to any of the 9-11 hijackers? Not quite.

Harry Ellen [the source] now believes [i.e. in 2003] that one of the young Islamics he saw outside the mosque back in 1996 was an Algerian pilot named Lofti Raissi. Raissi was arrested by British authorities right after 9/11 and indicted by the US Justice Department on charges of fraud and giving false information on his FAA pilot's application. A British judge set him free months later, declaring there was insufficient evidence to tie him to the 9/11 conspiracy. But the FBI found evidence that Raissi had been in the proximity of one of the key 9/11 hijackers on three occasions.

Hani Hanjour, the Saudi who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, had enrolled at CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Arizona as far back as 1996. On five dates in 1998 he trained on a flight simulator at the same facility as Raissi.

According to Lance, this should have been enough for FBI analysts to figure out that an plan to fly jets into the WTC was imminent. Because a suspect source may have seen someone who was at a school in Arizona when another guy was there. The attack was about to happen because the hijack pilot had done nothing during the five years he was in this country. Why it's a big red arrow pointing directly at Atta down in Florida where the heart of the plot was located.

By the time the Phoenix Memo was sent, there was little FBI HQ could do to prevent 9-11. Even if they ignored PC sensibilities and started to investigate all Middle Eastern men taking flight lessons anywhere in the country, they had less than two months to catch the key figures. They would have been chasing needles in dozens of haystacks with very little time to do it.

For the Phoenix Memo to be useful, it needed to be sent earlier and more digging done by the Phoenix office to describe the actual threat. Yet, in their eagerness to attack the FBI, critics lionize the agent who may have sat on the critical information for years.

Note: Jane Galt returns to this subject here and here. Murdoc Online comments here.

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