The Report the CIA Didn’t Want You to See
Aug. 21, 2007 – A long-suppressed internal CIA report on pre-9/11 failures includes important new information about intelligence community squabbling and government fumbling in the months before the terror attacks.
An executive summary of the report, prepared by the agency’s inspector general’s office in 2005 and finally released Tuesday under orders from Congress, is unquestionably embarrassing for former agency director George Tenet and many of his top deputies. According to the report’s findings, the CIA under Tenet’s leadership repeatedly blew opportunities to disrupt the Al Qaeda network—and possibly even penetrate the 9/11 plot itself—because of “mismanagement,” a lack of strategic direction and a “systemic breakdown” within the agency’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC).
But some of the fresh details found in the document could also prove awkward for current CIA Director Michael Hayden—the only senior official involved in pre-9/11 events who is still in a leadership role. The report also seemed to raise new questions about former President Clinton’s angry claim to Fox News anchor Chris Wallace last year that he had authorized the CIA to “kill” Osama bin Laden—a directive that the report suggested was more ambiguous and limited than Clinton asserted.
The report found that U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda were damaged by a fierce turf battle between the CIA and the National Security Agency (then under Hayden’s leadership) over access to transcripts of intercepted communications picked up by the government’s spy satellites and listening posts. Throughout the late 1990s right up to 9/11, the two U.S. intelligence agencies appear to have sharply feuded over the issue. The NSA eavesdropped on the conversations of top Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe. It then prepared verbatim written transcripts of this raw “signals intelligence” (known as SIGINT in the intel world).
But Hayden’s NSA apparently wouldn’t share the transcripts with the CIA, which was responsible for tracking Al Qaeda operatives overseas. The NSA’s “unwillingness to share raw SIGINT transcripts with CIA”¦made it more difficult for CTC [the Counter-Terrorism Center] to perform its mission against Al Qaeda,” the report stated. (The NSA also snubbed the FBI, whose job it was to hunt down terrorist operatives within the United States.)
Some in the intelligence community take issue with the report’s characterization of the disagreement. “It was a question of law, not turf,” one U.S. intel official said Tuesday when asked why Hayden’s NSA had refused to share such vital information with another U.S. intelligence agency. “The most efficient way to ensure compliance with the law when it comes to raw transcripts was to have the SIGINT reviewed inside NSA spaces.”
The practical impact of the feud was first glimpsed three years ago when Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee complaining that the NSA would only provide his office written “summaries” of the Al Qaeda conversations, which were “much less” useful for operations than the actual transcripts. The NSA repeatedly rebuffed CIA requests to see the transcripts, Scheuer wrote. One senior NSA officer, he claimed, told the agency that the National Security Act of 1947 gave the NSA “control” over the raw signals intelligence and she therefore would not share it with any other branch of the government. “They were stonewalling us,” Scheuer said in an interview Tuesday. “We came back and told Tenet that people were going to die without these things.” A one point, Scheuer told NEWSWEEK, the agency’s bin Laden station lost out on a chance to capture a senior Al Qaeda leader visiting Holland because the NSA provided its summaries of SIGINT too late.
The report by inspector general John Helgerson’s office sharply chastised Tenet, then director of Central Intelligence, for failing to “personally” resolve the differences between the two agencies over this issue. It recommended that an internal CIA “Accountability Board” be assembled to review his handling of this and other counter-terror matters. But while the CIA report never referred directly to Hayden, the inspector general’s decision to highlight the matter is likely to draw more scrutiny to his past actions as head of the sister spy agency.
The squabbling over SIGINT transcripts was only one of a litany of pre-9/11 failures fleshed out in the inspector general’s report. Tenet was chided for failing to devote sufficient resources to disrupting Al Qaeda, even though he had issued a December 1998 memo stating “we are at war” with the terrorist group. The CIA’s CTC bungled key intelligence about 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, never focusing on reporting that he was sending terrorists to the United States on bin Laden’s behalf, the report stated. And the report lambasts the CTC for failing to share key information about two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who had been discovered to have entered the United States after being observed by the CIA attending an Al Qaeda summit in January 2000.
The CIA failed to tell the State Department to “watch-list” the two Al Qaeda men, and the inspector general could find no evidence that the agency ever told the FBI about their presence in the country. The report called this a “potentially significant” lapse, since an alert to the Bureau might have led to “surveillance” and ultimately vital information about the 9/11 plot itself. “In the period January through March 2000, some 50 to 60 individuals read one or more of six Agency cables containing travel information related to these terrorists,” the report stated. It concluded: “That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systemic breakdown” within the CTC. (The report recommended that along with Tenet, two former CTC chiefs should also be reviewed by an accountability board.)
The report also criticized intelligence problems when Bill Clinton was president, detailing political and legal “constraints” agency officials felt in the late 1990s. In September 2006, during a famous encounter with Fox News anchor Wallace, Clinton erupted in anger and waived his finger when asked about whether his administration had done enough to get bin Laden. “What did I do? What did I do”? Clinton said at one point. “I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since.”
Clinton appeared to have been referring to a December 1999 Memorandum of Notification (MON) he signed that authorized the CIA to use lethal force to capture, not kill, bin Laden. But the inspector general’s report made it clear that the agency never viewed the order as a license to “kill” bin Laden—one reason it never mounted more effective operations against him. “The restrictions in the authorities given the CIA with respect to bin Laden, while arguably, although ambiguously, relaxed for a period of time in late 1998 and early 1999, limited the range of permissible operations,” the report stated. (Scheuer agreed with the inspector general’s findings on this issue, but said if anything the report was overly diplomatic. “There was never any ambiguity,” he said. “None of those authorities ever allowed us to kill anyone. At least that’s what the CIA lawyers told us.” A spokesman for the former president had no immediate comment.)
In any case, the inspector general found that the CIA’s failure to conduct effective covert actions against bin Laden prior to 9/11 was ultimately not because of ambiguous legal authorities but because it did not have effective assets on the ground who could mount a “credible operation” against him.
The searing criticisms of agency officials contained in the report was one reason that the next two men who succeeded Tenet as CIA Director, Porter Goss and then Hayden, refused to release a public version of the report or to accept its recommendation of an Accountability Board. But ultimately Congress, in an amendment contained in legislation passed last month, ordered the release of Tuesday’s public version.
Tenet made clear in a statement issued Tuesday that he was not happy about it. In a contentious two-and-a-half page statement e-mailed to journalists, he disputed many of the inspector general’s findings and vigorously defended his record. “There was in fact a robust plan [to get bin Laden’s terrorists], marked by extraordinary effort and dedication to fighting terrorism, dating back to long before 9/11,” he said. (While insisting that he was “relentless” in seeking more funding for counter-terrorism efforts, he did not address the inspector general criticism that he never resolved the CIA-NSA dispute over SIGINT.)
Nor apparently was Hayden enthusiastic about so much dirty linen being made public. In his own statement e-mailed to reporters, the CIA director said he was releasing the report only because he had to. “The long, grueling fight against terrorism, which depends in very real part on the quality of our intelligence, demands that we keep our focus on the present and the future,” he said. The report, he added, will “distract officers serving their country on the frontlines of a global conflict” and “consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed.”