There is probably still more that we don’t know than we do about the likelihood that a military intelligence unit identified 9/11 highjacker Mohammed Atta a year or so before the World Trade Center was attacked. but didn’t pass on the information to the FBI.
What we think we know now is likely to change as events unfold. But what seems to be true at this stage suggests that the failure of the U.S. government to protect us from the 9/11 highjackers is even more egregious than we thought — and that government efforts to get to the bottom of the failure and fix the problems haven’t begun to do so.
Briefly: It seems the Pentagon established an intelligence unit called Able Danger in 1999 to use data-mining of open sources (rather than clandestine stuff) to try to get a handle on al-Qaida activities. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon and a yet-unidentified military intelligence operative claim that in August or September of 2000 the unit identified Mohammed Atta and perhaps three other of the 9/11 attackers working together in what they called the Brooklyn cell.
Able Danger analysts recommended that this information be passed on to the FBI (some stories claim this was the only likely al-Qaida cell the group identified), but Pentagon lawyers, for various reasons, including the “wall” between foreign intelligence and domestic law enforcement, nixed the idea.
Members of the 9/11 commission, which officially disbanded a year ago but has continued to operate informally, first said they had heard nothing of this. Then it emerged that at least some staffers had heard about it but rejected the claims as unlikely or because they didn’t fit with the commission’s previous findings.
There’s more, but facts are still emerging. What’s disturbing is that certain habits in that tangled spider web of institutions known politely as the “intelligence community” seem so deeply rooted — perhaps they are inevitable in a government institution — that any hope of changing them seems vain.
Much has been made of the fact that 9/11 commission member Jamie Gorelick, when she was Janet Reno’s top assistant at the Justice Department in 1995, added more bricks to the “wall” between foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering. Some people thought she should have been a witness before the commission, not a member. Gorelick has recently tried to distance herself from these 1995 decisions, but the matter deserves more investigation.
But blaming Gorelick or the Clinton administration may be beside the point. The “wall” between the CIA and other foreign intelligence outfits and the FBI was in place long before Gorelick served in the Justice Department, and to some extent it still is.
It’s worth noting that there are reasons to worry about the kind of promiscuous intelligence sharing that could lead to innocent Americans being needlessly hassled by the FBI or other domestic law enforcement agencies. It seems obvious, however, that compartmentalization had gotten ridiculous. Much of this was due more to institutional jealousy, concern about turf and mutual distrust among agencies than to formal or legal barriers to information-sharing.
For example, if the information Able Danger developed on Mohammed Atta came from open sources rather than an undercover investigation, there was probably no legal reason dictating that it not be shared. Pentagon lawyers may have acted more from an excess of caution and the instinct to keep information in their own bailiwick than because of Jamie Gorelick’s directives.
All that said, the 9/11 commission appears to have failed at several junctures. The first was lack of candor early last week when it initially denied knowing anything about Able Danger. The second is that while criticizing the “group-think” in intelligence agencies, the commission (or some of its staffers) may have fallen into a form of groupthink themselves, dismissing information that didn’t fit into a preferred pattern.
In short, the 9/11 commission may have done some sterling work, but its report is probably far from the comprehensive final answer about intelligence failures prior to 9/11. This may be largely because of the establishment types chosen as members, or because of partisan agendas some members maintained.
Bottom line? The reforms to date — some proposed by the 9/11 commission — have probably done little to improve U.S. intelligence. The likelihood that the government failed not because it had too few resources but because it had too many — too many agencies working at cross-purposes, too many bureaucratic tangles, too many time servers — has not yet been sufficiently explored.