‘Systemic breakdown’ at CIA before Sept. 11

Times Staff Writers

The CIA never developed an overall strategy for confronting Al Qaeda and let precious resources and capabilities go unused in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to an internal investigation that the agency had fought to keep secret for the last two years.

The report from the agency’s inspector general, declassified Tuesday, adds disturbing new details to an already extensive public record of Sept. 11-related failures.

Among them was the revelation that long before the attacks, as many as 60 officers in the CIA had seen cables indicating that two Al Qaeda operatives -- who went on to reside in San Diego -- had entered the United States or possessed travel documents that would let them do so.


The report, which was completed in 2005, also made the case that former CIA Director George J. Tenet and other top officials should face further scrutiny within the agency to determine whether they should be reprimanded for having any roles in the breakdowns.

Tenet, who stepped down as CIA director in 2004, disputed the inspector general’s report. “The IG is flat wrong,” Tenet said in a statement released to reporters Tuesday.

Overall, the report concludes that there was neither a “single point of failure” nor a “silver bullet” that would have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.

Nevertheless, the report says, the CIA and its senior officers “did not discharge their duties in a satisfactory manner.”

The report contains new findings that the CIA diverted funds from counter-terrorism activities -- and failed to spend all of the money that was left -- even as Tenet and other agency officials were pleading for resources and expressing growing alarm about the terrorist threat.

The report concluded that the agency never produced a “comprehensive strategic assessment of Al Qaeda” and that officials allowed squabbling between agencies and among units within the CIA to undermine counter-terrorism cooperation. It let systems meant to keep terrorists out of the United States deteriorate so badly that “basically, there was no coherent, functioning watch-listing program” when 19 Al Qaeda operatives entered the country to hijack four jets.


Congress passed legislation this month that, among other things, required the agency to declassify the executive summary of the document. Even so, some text remained redacted, apparently to avoid revealing names of agency officials, operations, capabilities or resources.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden objected to releasing the report, saying in a statement that doing so would “at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well-plowed.” He also expressed concern that making the document public “would distract officers serving their country on the front lines of a global conflict.”

In many ways, the report amounts to a reexamination of events that had been extensively probed by a joint congressional committee and the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the document is notable both because it represents the findings of the agency’s own internal watchdog organization, led by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, and because it adds new details to the public account of the most devastating terrorist attack in the nation’s history.

In some cases, the report suggests that previously documented breakdowns were even more troubling than was publicly reported.

It was not previously known, for example, that “some 50 to 60 individuals” within the CIA had read intelligence cables warning that Al Qaeda operatives Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar already had entered the country or were poised to do so.


CIA officials failed to place the two men on a State Department watch list, or share information on their travels with the FBI, until one month before the attacks.

That failure is widely considered the most significant missed opportunity to detect or disrupt the Sept. 11 plot.

“That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systemic breakdown,” according to the report, which goes on to catalog other systemic failures.

The CIA unit responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden is described as suffering from an excessive workload and skill shortage.

“Most of its officers did not have the operational experience, expertise and training necessary to accomplish their mission,” the report concludes.

That unit and others within the agency involved in counter-terrorism “were hostile to each other and working at cross purposes over a period of years before 9/11,” according to the report.


The CIA sparred with the National Security Agency -- which eavesdrops on electronic communications around the globe -- over their respective responsibilities in targeting Al Qaeda, according to the report.

CIA officials complained about a lack of access to raw intelligence collected by the NSA. But when the NSA offered to let a CIA employee sift through all of its electronic intelligence on terrorist communications overseas, the CIA sent an officer to NSA for only a short period in 2000 and then stopped, “citing resource constraints.”

Michael Scheuer, who from 1995 to 1999 was chief of the CIA unit tracking Bin Laden, said the CIA stopped sending a representative to the NSA because it placed too many restrictions on the dissemination of the intelligence.

But Scheuer agreed with most of the report’s findings, saying that the lack of strategic analysis on Al Qaeda by the CIA undermined his operational unit’s effectiveness.

“It was a very serious failure on the part of the whole intelligence community,” said Scheuer, who left the agency in 2004 and has become a vocal critic of it since. “I pressed it and was told to mind my own business.”

Other conflicts seem particularly petty in hindsight. The report notes that the CIA and the military differed over who should have to pay to replace lost Predator unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan, undermining the important intelligence-gathering effort.


The report concludes that the CIA, under Tenet’s leadership, successfully obtained more counter-terrorism money in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks. But while they were appealing for more resources, senior officials “were not effectively managing the agency’s counter-terrorism funds.”

In particular, the report said CIA officials moved counter-terrorism money to other parts of the agency to cover other needs that had little or nothing to do with combating terrorism.

Further, the report concluded, counter-terrorism managers “did not spend all of the funds in their base budget, even after it had been reduced by diversions of funds to other programs.”

Much of the report’s criticism is aimed at Tenet, who investigators say “bears ultimate responsibility for the fact that no [Al Qaeda] strategic plan was ever created, despite his specific direction that this should be done.”

But Tenet accused the inspector general of second-guessing, noting that weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, the oversight office had issued an internal report praising the agency’s counter-terrorism center as “well-managed.”

Tenet said there was a “robust plan” to pursue Al Qaeda that dated long before the Sept. 11 attacks, and he argued that largely because of his efforts, the number of employees assigned to the CIA’s counter-terrorism center grew by 74% over five years, while its budget more than doubled.


“For me,” Tenet said, “there was no priority higher than fighting terrorism.”

He added that the report “vastly underappreciates the challenges faced and heroic performance of the hard-working men and women of the CIA in general and the CTC in specific.”

In at least 10 instances, the report recommended that the CIA convene an “accountability board” to review the performance of Tenet and other officials. That proposal was rejected in 2005 by Tenet’s successor, Porter J. Goss, who said at the time that “singling out these individuals would send the wrong message to our junior officers about taking risks -- whether it be an operation in the field or being assigned to a hot topic at headquarters.”

Hayden said Tuesday that he had “reread the report” and “found no reason to revisit” the decision made by Goss.

To date, no CIA employee has been reprimanded for any failings related to the Sept. 11 attacks.



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Missteps declassified

Highlights of the 2005 report on pre 9/11 failures:

The U.S. intelligence community, consisting of 16 agencies, lacked any “documented, comprehensive” approach to Al Qaeda in the years before Sept. 11, 2001.


There had been no comprehensive report on Osama bin Laden since 1993 and no examination of the potential use of planes as weapons. There was no comprehensive analysis of the threats reported through the spring and summer of 2001.

Although former CIA Director George J. Tenet said in 1998 that the U.S. was “at war” with Al Qaeda, he failed to follow up with a comprehensive plan.

Squabbling between the CIA and other agencies, and among CIA counter-terrorism units, hampered the ability of agents to track and stop terrorists.

Despite calling for more funding and personnel, officials did not effectively manage counter-terrorism funds they already had, and they failed to transfer money or personnel within the agency to beef up the counter-terrorism effort.

Warnings that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were traveling were seen by 50 to 60 government officials, who failed to act to intercept them as a result of a “systemic breakdown” within U.S. intelligence agencies. At least one hijacker could have been kept out of the country.


Source: CIA Office of the Inspector General