Blinded vigilance: How Deutch and Tenet helped weaken CIA prior to 9/11

by J. Michael Waller, Insight magazine, October 15, 2001

While the terrorists and their sponsors were plotting to hijack airliners and crash them into Manhattan skyscrapers and the Pentagon, senior CIA officials were compelling analysts and operations officers to attend sensitivity-training classes and sew diversity quilts. That is a fact.

It also is a metaphor for why the United States, with its $30 billion annual intelligence budget, was unable to prevent the horrors of Sept. 11.

And it reveals how completely U.S. political leaders had lost the will to defend their very homeland – even though they knew a large Middle East-based terrorist network had been operating in the United States since at least the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

An Insight investigation shows many reasons, from bureaucratic dysfunction hobbling the work of U.S. analysts and spies, to failure to reform a security and intelligence machine configured to fight the Cold War. Other reasons: abandonment of friends abroad, misplaced budgetary and technological priorities, political correctness taking precedence over realpolitik within the intelligence community and intentional uprooting of the nation’s human-intelligence assets around the globe.

At home it was willful destruction of the legal tools needed to monitor and stop terrorist suspects, collusion between airlines and federal regulators that placed airport security in the hands of dubious minimum-wage workers and a constant sniping in the media from liberals and libertarians against those trying to keep the country safe.

The Insight investigation reveals endemic management problems, a misunderstanding and misallocation of the new intelligence-collection technologies, politicization of the intelligence process and decades of crippling laws and regulations that make it impossible for intelligence professionals to do the job they need to do.

“The intelligence community’s hands have been tied, going back to the 1970s when the Church Committee and the Pike Committee in Congress cleaned us out,” says Gene Poteat, a veteran CIA officer who now is director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). The strategy of critics since that time, he adds, has been, “Emasculate the agencies, then blame them.” Novelist Tom Clancy put it this way in the Wall Street Journal: “It is a lamentably common practice in Washington and elsewhere to shoot people in the back and then complain when they fail to win the race. The loss of so many lives in New York and Washington is now called an `intelligence failure,’ mostly by those who crippled the CIA in the first place and by those who celebrated the loss of its invaluable capabilities.”

Poteat agrees completely.”What a pity that they cannot stand up like adults and say: `See, we gutted our intelligence agencies because we don’t much like them, and now we can bury thousands of Americans as an indirect result,’” writes Clancy. “This, of course, will not happen, because those who inflict their aesthetic on the rest of us are never around to clean up the resulting mess, though they seem to enjoy further assaulting those whom they crippled to begin with.”

As Insight reported just days before the Sept. 11 carnage (see “Ground Down CIA Still in the Pit,” Oct. 1-8, but posted on Sept. 7), holdovers from the Clinton administration responsible for further crippling of the CIA remain in top management positions.

For now, the Bush administration is standing staunchly with CIA Director George Tenet, whom President Bill Clinton appointed to succeed the disgraced John Deutch in 1996. Vice President Dick Cheney says it would be a “tragedy” to look for scapegoats and call on people to be fired. Tenet’s defenders say that the public is unaware of many major terrorist attacks the CIA has foiled.

Good enough, for now, say some Bush supporters in the interests of keeping national unity. But if the United States is going to fix its intelligence, counterintelligence and security problems, they say, one must identify the mistakes and those responsible for making them. These extend far beyond the CIA and can be traced to politicians who gutted the intelligence and security community in the mid-1970s. The late senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), who chaired a special committee to investigate the CIA after the Watergate scandal, led sensational hearings excoriating the agency for having hatched plots to assassinate Communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Congolese Marxist icon Patrice Lumumba, and supporting the 1973 coup against Marxist Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Church ignored the fact that President John F. Kennedy had instructed the CIA to kill Castro and supposedly Lumumba, to no avail. He accused the CIA of being behind the suicide of Allende in the coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. This allegation first was raised by Castro and turned into a “known fact,” but refuted by Allende’s own physician who saw him place a gold-plated AK-47 in his mouth – ironically a gift from Castro – and blow his brains out. Forensic tests on Allende’s remains in the early 1990s confirmed the suicide.

But the damage was done. The demoralized CIA was on the defensive, and President Gerald R. Ford signed an executive order banning the agency from assassinating foreign leaders, even if, like Castro, they were horribly repressing their own people and, like terrorists, represented a clear and present danger to the United States. George Herbert Walker Bush, who had just finished a tour as ambassador to Communist China and would become the nation’s 41st president, was named CIA chief – or Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) – in early 1976. He tried to revive its morale and honor, but he was removed shortly after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in early 1977.

Meanwhile, outside groups led by Morton Halperin of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a protracted campaign of lawsuits against the U.S. security and intelligence community and egged on Congress to force tighter and tighter restrictions on the CIA and the FBI.

Other groups, including the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, openly sided with terrorists, litigating on behalf of bank robbers, foreign and domestic terrorists and political extremists on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and spinning anti-FBI stories to willing journalists at establishment newspapers.

“Then,” says Poteat, “they politicized the DCI’s job.” Carter removed Bush, whom intelligence veterans recall helped restore agency morale amid constant sniping from Capitol Hill and the media, before he could serve a full year at CIA headquarters, replacing him with Stansfield Turner. A retired Navy admiral, Turner came in “with a mandate from Jimmy Carter, who had a predisposition against intelligence. Turner arrived with a mandate to render the CIA mostly impotent. He began to retire people and lay them off. He retired most of the Middle East experts who spoke Farsi and other regional languages in Central Asia. I was ordered to eliminate 20 percent of my own people,” says Poteat, who ran the agency’s worldwide monitoring sites at the time.

Former official after former official, pundits and others, now chorus the same refrain: no HUMINT. The U.S. government simply fired its human intelligence assets, known as HUMINT, who would have been those penetrating the terrorist organization that struck America and killed thousands on U.S. soil in a single day.

But HUMINT had been eviscerated – by design. Intelligence veterans say Turner himself began it, with a “massacre” of some of the CIA’s finest officers in the clandestine service. Today, after the most terrible terrorist attack in history, he can be seen on television faulting the CIA for not having good enough HUMINT.

The CIA built up its HUMINT network throughout Central Asia when it was used to support guerrilla forces battling the Soviet army in Afghanistan. That operation became a two-edged sword, inadvertently strengthening forces now believed to be behind recent years of terrorist attacks against American targets.

But the CIA cut off most, if not all, of its Afghan interlocutors after the Soviets pulled out in the late 1980s, leaving the agency deaf, dumb and blind in what was becoming a hotbed of fanatical-terrorist training networks. And it did not insert its own people under cover, chiefly because the CIA’s methods aren’t always what people see in movies and the spy novels.

Intelligence officials tell Insight that the CIA tends to operate out of U.S. embassies abroad and that clandestine-services officers in the field usually operate under the cover of being businessmen or white-collar professionals. “They don’t live in the grungy, smelly, fly-infested environments of the locals; they don’t go to mosques and smoke-filled mud houses where the populations live; and almost no one in the CIA has language fluency, cultural experience and ethnic background allowing them to blend in,” says a 15-year veteran. CIA officers tend to stand out in the murky Arab, Persian and Pashtun worlds. So human-intelligence collection there predominantly is from “feeds” and “dumps” from the local security forces and the occasional “walk-in” from the other side. And in Pakistan, a one-time partner of the United States, the powerful intelligence service has sided with the terrorists.

Agency culture, endemic to almost any government bureaucracy, tends to discourage risk by penalizing creativity that could lead to mistakes or controversy and by rewarding the bureaucratic tendency to go with the flow, intelligence officers complain. “The job has lost its sense of mission,” says a clandestine-services officer. “I’m just doing it now for the paycheck.”

Angelo Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a former professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says, “The CIA’s human-collection system is notoriously prone to buying what it wants to hear. This is how it led President Clinton to bomb a Sudanese medicine factory. Nothing is easier than for terrorists to cover their tracks by feeding the CIA red meat about bin Laden.”

Intelligence-community morale sagged during the Clinton administration. Clinton’s first CIA chief, R. James Woolsey, tells Insight that Clinton almost never had time for him, seeing him one-on-one only twice in two years, and quips that Monica Lewinsky was with the president more often than he. Woolsey ultimately left in disgust. Clinton replaced him with Deutch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained physicist who took the job reluctantly after failing to be named secretary of defense. Deutch delivered the final, crippling blows to the CIA’s human-intelligence networks that some say made it impossible to go near terrorist groups such as that of bin Laden.

By necessity, U.S. intelligence long paid sleazy and unsavory characters to betray friends, colleagues and governments and provide the United States with information. Where the local authorities give little credence to the Western idea of human rights, that means paying gangsters and even terrorists for vital intelligence, just as the FBI does in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking.

To fight terrorists, one couldn’t do it by electronic gizmos alone but had to know what the terrorists were saying to one another and what they were thinking and planning. That meant paying some of their comrades to betray them. Sen. Robert Torricelli helped put an end to that. In 1995, the New Jersey Democrat, then a congressman, took up the cause of Jennifer Harbury, an American radical “married” to a communist guerrilla from Guatemala named Efrian Bamaca. Her “husband’s” Cuba-backed URNG group was responsible for massacres and terrorist attacks across Central America and threatened the lives of U.S. diplomats. Bamaca, like many of his comrades, disappeared in the early 1990s at the hands of Guatemalan security forces.

Harbury’s case came to the attention of Torricelli, who at the time was a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He leaked U.S. intelligence information alleging that a Guatemalan colonel, a paid asset of the CIA, was responsible for the disappearance of Bamaca and an American citizen. Torricelli held a sensational news conference in March 1995, denouncing CIA complicity in murder. In April, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings, with Democrats and Republicans alike ripping into the CIA for hiring people who weren’t nice and misleading Congress.

The hysteria was based on disinformation, given legitimacy by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner and others from the URNG camp, ax-grinders in the bureaucracy and Torricelli. The CIA inspector general found that nobody had willfully misled Congress, Janet Reno’s Justice Department said the Guatemalan colonel was not involved in the deaths, and President Clinton’s own Intelligence Oversight Board found Torricelli’s claims to be false. Before those investigations were complete, however, CIA Director Deutch “scrubbed down” agents and fired the chief of the Latin American division, Terry R. Ward.

Human Rights Watch recommended requiring the CIA to remove from its payroll any asset anywhere in the world engaged in human-rights abuses, to report to Congress about the conduct of its assets abroad, to turn over information about CIA informants’ alleged crimes against U.S. citizens to the Justice Department “for criminal prosecution under the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1986,” and in the event the victim was, like Bamaca, not a U.S. citizen, to turn over the intelligence to the host country for prosecution. Human Rights Watch demanded that the CIA also should be barred from paying members of foreign institutions, such as security forces, it thought were involved in human-rights violations.

URNG supporters in the United States, led by Harbury and a political front group for the Guatemalan guerrillas called NISGUA, pushed for the Human Rights Watch plan.

Deutch fired Latin America division chief Ward solely to pander to Torricelli and left-wingers in Congress, Paul Redmond, CIA counterintelligence chief who left in 1998, told reporters. Worse, Deutch leaked Ward’s name to the press while Ward was stationed abroad as chief of a CIA station. This was a flagrant violation of the Agents Identities Intelligence Act enacted after Philip Agee, a CIA defector to Cuba and the Soviet Union, published the names of CIA clandestine-service officers which resulted in the assassination of the station chief in Athens. Deutch was never called to account for this.

Neither was Torricelli. “He identified a guy cooperating with the CIA, a violation of the agents’ identities law, and he should have gotten five years for it but Janet Reno never prosecuted him,” says Herbert Romerstein, a former House Intelligence Committee investigator. Deutch then implemented the recommendations embraced by the Guatemalan guerrillas, cutting off hundreds and perhaps thousands of HUMINT assets around the world.

“Morale went downhill fast under Deutch,” recalls Poteat. “As he made a speech in the CIA auditorium there, the veterans in the audience basically laughed him off the stage when he said not to talk to the bad guys.” Deutch was forced out of the CIA in disgrace in 1996, replaced by his deputy, Tenet, whom President Bush has kept as intelligence chief. While many like Tenet for his professionalism and knowledge, others fault him for keeping the Deutch policies and not using his leadership and good political connections to try to restore the intelligence community.

As one intelligence officer puts it: “I haven’t seen too much of the leadership in the CIA that impresses me, from Tenet on down.” A Clinton appointee from the Energy Department’s national laboratories shut down the CIA directorate of research and development, which the officer calls “the only group in the world that understood both technology and intelligence. The DCI above her didn’t understand these things and let them take place. The leadership became politicized – we couldn’t keep a directorate of S&T [science and technology]. One guy lasted only six months and walked out. He left because he had no support from the top.”

Mid-level officials cite a disconnect between the intelligence community’s unsurpassed high-tech capabilities and its cadre of capable analysts. “The analysis group has suffered severely when a number of other organizations were eliminated,” says Poteat. “They’re doing a good job, but the problem is that often they are isolated; they don’t know the capabilities of collections systems like the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office].” The result: wasted resources, lost time, misinterpretation of imagery and vital intelligence that is collected but never processed or used.

Another insider adds: “Management appears to have withered away, and there’s no one at the very top who seems to have recognized this deterioration.” Poteat counters, “George Tenet seems to fill the bill. He has not politicized the agency.”

But political correctness has swept through the intelligence community, creating or exacerbating suspicions among professional colleagues, wasting tens of thousands of worker-hours and demoralizing staff. Internally, politically correct officials censored intelligence analysis and prevented it from being distributed through the intelligence community’s classified electronic intranet. “They would refuse to publish data I considered extremely critical because it was not politic to say,” says Poteat. “If they don’t put something on there, it means they don’t want the other agencies to see it.”

A current CIA manager, who requested anonymity, tells Insight that intelligence professionals are forced to attend sensitivity-training classes and do role-playing skits to conform to politically correct social themes. Another CIA official adds, “The management wasted countless thousands of hours by making all of us sit through workshops to make politically correct diversity quilts.” Pieces of fabric were distributed to CIA employees on which they were instructed to sew, draw or glue art, photographs and slogans reflecting “diversity” themes dictated during mandatory sensitivity seminars. “Can you imagine being a manager and having your staff say, `Sorry, I need to take off an hour to work on my diversity quilt?’ It just scalds me.” He estimates that the quilting workshops and seminars cost the CIA more than 20,000 hours of employee time. The diversity quilts are on display inside CIA headquarters.

But even with all its handicaps, the CIA proved able to monitor in Malaysia and elsewhere some of the very terrorists who pulled off the Sept. 11 attacks. And even though they alerted the FBI, and the FBI put those individuals and others on its “watch list,” something disconnected. “Do you know what a watch list is these days?” says Poteat. “They don’t watch the individual. They take his name and put it in a file. Then, when something happens, they go to the file, take his name and look at his associations.”Why doesn’t the FBI “watch” the people on its watch lists anymore? One reason is that it now has too few resources.

Another reason, federal law-enforcement officers say, is the labyrinth of laws since the Frank Church years and the endless litigation from the ACLU and other groups. More recently, Muslim and Arab-American organizations have followed the ACLU’s lead with pressure and litigation campaigns that had the result, unintended or otherwise, of crippling the FBI further. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has filed civil-rights complaints and launched crusades to end the profiling of individuals who fit known terrorist traits.

Sources tell Insight that the FBI developed few sources inside the Arab-American and Muslim community, and that it has few special agents who speak Arabic. Those agents have been stretched to the breaking point, spread out all over the world investigating other cases of terrorism, from the Egypt Air crash in New York to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

For years, the ACLU litigated against FBI wiretapping, infiltration of domestic groups and other forms of internal security, hobbling the bureau and in some cases restricting its role to investigating terrorism only after the fact.

For decades, relations between the FBI and CIA remained chilly rather than integrating intelligence the agency picked up from abroad that could help the bureau penetrate criminal and terrorist groups internally and disrupt their activities before people got killed. The discovery of CIA officer Aldrich Ames as a Russian spy in 1994 forced the two organizations to cooperate and since then, sources say, relations have been productive. It was the CIA, for example, that collected the intelligence that the FBI used to monitor and arrest one of its own senior agents, Robert P. Hanssen, as a traitor earlier this year.

The FBI’s own weak internal-security practices – Hanssen never was polygraphed in his more than two decades as an FBI agent – led to further breakdowns in its ability to protect the country from terrorists, one of which may have helped Osama bin Laden directly. Jerry Seper of the Washington Times, citing federal law-enforcement officials, reported in June that Hanssen passed secret software to the KGB that Russian intelligence passed on to bin Laden’s organization, enabling the terrorist mastermind to monitor U.S. efforts to keep track of him.

According to Seper, “The sophisticated software gives bin Laden access to databases on specific targets of his choosing and the ability to monitor electronic-banking transactions, easing money-laundering operations for himself or others.”

Terrorists and the regimes that sponsor them continue to plot. “Victory against such regimes consists, much as victory over Nazi Germany consisted, of killing the top leaders and cadres, snuffing out any hope that anyone might prosper by following in their footsteps and discrediting the movement,” says Codevilla.

Now even senators who shrank from the thought before Sept. 11 are reconsidering. Five days after the blasts, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) appeared on CNN, alluding to the need to repeal the executive order banning assassinations.

Meanwhile diversity quilts made by intelligence agents continue to decorate the halls at the CIA.

The problems aren’t just at CIA and FBI

Hundreds of other factors contributed to the U.S. national-security community’s inability to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. Here are some of them:

  • Airports invited the hijackings. For 30 years, airport security has been in the hands of untrained, unprofessional, minimum-wage employees, many of whom are immigrants with unverifiable backgrounds who speak poor English. Private industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have fought attempts to beef up airport security.
  • Modernization of the FAA’s National Airspace System lacks a primary radar that can follow hijacked aircraft when transponders are shut off.
  • Fanaticism about free trade undermined export controls on communications technology that now allows terrorists to duck U.S. intelligence eavesdropping.
  • Dependence on Middle East oil caused policymakers to choose not to crack down on regimes sponsoring or harboring terrorists. Arabs, friendly and hostile, consequently saw the United States as a weak and declining power and acted accordingly.
  • The banking industry and politicians dependent on it resisted attempts by some in government to crack down early and hard on terrorist finances.
  • An out-of-control immigration policy does not enforce existing laws and does not screen individuals from high-risk areas who seek visas.