WASHINGTON -- The key failure of U.S. intelligence before Sept. 11 was the lack of human intelligence -- spies on the ground who could have learned the plans and intentions of al-Qaida before it attacked.
The intelligence bureaucracy that was formed after Pearl Harbor to prevent another surprise attack is focused too much on electronic spying through communications intercepts and satellite photography. Spying on terrorist groups was farmed out to friendly foreign intelligence services, whose interests may not always coincide with U.S. interests.
The U.S. intelligence community is in urgent need of reform if the United States is to win the war against terrorism.
A meeting of some 350 U.S. intelligence officials in March at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies are still poorly structured and unprepared to meet the challenge posed by international terrorists. Six months after Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence agencies still were struggling to share intelligence among themselves, the closed-door session revealed.
Perhaps the most disturbing news of the meeting was presented by Linda Flohr, the deputy national coordinator on terrorism on the staff of the White House National Security Council.
Ms. Flohr, a former CIA official, told the conference that President Bush is not sure structural changes in the intelligence community would lead to producing more "actionable" intelligence to prevent future terrorist attacks. It was a sign that career CIA officials intent on protecting the intelligence bureaucracy from needed reform are in key influential government positions. Rather than bring about real reform, the White House instead is considering the creation of a National Threat Assessment Center, another bureaucratic "center" designed to augment a failed intelligence structure.
The CIA's espionage branch was formed to recruit spies to work against the Soviet Union. It now needs to penetrate terrorist groups. The problem is that most managers in the branch believe it is impossible to penetrate tight-knit terrorist organizations.
But unless President Bush undertakes a top-to-bottom restructuring of U.S. intelligence agencies, the war on terrorism will be lost. As former CIA Director R. James Woolsey put it, the 1990s resulted in overall de-emphasis on national security.
"We were on a national beach party," he says. "The country wasn't any more ready for Sept. 11 than it was for Pearl Harbor. And for a lot of the same, underlying reasons. The tactics were different, the intelligence was different, but the country was asleep."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says U.S. intelligence failed to act adequately in a key area.
"We did not field a credible and effective human intelligence capability," he said. "We did not know what these terrorists were doing."
To defeat terrorists will require "our human intelligence and counterintelligence organizations to engage in clever, risky, exceptional intelligence operations that may enable us to see inside the terrorists' cabal, to know in advance what their plans and intentions might be and to act to interdict or to preclude the terrorists from acting," Mr. Hughes said.
To win the war on terrorism requires an intelligence system redesigned for helping the United States to attack terrorists at the group and individual level through penetration and disruption. Under the current system, with the current management and restrictions, this is not possible.
What the United States needs is a new clandestine service to replace the CIA Directorate of Operations and the DIA Defense Humint Service, the Pentagon's human spying agency.
Its focus would be to conduct much more extensive intelligence operations with its own forces, breaking the over-reliance on liaison with foreign intelligence services. Liaison has become an excuse for not conducting unilateral intelligence operations by American spies.
The new service would use America's natural ethnic diversity to recruit people as operations officers who can operate inside what are known as "hard targets" -- in this case, Islamic terrorist groups. There can be no excuse for the CIA's failure to penetrate al-Qaida when 20-year-old Islamic convert John Walker Lindh gained access to al-Qaida and met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The new spy agency would be the linchpin for a restructured U.S. intelligence community, requiring new methods of recruiting and training officers. The current human intelligence-gathering system is not sized or trained to provide the secret data required by the world's sole superpower. This lack is the bottom line reason why U.S. intelligence failed to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. We have not been getting intelligence and using it effectively.
The new secret service would also conduct peacetime covert operations -- semisecret operations intended to support U.S. goals internationally, usually involving political or paramilitary activities. Wartime covert action would be transferred to U.S. military special operations commandos.
Currently, the CIA, like the Pentagon, is a welfare bureaucracy in which rules are more important than getting the job done. The entire nature of the institution must be altered before it will be capable of winning the war against international terrorism.
Bill Gertz is a national security reporter for The Washington Times and author of Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11 (Regnery Publishing, 2002), from which this article is adapted.