Report: CIA failed to respond to al Qaida threat

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2007 

WASHINGTON — The CIA had no comprehensive strategy for dealing with al Qaida before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and failed to act on information indicating that suspected terrorists had been dispatched to the United States, the CIA's inspector general concluded in a report that was partially declassified on Tuesday.

George Tenet, who served as CIA director from 1997 to 2004, tried to sound the alarm about the growing threat from Osama bin Laden's network before Sept. 11, 2001, the report said. But he failed to follow through on his own 1998 warning to spy agencies that "we are at war" with al Qaida, and his agency didn't share information on terrorists or marshal enough resources for the fight, the report said.

The CIA didn't create a strategic plan for battling al Qaida or beef up counter-terrorism operations with more money and people until after terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center and devastated the Pentagon, the report found.

The report doesn't address whether President Bush and his White House advisers paid adequate attention to the al Qaida threat in their first eight months in office. Tenet wrote in his memoir published earlier this year that he warned then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a face-to-face meeting on July 10, 2001, that a strike on U.S. interests could be imminent. Such a warning also was included in the president's daily intelligence briefing one month before the 9/11 attacks, the 9/11 Commission found.

The report's declassified executive summary said, however, that investigators found no "silver bullet" that would have enabled U.S. spy agencies "to predict or prevent the 9/11 attacks."

Still, the report seems certain to revive debate over whether U.S. intelligence did all it could to prevent the attacks.

CIA Inspector General John Helgerson undertook the study at the request of the Senate and House intelligence committees. The report has been under wraps for two years, but current CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden reluctantly released the report's 19-page executive summary to comply with a law Congress passed earlier this month implementing recommendations of the independent 9/11 Commission.

"I want to make it clear that this declassification was neither my choice nor my preference," Hayden said.

Tenet, in a written statement, called the report's conclusions on his performance "flat wrong." He noted that in August 2001 the CIA inspector general gave the agency's counterterrorism efforts a favorable review.

"There was in fact a robust plan, marked by extraordinary effort and dedication to fighting terrorism, dating back to long before 9/11," Tenet said. He described himself as "relentless" in seeking more funds for counterterrorism.

The CIA had argued that releasing the document would deter intelligence officers from taking risks in the future because their actions would be held up for public critique.

Some family members of 9/11 victims had demanded the report's release and have sought to have top intelligence officials stand before disciplinary boards that would assess their action.

Hayden said, however, that he wouldn't revisit an October 2005 decision by his immediate predecessor, Porter Goss, not to convene so-called Accountability Boards to review the performance of Tenet and other CIA officers.

Officials who've read portions of the full report have said that it is critical of James Pavitt, the former head of CIA's clandestine service, Cofer Black, former head of the agency's Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and others.

The report adds new details to previously known shortcomings in the CIA's performance in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001:

_ Different branches of the CTC didn't work effectively together, contributing to a failure to understand the key role of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and to recognize the significance of intelligence reporting from "credible sources" in 2000 and 2001.

The intelligence, while "not voluminous," was "noteworthy even in the pre-9/11 period because it included the allegation that KSM was sending terrorists to the United States to engage in activities on behalf of bin Laden."

_ The CIA and the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, had significant differences over their authorities and technology, which went unresolved well into 2001.

_ As has previously been reported, the CIA didn't rapidly pass on to the State Department or to the FBI the names of two terrorists, Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar, who were seen attending a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and were later among the 9/11 hijackers.

The report said that between January and March 2000, 50 to 60 individuals read CIA cables about the two terrorists' expected travel to the United States, but that the men weren't put on watch lists until late August 2001.

"That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systemic breakdown," the report said. "Basically, there was no coherent, functioning watchlisting program."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service