A former CIA chief on "connecting the dots"...
All too many times in the past, intelligence reports of terrorist plans -- even against specific targets--have failed to prevent horrific strikes. In 1983, we had a number of reports that terrorists were targeting the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut. On Oct. 23, 1983, 241 U.S. soldiers were killed.
Intelligence reports that are detailed enough to act upon--like those that helped thwart recent plots against our embassies in Paris and Singapore--are unusual. That fact of life is frustrating to intelligence officers and Presidents.
It was inevitable that as the months passed after Sept. 11, reports, memos and speculations would be found that, in retrospect, would seem to have provided early warning--if only someone had connected the dots. While some pre-9/11 items of intelligence today seem like red flags, pulling together incomplete or ambiguous fragments of information into a credible and compelling analysis is more difficult than the Monday-morning quarterbacks would have you think. Especially doing so convincingly enough to prompt high-level, high-risk decisions.
A key problem prior to Sept. 11 was structural. Since 1986, representatives of a number of national security organizations and the FBI have worked together daily in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, where information from abroad is shared, integrated, analyzed and acted upon. Before Sept. 11, there was no comparable formal organization for working-level contact among the domestic agencies of government--or between them and the national security agencies. While there appear to have been a few dots to connect, there was no effective mechanism for those connecting lines to cross domestic and national security boundaries.
Only at the NSC level did the two sides of the government come together regularly to share information. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Office of Homeland Security has set about creating a central organization in which information can be brought together, analyzed and, if appropriate, acted on.
Before Sept. 11, we were a different country, and Washington was a different city, where turf issues prevailed and concern about CIA and FBI "overreaching" trumped concern for security. In retrospect, clues were almost certainly missed, and, as is Washington's way, blame will be attributed. However, for the future, a thoughtful, balanced congressional inquiry can identify the pre-Sept. 11 structural and bureaucratic impediments to information sharing and better coordination across the government, and can recommend changes that improve our defenses against terrorism. But using fragments of information as ammunition against the President, the CIA, the FBI and others--absent context--will only delay tackling the real problems.
Gates was CIA director under President George H.W. Bush
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