From an Intelligence Perspective, Was 9/11 Avoidable?

by Dominic Martin about a year ago in defense

was 9/11 avoidable from an intelligence perspective?

From an Intelligence Perspective, Was 9/11 Avoidable?

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and on the Pentagon had a lasting effect on the world which we still see to this day. The events that had taken place on September 11, 2001, was quoted by many as the event that had ‘changed everything.' The attacks had caused many changes to happen in many aspects around the world and changed many attitudes as to how to cope and deal with terrorism. It had caused conflicts to begin in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many nations around the world rushing to America’s aid to deal with those that had caused 9/11. Security was increased drastically to try and prevent anything on this magnitude to ever be able to happen again. The biggest change to have come from the attacks was surely the intelligence services.

“This was the worst intelligence failure by the US intelligence community since Pearl Harbour,” which led to a massive shake up in the intelligence services in the USA.

“The system was blinking Red,” meaning that there were many indications for the Intelligence services to realise that something big was going to happen somewhere, and at some point, whether this was at home or abroad, so why was nothing done to stop it? Were the attacks avoidable from an intelligence perspective?

The Intelligence community in the US had a poor record with terrorism throughout the Cold War with many failures like, for example, the failure to see Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, failure to prevent the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut and the killing of 250 US Marines, which are some of the small few examples of mistakes and failures of the intelligence community, with many more examples out there. All these failures should have been an alert that the Intelligence organisations had many flaws. Throughout the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no attempt or any progress to improve the Intelligence services. The CIA Director during the 1980s, William Casey and Deputy Director Robert Gates created the Counter Terrorism Centre (CTC), as they "believed that the Soviet Union was responsible for every act of international terrorism, which was not true. They also believed that the CIA and other intelligence agencies would share sensitive information, which they were not doing. The CIA and FBI provided no warning of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 1993, US military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, US embassies in East Africa in 1998, or the USS Colein 2000." These incidents, and the failure to see them coming or prevent them should have been a serious wake up call for the intelligence services to change things, so that they could get it right to make it harder for terrorism to happen, but this still did not happen. This failure to adapt had the ultimate penalty, and that was the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were well known to the intelligence community, so they must have understood that they were a threat, so if reforms happened before 9/11, then maybe something could have been done to prevent the attacks, and the intelligence services would have been more effective to prevent 9/11.

There were big structural problems within the intelligence services. The CIA and the FBI have a poor relationship, and quite often have locked horns with each other, making it very hard for them to share knowledge. They should be communicating with each other, sharing knowledge, but they have not been doing this, or have very rarely communicated between each other. Sharing knowledge between the two could help give vital information on any suspected attacks, or be able to watch potential suspects more closely, and may be able to see patterns in the evidence that they have both been gathering, along with other organisations. There was a lot of distrust between the FBI and the CIA, and an example of both organisation not working closely was the Probe of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Both sides had different opinions and were not working together to find the real cause. Even up to the day of 9/11, they both did not share intelligence with each other, and if that intelligence was shared and someone had analysed the work, then someone would have been able to put the dots together and would have realised what was being planned so that they could easily prevented the attack. The CIA among other agencies were responsible for tracking terrorists abroad, while the FBI had responsibility for monitoring terrorist suspects within US borders. There was however no clear distinction of responsibility for monitoring movement of terrorist suspects between the US and foreign countries. The bureau was considered so peripheral that before 9/11 the CIA neglected to put the Attorney General on its distribution list for the President's Daily Brief, the most important Community-wide current intelligence report. This meant that terrorists could operate freely across borders but the US Intelligence Community could not. Because William Casey and Robert Gales falsely believed that the Soviet Union was behind the counter terrorism attacks, the intelligence agencies were designed to counter the Soviet Union and for intelligence in war fighting which meant that counter terrorism from other sources were a low priority for the intelligence agencies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, threats from other groups were becoming a reality, with attacks happening around the world not just against the USA but other states as well. These attacks should have been a warning that intelligence agencies needed to start diverting its energy and resources into these threats. The FBI was never designed for counter terrorism due to its structure and culture for Crime and not terrorism. The NSA were very reluctant to intercept communications between the US and abroad. The CIA had a lack of analysis focus, so they weren’t analysing intelligence correctly. The intelligence agencies needed to change its attitude after the Cold War and adapt to the changes in the security threat.

Failures are not always due to intelligence but can be the fault of leaders. For example, Stalin had 84 warnings of a German Invasion. Lots of fingers were being pointed after the 9/11 attacks at who should take the blame, but I believe there were different people who were responsible and not wholly on a single person or group. There were huge mistakes in the management of things with the government unable to adapt to new problems and challenges, both the Clinton and Bush administration had not seen terrorism as an overriding national security threat so there were mistakes with the policy that they had taken. Management should have ensured that information was shared, and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide but this was not happening. Resources were being misdirected by top leaders and priorities were wrong. The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) is responsible for foreign intelligence but lacks control and authority over the intelligence community. The DCI should be responsible of gathering all the information from all the agencies so that they can all be analysed together to see patterns, but the DCI lacks control, so they are not getting the intelligence together. No one could truly grasp how much of a threat they were under from Terrorist organisations and believed that there was no means and no power to be able to commit such a large coordinated attack.

The leadership needed to take all threats seriously if there was going to be any chance that the attack can be stopped. "There were nearly 10 different opportunities for the plot to be stopped according to the 9/11 report, four under Mr Clinton, and six under Mr Bush." There was no unity in the intelligence services, with no one taking control which led to agencies not communicating and they were fighting over funding and resources. During the summers in 2001 there were 40 articles on Bin Laden in the Presidents daily Brief, so they were given lots of warning that something was going to be taken place, but nothing was done to prevent anything and were generally ignored. On August 6th, there was a very detailed PDB that an attack was imminent. Alongside the Bush and Clinton administration the US Military had no interest of taking any action so nothing could be done by the military to stop any event from happening.

The culture within the intelligence services had a focus on traditional criminal work instead of counterterrorism work within the agencies. This law enforcement culture, which had taken root in the community left weaknesses in the counterterrorism area. "Law enforcement work has long been the surest route to professional advancement within the Bureau." Agents knew that the quickest and easiest way for success and to progress higher up the ranks is to solve criminal cases in the US which caused a lack of agents in the terrorism and counterterrorism area.

One agent said that "Counterintelligence and counterterrorism was a dumping area for problem children in the late 80s and early 90s," this meant that the area was filled with people that didn’t necessarily want to be there, making the counter terrorism a poor area to work under. Agents were determined by criminal cases, so the criminal case area would be a priority over funding and resources and not the counter terrorism area.

"The Bureau’s agent training course devoted just 28 out of 680 hours to counterintelligence and counterterrorism." This is showing that they were under trained to deal with terrorism. It was disastrous because there were no real experts that could analyses all the findings that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks due to the law enforcement culture. Between 1992 and 2001, 92 FBI officials had been given the Presidential Rank Awards, which is the federal government’s highest civil service honour. Most recipients were recognized for their accomplishments in criminal investigations. Only 14 awards went to officials involved in counterterrorism and counterintelligence, which most of these people had investigated previous attacks and events. This is more proof to show that there is a culture of law enforcement and ignoring threats from terrorism agents which should have been recognised by this point as a new threat to the US. If this law enforcement culture had been sorted and agents given better training and funding to counter terrorism, then all the warning signs could have been analysed and have prevented 9/11.

Intelligence analysis is very difficult and challenging. The modern intelligence community is still quite young and is still learning the best ways to deal with intelligence. Intelligence communities are always developing new ways to deal with all the Intel that is gathered and where priorities should lie. They are also still understanding how to cope with it. Mistakes at seeing future attacks like 9/11 is a clear mistake within the intelligence communities and especially a failure in analysis. As we have already talked about pre-9/11 there was this law enforcement culture and counter terrorism was a dumping ground for agents that were a problem. So, this would cause problems in analysis and with lack of training they wouldn’t be able to analysis the intelligence as best as they could have done. The effectiveness and analysis were very poor in the US. The 2004 intelligence reform act was created to improve analysis. The findings that the 9/11 Commission found that the failures in preventing the attacks was due to: first was information gaps, second is poor sharing of intelligence. Thirdly is signal-to-noise ratio (there were very few ‘signals,' pieces of salient information pointing to the attacks in the summer of 2001, and they were easily lost among countless other facts and meaningless ‘noise’) and finally faulty assumptions (the conventional wisdom among analysts was that terrorist attacks against the United States was very likely to occur abroad and not on the US homeland). The analysis was very poor and missed many opportunities to address this and to notice something was being planned. No one had put the dots together and solved what was being planned and there were very little tactical warnings. If the 9/11 was going to be preventable analytic standards needed to be in place to enhance the quality of analysis.

Be objective; advise but avoid policy prescriptions; be aware of incomplete information; be open-minded about contradictory intelligence; be intellectually honest and Think critically. Be self-aware. This is what analysis should abide by to be more effective in intelligence analysis. Be objective is something all analysis needs to strive for. They should allow the evidence to be able to speak for itself and avoid what I think. Intelligence analysis is to advise and not to give policy prescriptions. The product that comes out of the intelligence is there to advise because that is not how policy works. It is left to the government to create the policy. They will also have to be aware of the incomplete information because it will be very rare that there will be complete information, so you must be open minded about the intelligence that is gathered. Analysts need to be open minded so if they do not be open minded then they will not look at the contradictory intelligence. The Iraq WMD issue is a perfect example of this because they only wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. They always need to be honest and tell the truth. And they also need to think critically how you deal with the intelligence. If all analysts followed these standards, then possibly they would be more effective at analysing the work and may have prevented the event.

There was a small understanding that Al-Qaeda wanted to use aircraft as weapons. They wanted to hijack planes to use them as a weapons to attack targets of interest. Many people had speculated weather this was possible and for them to achieve this. There was something called the phoenix Memo that had advised, that there was a possibility that Usama Bin Laden would send students to flying schools in America so that these individuals would be in a position in the future to cause terror attacks. This memo had named individuals. This Memo had eventually got lost like a lot of the Intelligence that gets gathered and was never analysed probably. If this memo was taken seriously and knowing that there was interest of using aircraft by Bin Laden, then there could have been a chance for the Governments to implement security on people taking flying lessons and increase security on aircraft which could have prevented the attackers from seizing the planes in the first place.

So, was 9/11 preventable? The intelligence community, even with all the problems could maybe have prevented the event. They would have needed to be able to work together and solve problems together instead of being separated and not be wary of working together. This would possibly have helped share intelligence that may have helped be able to join the dots together so that they could have clearer idea of what may happen and would be able to act. The training should have been improved and analysis been more of a focus and started to lean away from the ‘law enforcement culture that the FBI had. But even though their were many mistakes that the intelligence communities did, You must put into consideration that modern intelligence agencies was still relatively young and that they are still learning and developing the best way to deal with intelligence. Security placements would have more potential to stop the events on 9/11 if the correct security procedures were in place to prevent any hijacking of any aircraft. If security was in place, then the terrorists would not be able to get on those places and they would have easily been stopped. The cockpit would have to be locked and there should have been better screening so that they could not have any weapons on board the plane. Finally, Policy would have a huge effect on stopping the events of 9/11. The Clinton and Bush administrations ignored the intelligence services many times of the threat that Bin Laden had posed. If they had taken these warnings seriously, then they had the power to be able to make policies that could have made it very hard for any attack on such a magnitude to have happened. Ultimately the events of 9/11 could have been prevented but actions from all areas that I have just mentioned needed to be taken so they were all at fault of the events and could have prevented 9/11.

Dominic Martin
Dominic Martin
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Dominic Martin

I am a Graduate in war and security studies. I'm also a gamer and sports fan amongst many other things. although a lot of articles will be on the security aspects I will write on other subjects as well.

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