WASHINGTON — On Feb. 7, 2001, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee Osama bin Laden was the "most immediate and serious threat." His prediction became grimly true Sept. 11. America's multibillion-dollar intelligence system has failed, and failed badly. There are no quick solutions.
Mr. bin Laden already has been subjected to the most intensive electronic manhunt in history. With an annual budget of $26.7 billion, American intelligence services are the best funded and equipped in the world. What happened?
It is not as if American intelligence had not picked up whispers that something was afoot. On Sept. 13, the daily German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that American and Israeli intelligence agencies received warnings more than three months ago that Mideast terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft. The newspaper quoted anonymous German intelligence sources that America's Echelon network was collecting information about terrorist threats.
The National Security Agency's (NSA) fabled Echelon system is the key weapon in the US fight against terrorism. A global network of satellites and ground-based listening posts constantly feeds streams of intercepted telephone, e-mail, fax, microwave, and cellular telephone transmissions into banks of NSA computers equipped with "dictionary" search algorithms to sort items of interest. Echelon's interception abilities are estimated by the European Parliament at 3 million messages per minute.
The system is constricted by a number of factors. Fiber-optic communication cables must be directly tapped. Easily available encryption algorithms slow Echelon's supercomputers' ability to decode encrypted messages.
The system's final bottleneck is human. NSA translators are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that must be translated and analyzed from difficult languages such as Arabic. There are simply too few US-born qualified translators and interpreters to access all the material. The problem is not a lack of information; it is finding relevant data in a daily hurricane of electronic chaff in "real time." The FBI electronically monitors terrorist groups with its more modest Carnivore Internet program.
The US is hamstrung by "blowback" (negative consequences of past successes). In the 1980s, the CIA worked closely with bin Laden's associates in Afghanistan during the resistance to the Soviet invasion. The proximity gave him and his associates an intimate look into American methods and procedures.
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban are themselves the result of a geostrategic rivalry. After the 1979 Soviet invasion, the American government saw an opportunity to bog down the USSR in its own Vietnam. The CIA spearheaded the creation of the Afghan mujahideen resistance. Over the course of the decade-long struggle in which perhaps 1 million Afghans died, America spent $3.5 billion. Among the 10,000 or so foreign volunteer "Afghan Arabs" was Osama bin Laden. With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the West essentially walked away.
There followed a vicious civil war, which continues. Reacting against the post-Soviet lawlessness, the Taliban were initially popular, capturing Kabul in September 1996. They now control more than 90 percent of the country; their strictly enforced version of Islam has provoked harsh criticism abroad.
Further training for bin Laden's operatives came from the cooperation of former US Army Special Forces Sgt. Ali Muhammad. Sergeant Muhammad taught terrorists about weapons, explosives, kidnapping, urban fighting, and counterintelligence in Afghanistan; his trainees also learned how to set up activist cells that are nearly impossible for intelligence services to penetrate.
Perhaps bin Laden's ultimate accomplishment is his "democratization" of terrorism via the Internet and computers. A manual published in Afghanistan in 1989 titled "Al-Qaeda" ("The Base") began circulating among radical Arabs. Bin Laden's organization quickly moved from print to the digital age. In March 1995, Belgian investigators seized a CD-ROM version of the manual in a terrorist suspect's car. Police then seized the CDs all over Europe. Bin Laden has compiled an Islamic equivalent of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," covering topics from bomb-making to surveillance. Because the material is distributed on CD-ROM, security and customs officials face the time-consuming task of potentially examining millions of music CDs.
The problem is global. Nearly half of the world's population suffers from Muslim insurgencies. Russia, China, and India (to name a few) already share intelligence with the US. "Krisistan" now stretches from the Balkans to western China, where Islamic groups subvert "godless" governments. The FBI has offices in Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, Tel Aviv, and Cairo. An electronic fence surrounds bin Laden's "Badlands" hideout, but the posse has yet to go in.
About 35,000 Americans, including 4,500 military personnel, are based in Saudi Arabia. To bin Laden and his followers, they are infidels violating the holiest places of Islam. At any moment, more than 4 million Americans are outside US borders. All are potential targets.
It is crucial that America refine its concept of security. A good place to start would be a dramatic boost in the number of linguists and analysts at the National Security Agency.
John C. K. Daly is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, and writes the Terrorism Watch Report for Janes defense publications.