Fix America's intelligence system – urgently

Underlying the Washington witch-hunt for negligence in defense against terrorism is a major misunderstanding among public and press about the quantity and character of the intelligence flowing to the country's leaders.

A little vignette: When I made a diversion from journalism and spent a few years in the State Department during the Reagan administration, I was astonished at the amount of intelligence to which I was exposed. It was a torrent. It came from intercepts and satellite photos and human agents. It came from tips and informers and moles buried in foreign governments and subversive organizations.

Barely a day went by without a report of some potential threat to American personnel and property in some far-off land.

Most of the time the reports were general and unspecific, with no indication of timing. So the US was unable to prevent a truck-bomber blowing up the US Embassy in West Beirut, or penetration of the American compound in East Beirut, or another truck-bomber destroying an American Marine barracks in Lebanon.

By contrast, when intelligence officers intercepted messages indicating a plot to drive a car bomb into the basement garage of the State Department in Washington and blow up the building, the information was precise. Barriers were installed, and other measures taken to thwart the attack.

The problem is not an absence of intelligence. The problem is an avalanche of disconnected scraps and rumors, and intercepts, sometimes deliberately false, whose dots can now and then be connected but which more often lack detail and precision.

To suggest that President Bush received intelligence briefings which might have laid out the manner and timing of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and that he simply dismissed them, is ludicrous. From what we know now, the speculative report from Arizona FBI agent Kenneth Williams about Arab trainees at American flying schools did not reach topmost levels of the FBI before Sept. 11, let alone the White House. The CIA briefing of the president about Arab hijacking threats was general and unspecific.

The question to be most usefully asked and answered is not the current one in Washington, namely, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The question that should be asked is: "What does the president know now that he didn't know then, and what is he doing about it?"

It is regrettable, but not totally surprising, that a peacetime America was unprepared for the Sept. 11 assault on the homeland.

Few Americans could imagine the audacity, the ingenuity, or the depth of venom that characterized the terrorists' attack.

It may be useful to investigate past deficiencies in, and culpability for, this lack of preparedness. But much more important than finger-pointing for past omissions is the commissioning of change and restructuring to protect in the future.

I have talked in the past few days with senior officials who have been on both the dispatching and receiving ends of the US intelligence operation. They suggest three major deficiencies:

1. Technical problems with the management, analysis, and exchange of intelligence data. They fault the longstanding rivalry between the FBI and the CIA, which has hampered intelligence-sharing between the two. They criticize the lack of willingness by Congress and successive administrations to expend political capital in resolving this bureaucratic turf fight.

2. A "cover your posterior" syndrome on the part of some lower-level analysts who shovel large quantities of data upwards, undistilled, without conclusions.

3. A shortage of experienced senior officers familiar with foreign cultures and religions who can detect trends and come to sophisticated analyses of terrorist intentions.

It seems clear that a number of government agencies, notably the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Federal Aviation Administration, have much to answer for in the way they have handled, coordinated, and transmitted suspicions and warnings of terrorist activity both before and after Sept. 11. A shakeup in personnel and procedures is in order.

Meanwhile, the Office of Homeland Security under Tom Ridge has not been given the resources or authority it needs to coordinate a multiplicity of government agencies engaged in antiterrorist activities.

Warnings of terrorist assaults still to come are somber. They include the possibilities of bioterrorism, cyberattacks, and even nuclear attacks.

Despite the horrors of Sept. 11, and the realization that America is at war, the nation does not seem to have recognized that much of the war will be fought on the home front, and that it will require mobilization and reorganization with an urgency not yet displayed.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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