Today in our series 9/11 at 20: A week of reflection, we hear from Paul R. Pillar, who retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community that included serving as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence.
Partly because intelligence operates largely in the behind-closed-doors realm of classified information, it exhibits even more of a divergence than most government affairs do between public perceptions and the reality of what goes on behind those doors. If public and political discourse about intelligence — often reflecting limited bandwidth and attention span — were to be believed, U.S. intelligence has focused most of its resources on only one major concern at a time. During the Cold War, intelligence supposedly was all about the USSR, after 9/11 it supposedly was all about terrorism, and today it is framed as a question of whether to redirect those resources toward great power competition and especially China.
In fact, the intelligence community always has had to walk and chew gum at the same time. Although priorities have changed and resources have been reallocated from time to time, the community must cover a wide range of concerns and latent threats. It is expected, and rightly so, to be up to speed whenever a latent threat becomes immediate and salient.
The community has long paid attention to international terrorism. When I joined the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s, I was assigned to an analytic component that followed several transnational issues, terrorism among them. The resources devoted to the topic then were small, but there is a direct line between that effort and the far larger commitment to counterterrorism that would come later.
In 1986 the CIA, realizing that innovative methods were needed to address a transnational hazard such as terrorism, established a first-of-a-kind Counterterrorist Center. This move broke much bureaucratic crockery, bringing together officers of different disciplines and skills from different offices, directorates, and agencies. The move disproved the common notion that outside pressure is needed to overcome bureaucratic resistance to any such reforms.
The CIA and the center later broke more bureaucratic crockery by establishing a special unit devoted to finding out everything possible about Osama bin Laden — well before he became a household name. That work enabled the intelligence community to identify — including in the annual worldwide threat assessment it issued in early 2001 — international terrorism and specifically bin Laden’s group as the number one security threat to the United States.
In that sense the intelligence work on this subject was a strategic success. 9/11 was a failure in the tactical sense of not uncovering enough plot-specific information to be able to roll up the plot before it was executed. Indeed, every terrorist attack that significantly harms U.S. interests is a tactical intelligence failure in that respect. Contributing to such failures is the fact that the innermost planning by a terrorist cabal always has been one of the toughest intelligence targets, and always will be.
But any such explanation is unsatisfying to Americans who, understandably in the wake of a tragedy as immense as 9/11, were yearning for action and reassurance. And so a different narrative with different themes, promoted by an enterprising commission that came to be venerated as the last word on anything involving terrorism, took hold. One of those themes was a “failure of imagination,” a theme that disregarded how the use of hijacked commercial aircraft as weapons, including their possible use as cruise missiles against targets on the ground, had not only been imagined but actually attempted. The challenge for counterterrorism is not in imagining but instead in determining which of many imagined methods, in which of many possible places, a terrorist will use.
Another theme — a Washington favorite in recriminations on subjects going well beyond intelligence and terrorism — is deficient communication among departments and agencies. But in the 9/11 case, such deficiency involved too-full in-boxes and insufficient alacrity in emptying them, not an absence of opportunities and channels for interagency communication. Such communication among the agencies with counterterrorist responsibilities was extensive before 9/11. When I was deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center in the 1990s, the office between my office and the center chief’s was occupied by a second deputy who was a senior FBI special agent — just one of many cross-assignments of personnel, with the extensive communication and inter-agency understanding that went with those assignments.
The preferred narrative, however mistakenly based, took hold and along with it the commission’s scheme for reorganization — reorganization being another Washington favorite as a response to failures on just about anything. A National Counterterrorism Center was established alongside the continuing counterterrorist components in agencies such as the FBI and CIA, while having dual missions and dual reporting lines for intelligence and counterterrorist planning. An Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established alongside — and in some, but not all, respects above — the other parts of the intelligence community.
Whatever gains the reorganization brought have been offset and probably outweighed by the drawbacks, including making lines of responsibility at least as blurry as anything that came before. Bureaucratic and physical distance increased between, for example, FBI and CIA officers assigned to NCTC and the information-collecting components in their home agencies, increasing the chances of information getting lost or overlooked in transit. Over time the people working in these places have overcome some of the confusion and disruption associated with the reorganization and have worked out who should be operating in which lane. But it is unlikely that this redrawing of the intelligence community’s wiring diagram made Americans safer.
The community was expected in the wake of 9/11 to increase the resources it devoted to counterterrorism, and so it did. But diminishing returns tend to set in very quickly when going after those hard-to-get nuggets of tactical, plot-specific information that will determine whether the next big terrorist plot is rolled up or carried out. I had moved on to other duties a couple of years before 9/11 but remember being asked for advice from a manager whose branch was mostly being moved from an entirely different subject to work on terrorism. In trying to make contributions on this suddenly red-hot topic, people began tripping over each other, and there were opportunity costs in the form of reduced coverage of many other subjects.
After 9/11 the CIA came to be associated in the public mind less with intelligence than with direct counterterrorist action, as symbolized by drone-borne air-to-surface missiles fired at suspected terrorists. Such action never constituted most of what the agency and its officers did, but it unavoidably became a focus of attention for its leadership and its relations with the outside world. As such, it was an unfortunate distraction from the agency’s core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence.
The worst post-9/11 wrong turn that the agency took was the ineffective and unprincipled use of torture of suspected terrorists. The responsibility for that malevolent excess in the take-the-gloves-off atmosphere that prevailed nationwide after 9/11 goes well beyond the intelligence community and includes members of Congress who were in a position to object to such methods but did not. Nonetheless, this black eye will never fully be erased by the CIA, to the detriment of intelligence work on terrorism as well as other topics.
Public discourse often associates 9/11 with later intelligence shortcomings regarding unconventional weapons programs in Iraq, leading to speculation that an intelligence failure in the former episode led to overly alarmist intelligence judgments in the latter. Such a link is unlikely. To the extent that the reasons for intelligence shortcomings about Iraqi weapons programs went beyond mundane factors of information gaps and misinterpretation of reports and included a bias-generating specter lurking in the back of intelligence analysts’ minds, that specter was the strong and constantly-felt desire by the warmakers in the Bush administration for intelligence to support the administration’s case for invading Iraq. The resulting pressure took many forms, including the vice president of the United States publicly declaring, before work on the most infamous intelligence product on this subject had even begun, that there was “no doubt” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
If the 9/11 episode were to have had any effect on intelligence work about Iraq, one would expect to see it on the specific topic most related to 9/11 — the mythical “alliance” that the Bush administration said existed between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. But the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community correctly did not buy into that notion and assessed that there was no credible evidence of any such alliance. It did so despite pressure that was at least as great as on the weapons question, including the war-makers’ establishment of a unit in the Pentagon devoted to discrediting the intelligence community’s work on the subject and spinning a tale about the supposed “alliance.”
In the real world of work behind those closed government doors, U.S. intelligence agencies must continue to walk and chew gum at the same time. They must be ready with sound information and insightful analysis not only on terrorist plots and groups but also on missile silos in China, coups in Tunisia, civil wars in Ethiopia, and much else. And they must be ready no matter how much the emotions and attention of the public and political world get jolted by a traumatic event like 9/11.