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Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11
By Bill Gertz
Regnery Publishing
256 pgs. $27.95
ISBN: 0-8952-6148-0

Mission failure

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 9, 2002

Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11Since the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency and its other three letter peers after the Second World War, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to ensure that another Pearl Harbor never occured. Given that expense, both in money and lives, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz believes it's reasonable to conclude that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was the greatest intelligence failure in America's history. Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11 makes a credible case to bolster his argument.

Although Gertz's Breakdown is superficially similar to John Miller and Michael Stone's The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, And Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It, Gertz concentrates much of his effort on exploring the organizational failings which contributed to the September 11 attacks where Miller and Stone's view was closer to the ground. It's not a pretty story no matter what approach you decide to take. From a Clinton administration preoccupied with responding to the scandals swirling around it to a lack of leadership at America's intelligence agencies, the events that occurred prior September 11 hardly promote confidence in Americans that future similar terrorist attacks will be prevented.

In a sense, September 11, 2001 began in January 1995 when Philippine police made an extraordinary discovery. Tipped off to suspicious activity occurring in an apartment near to the route where Pope John Paul II was taken during a visit, police arrested several al-Qaida members and seized a laptop filled with operational plans, among them a plot to attack the CIA's headquarters with a commercial airliner. In fact, time and time again, Gertz writes, America's intelligence communities received valuable information about al-Qaida's plans but failed to follow up because of a lack of resources.

The problems began at the top, Gertz argues, thanks to the reactive policies of the Clinton administration and its dismissive attitude towards the intelligence community. Appointments to the higher echelons of the FBI and CIA tended to be exercises in partisan politics and political correctness, culminating in the installation of former CIA head John Deutch in 1995, a man Gertz describes as possibly the worst head of an intelligence agency in America's history. From the top came orders to those in the field that they were not to recruit shady characters as information sources, something that immediately limited the ability of CIA operatives from collecting timely information.

Things were no better over at the FBI thanks to a policy that treated terrorism as a law enforcement issue. That policy meant that few counterterrorist or counterintelligence operations were carried out and a culture of bureaucracy took over. Resources granted to fight terrorist activity after the 1993 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center went to, among other things, buying vehicles for field agents.

The failure to put more human assets into the field meant that electronic surveillance by agencies like the National Security Agency became even more important. Unfortunately, Gertz shows repeatedly, that kind of surveillance has its limitations and even the information it gleaned was often not shared among agencies or rarely followed up on when it was.

Although one could make the case that discovery of each individual element of the planned September 11 terrorist attacks may not have been enough to discover the entire plot, it's harder to argue that it wouldn't have eventually been unearthed had someone at least tied to connect the many dots that came to light in the months and even years ahead of that fateful day. Gertz's investigation underlines the need for vast reform of the intelligence community.

To that end he closes his account with a number of recommended reforms including the creation of a new clandestine agency that would replace several current organizations including the CIA's Directorate of Operations and the Defence Intelligence Agency's Defence HUMINT Service, one that would conductive more intensive intelligence operations. The new Department of Homeland Security, Gertz argues, fails to solve the core problems with the CIA and the FBI.

Gertz's Breakdown once again shows why he's considered one of the finest investigative reporters in Washington, D.C. Doubtless some will argue that attacking America's intelligence community for failing to divine the September 11 attacks is simple opportunism, the fact remains that they were tasked to prevent those very kind of attacks. Since the 1970s and the unfortunate Church Committee it has been fashionable to attack agencies like the CIA as products of a militaristic mindset. After September 11 hopefully a more enlightened attitude becomes prevalent, one that realizes their tremendous importance. Gertz's Breakdown may be a step in fixing the intelligence community's problems and restoring their luster.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11 at Amazon.com for only $19.57 (30% off)

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • The failures behind September 11 by Steven Martinovich (August 12, 2002)
    The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, And Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It tells a story which many Americans won't want to hear. Steve Martinovich reviews John Miller, Michael Stone with Chris Mitchell's effort

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