Bill Gertz, defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times, describes a growing threat posed by foreign agents and terrorists who exploit U.S. weaknesses in this third of three excerpts from his new book, “Enemies: How America’s Foes Steal Our Vital Secrets — And How We Let It Happen” (Crown Forum), out this week. Read Part I here and Part II here.
The FBI, the CIA and other intelligence agencies continue to struggle to plant agents in, or recruit them from, deadly Islamist terror organizations here and abroad.
The FBI, for example, did not have under way a single active investigation this past spring of al Qaeda or any Islamist group anywhere in the United States.
Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network is not alone in posing a threat of new attacks. The FBI believes that Lebanon-based Hezbollah has set up terrorist cells in at least 10 U.S. cities.
The Iranian government has backed Hezbollah to the tune of $100 million. FBI officials worry that Iran could activate a network of Hezbollah terrorists here if the international community acts to stop the Islamic regime’s nuclear program.
President Bush expects the FBI to help counter such terror threats through its new National Security Branch (NSB), a major reform he announced over internal opposition in summer 2005.
“The focus of what we’re doing has changed over our history,” said Gary M. Bald, the 28-year FBI veteran chosen to direct the NSB, which combined counterterrorism, counterintelligence and intelligence-analysis divisions. “This is the most significant [change], no doubt. But it’s just the latest.
“It’s not the embracing or the understanding of the need to do it,” Bald said in an interview. “It’s getting us efficient at something that we’ve not had a long experience at doing.”
The FBI and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community was woefully unprepared after September 11 to track down terrorists by penetrating the dark world of al Qaeda.
The nation had extremely limited capabilities in human intelligence-gathering — the real stuff of spying. These shortcomings remain five years later.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argues that many problems facing U.S. intelligence are a legacy of the Clinton administration.
“It’s ineffective in 2006 because it was gutted in 1996,” Mr. Hoekstra said, pointing to the severe depletion of human spying capabilities in the 1990s.
Left largely unsaid in this year’s debate about the president’s authorizing the National Security Agency to intercept suspected terrorists’ communications: The administration might not have needed to rely on the program so heavily, and risk infringing on civil liberties, were American counterintelligence not so weak.
The government needed to take extraordinary measures to track down al Qaeda cells. And despite the terrorist surveillance program and stepped-up FBI activity, U.S. intelligence has not found any al Qaeda cells inside this country.