- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

In the wake of Tuesday's horrific suicide attacks against the United States, it is abundantly clear that our intelligence agencies did not know that terrorists were preparing to commit mass murder on American soil. Whether Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda or another group was responsible for the atrocities, U.S. intelligence agencies failed to do what we depend on them to do — penetrate terrorist cells and warn law-enforcement agencies of impending attacks so that they can take preventive action.
It is important to understand that, in the real world, this is impossible to achieve without infiltrating terrorist groups like bin Laden's. Unfortunately, to do that, the U.S. government has to put some extremely unsavory characters on the payroll. But using unsavory characters has a huge potential upside. When employed judiciously, they can reduce the likelihood of the sort of atrocities Americans witnessed Tuesday.
U.S. policy-makers generally understood this until the advent of the Clinton administration. In 1995, however, the CIA (then headed by the now-disgraced John Deutch) adopted guidelines which made it much more difficult to recruit such informants.
Last June, the National Commission on Terrorism, a panel created following the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, provided a withering critique of the Clinton guidelines. The commission (headed by L. Paul Bremer III, a former State Department ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism) concluded that, because "priority one" is "to prevent terrorist attacks," it is sometimes necessary to recruit individuals who themselves have committed terrorist acts or have engaged in "human-rights violations."
The CIA "has always had a process for assessing a potential informant's reliability, access [to information about a terrorist group's activity] and value," the Bremer panel concluded. But, the Clinton guidelines, by contrast, "set up complex procedures for seeking approval to recruit informants and forced the United States to rely too heavily on foreign intelligence services. The adoption of the guidelines contributed to a marked decline in agency morale unparalleled since the 1970s, and a significant number of case officers retired early or resigned."
Recruiting informants, the Bremer panel emphasized, "is not tantamount to condoning their prior crimes, nor does it imply support for crimes they may yet commit. The longstanding process in place before 1995 provided managers with adequate guidance to judge the risks of going forward with any particular recruitment."
Unfortunately, 15 months after its publication, neither the Bush administration nor Congress have seen fit to act on this critical recommendation made by the National Commission on Terrorism. Tuesday's events make clear, however, that this dangerous part of Bill Clinton's foreign policy legacy should be deep-sixed at once.


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