- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Does a year make a difference? When the issue is the efficiency, competence and foresight of U.S. intelligence agencies,

one hopes the passage of 365 days is more than a calendrical event.

Of course, September 11, 2001, is the critical mark on that time line. Its tragic spike moved "the intelligence issue" from the theoretical and obscure to the immediate and focused.

The pros, however, were well aware of America's intelligence deficiencies prior to September 11.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in mid-January 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked if he could name "one thing" that "kept him up at night" more than any other specific threat, terror or trouble the Pentagon confronts.

Mr. Rumsfeld's answer was "intelligence."

Mr. Rumsfeld made the comment prior to his elevation to media star. As far as Oprah, Geraldo and the TV squawk show gang were concerned, what kept Rummy tossing and turning at night wasn't news.

I watched those hearings on C-SPAN, America's real window on government. Let me quote from a column I wrote right after that hearing: "Rumsfeld's response fingered what is the major American foreign policy and defense weakness, even in this era of extraordinary American economic, political and military strength. America's "intelligence vulnerability" is intricate, detailed and complex. The penalty for intelligence failure, however, is often cruelly simple. In the defense business, what you don't know will kill you. To draw an even finer bead, what you know but understand poorly, or what you know well but fail to use decisively, will also cost you in blood, money and political capital."

September 11 was that cruel simplicity, so blunt a horror.

Give the Senate committee scrutinizing Mr. Rumsfeld's nomination an "A" for asking the right question and Mr. Rumsfeld an "A" for the right answer. However, does the intelligence community (CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA) collectively rate an "F" for September 11?

I sense a reluctance on the part of Congress to investigate the "intelligence failure," perhaps because the intelligence failure has numerous political roots that quickly and uncomfortably tangle with, well, Congress.

While the United States has first-class intelligence talent, for the last two decades the best and the brightest have had to think twice about intel careers. Pay's an issue; so is prestige. Some point to Stansfield Turner's decapitation of the CIA during the Carter administration as a source of decline.

The covert career also extracts personal costs. Operating in dark alleys and hard corners requires moral tradeoffs, like paying Guatemalan thugs for tips. Enter congressional and executive-branch zealots who crucified CIA pros for keeping such thugs on the payroll. However, thugs know thugs. Ten thousand bucks can elicit information that saves a hundred thousand lives. The terrorist incidents CIA thwarts don't make the news. Professional credit is hush-hush. Spies can't get on Larry King and gush about success. The lives lost due to "intelligence failures" well, that elicits wall-to-wall media coverage.

It also appears the Clinton administration must bear a high degree responsibility for the "intelligence failure." Particularly troubling are the allegations made by Sudanese businessman and former Clinton campaign contributor Mansoor Ijaz that a deal to extradite Osama bin Laden was completely fumbled by Bill Clinton. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, Mr. Ijaz concluded "Clinton's failure to grasp the opportunity to unravel increasingly organized extremists, coupled with Berger's assessments of their potential to directly threaten the U.S., represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures in American history." I suspect Congress is tired of investigating Mr. Clinton. Political fatigue, however is no excuse for dereliction of duty.

Has U.S. intelligence improved since September 11?

Our knowledge of al Qaeda specifically and global terrorism in general has improved dramatically. That "increased granularity," however, proceeds from (1) focusing our high-tech intel assets (satellites, electronic surveillance, etc) or (2) getting cooperation from once-reluctant sources who, either out of fear or sudden good judgment, now wish to talk (this group runs the gamut from Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners to the Sudanese government).

Our larger deficiencies, however, still hinder the intelligence effort: (1) aging high-tech collection capabilities; (2) low morale in the intelligence community; (3) too few qualified, multilingual, culturally savvy human spies; (4) the legacy of ill-conceived policies that crimp intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination; and (5) the legacy of poor leaders who failed to act on good intelligence information in timely and decisive fashion.

Given September 11's tragedy, it's time American leaders exhibited the political spine to correct the problems and get Don Rumsfeld a good night's sleep.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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