This meeting, part of the ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum series, was co-sponsored by the Council on Global Terrorism, Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies.
To introduce her new book on recent failures in the U.S. intelligence community, Dr. Amy Zegart began with an anecdote. In January 2000, the CIA monitored Al Qaeda operatives convene in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There the CIA learned that one of them – Khalid al-Mihdhar – possessed a multiple-entry visa to the U.S. But although he used that visa to enter the U.S., obtain a driver's license and begin taking flying lessons, it was not until nineteen days before 9/11 that the CIA shared this information with other agencies. On September 11, 2001 al-Mihdhar flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
"Why did it take so long?" Zegart asked. This is the central question her book addresses. In the light of numerous books published since 9/11 that seek to highlight the individual failings of officials such as CIA director George Tenet or President Bush, Zegart tries to shift the focus from people to structures and institutions. The crucial failure on 9/11, she asserts, was a lack of adaptation by America's intelligence agencies.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the CIA, FBI and other agencies remained hopelessly mired in a Cold War mindset. Zegart detailed a litany of specific shortcomings that all emanated from a way of thinking that placed ICBM attacks before terrorism in these agencies' prioritizations. The CIA, she said, felt that watchlisting – that is, keeping tabs on potential terrorists – was "not incumbent" upon them. In 1997, she estimated, a mere $1.6 billion was spent on human intelligence, with over 90% of the intelligence budget being devoted to hardware such as satellites. The FBI, which she claimed still values field agents more highly than intelligence analysts, had a mere 6% of its agents committed to counterterrorism on 9/11.
Zegart addressed – and rejected – the argument that following the collapse of the USSR, intelligence agencies did not adapt or evolve because the threats were too opaque, too fluid, or too difficult to read. An empirical assessment of this claim finds it lacking – she detailed numerous internal and public assessments that clearly identified the danger of terrorism. So why was nothing done?
The proximate cause, it turns out, was not a lack of understanding, but rather a total absence of decisive action. Zegart analyzed 12 studies by bipartisan commissions, the government, or think tanks that addressed the U.S. intelligence community and counterterrorism efforts. She found a total of 340 recommendations that pertained to intelligence reform. Of these, an incredible 79%, or 268 recommendations yielded no action at all, and a mere 10% she listed as "successfully implemented." Given the intelligence failures on 9/11, Zegart was unsurprised to find that four major categories comprised the unimplemented recommendations – information sharing, corporateness, priority setting, and human intelligence.
Regarding the underlying reasons why the U.S. intelligence agencies failed to implement reforms in the areas of their most glaring weaknesses, such as information sharing, Zegart identified several culprits. In part, the very nature of bureaucratic organizations such as the CIA is to resist change. In addition, "rational self interest" plays a significant role, and obviates the intelligence agencies' desire to share or cooperate. Finally, she said, separation of powers in government makes any reform an uphill battle.
At the conclusion of her presentation Zegart looked ahead to the future and offered her take on how to effect meaningful reform in the intelligence community. First, she said, it is not enough merely to seek structural reform – the culture of the intelligence community itself must change. Following that, "battle plans," not "blueprints" are needed – endless recommendations without implementation are not useful. And lastly, she argued, take advantage of opportunity and make bold, decisive changes: "resist the urge to take the moderate course."