The FBI and the CIA have gone to war - with themselves.
President George W Bush has credited the CIA and FBI with foiling a plot to explode a radioactive bomb in Washington. He praised the ‘vigilance of our intelligence-gathering and law enforcement’ for removing a ‘threat to our country’.
This announcement serves as a fig leaf for the indignity the intelligence agencies have suffered over the past few weeks. The alleged plotter, Abdullah al-Muhajir, was arrested on 8 May. His evil plot, admitted FBI director Robert Mueller, ‘had not got, as far as we know, much past the discussion stage, but there was substantial discussion’. The foiling of ‘substantial discussion’ a month ago is being greeted as an intelligence coup today.
Over the past few weeks, the FBI and the CIA have gone to war – with themselves. We have been treated to the spectacle of agents blaming their own agency for ignoring clues; the FBI blaming the CIA for not passing on information; the CIA blaming the FBI for not acting on a tip-off (1). All the intricate details of who sent what memo to whom and who failed to pick up on this or that have come tumbling out. If only they had done x… scenarios have been agonisingly replayed in the media.
This agonising is futile. There is no single grievous error that meant the intelligence agencies missed 11 September. What-if-the-memo-hadn’t-been-ignored is of the what-if-Napoleon-had-had-a-cold school of history. These arguments represent, not an attempt to pinpoint who allowed 11 September to happen, so much as the internal corrosion of the intelligence agencies.
The whistle-blowing began with FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who accused the FBI of ignoring the clues in the run-up to 11 September. She claims that FBI agents’ request for a warrant to search the belongings and computer of the ‘twentieth hijacker’, Zacarias Moussaoui, was blocked and undermined by FBI headquarters personnel. If only they had got a search warrant, says Rowley (2).
The FBI had also received a tip-off from a field agent from Phoenix, who noticed an unusual number of Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons (If only they had acted, says Rowley.)
An investigation in Newsweek exposed CIA intelligence failures of a similar magnitude. The CIA had been tracking two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, after they attended an al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. The two were allowed to enter the USA, live openly under their own names, and meet with other hijackers as they prepared for their attack (3). If only the CIA had tipped off the FBI, says the FBI, the plot might have been foiled.
When agents are breaking ranks to attack each other in such a way, you know that intelligence agencies have real problems. This is the secret service – it is supposed to be secret. The public spats between secret agents is a sign that the intelligence community is unravelling. No doubt the CIA and the FBI do have their separate fiefdoms – but to back-stab each other in public indicates that they have lost any underlying sense of shared interest.
The spate of public whistle-blowing is a consequence of broader problems in intelligence agencies. The culture that Coleen Rowley described in her leaked letter to the director of the FBI sounds unhealthy. At the headquarters, she says, ‘career advancement’ supersedes law-enforcement concerns; staff have little field expertise and serve short 18-month terms; there is a bureaucratic system for reviewing search requests (4). In short, she is saying that agents are slack and there is no loyalty to the agency. (Did the whistleblower not see any irony here?)
But the problems of the intelligence agencies are not simply internal – they are part of a general, confused post-Cold War political climate. During the Cold War, the enemy were state actors with pretty clear aims. Today, it is less easy to tell who the ‘enemy’ are: the terrorists of today work in small cells or on their own, and it would be virtually impossible to predict when the next Richard Reid was going to try to blow up a transatlantic aeroplane (making every passenger take their shoes off is not a long-term option).
The loss of the Soviet Union as a threat against which to define itself has also revealed a general malaise among Western elites. The intelligence agencies – who were at the forefront of the Cold War battle, and for whom the Red Menace was central to forging a mission and self-identity – are likely to be among the most affected. Immediately after 11 September, intelligence experts pointed to the flabbiness among the intelligence community, which was suffering from a severe shortage of human intelligence and translators. It is reported that agents today are reluctant to risk dysentery by living undercover in conflict zones; and few are prepared to spend years mastering an obscure Middle Eastern dialect.
The elite’s general loss of control and direction is reflected in the way that President George W Bush seems to change his mind every few weeks about who the war on terror is being waged against.
In their effort to get a grip, the American establishment is likely to make more of an attempt to crack down on those highlighted as a ‘threat’ – at home and abroad. On the home front, the FBI has recently been given increased snooping powers, and there are plans to finger-print thousands of foreign visitors.
And Bush has announced a(nother) new stage to the war on terror, saying that it must now target 60 nations (including, he said vaguely, nations who ‘oppose terror but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror’) (5).
While Bush is known for his bluster as much as his action, this should still be a cause for concern. The bickering of intelligence agents in Washington may cause storms in the jungles of South America.
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) FBI and CIA fight it out over who was to blame for September 11 blunders, Guardian 5 June 2002
(2) How the FBI Blew the Case, TIME magazine, 3 June 2002
(3) ‘The hijackers we let escape’, Newsweek, 10 June 2002
(4) How the FBI Blew the Case, TIME magazine, 3 June 2002
(5) ‘Terror war must target 60 nations. Says Bush’, The Times (London), 3 June 2002
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