Published in The Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2001
The Western intelligence community is facing its biggest shake-up since the end of the Cold War. After the CIA’s miserable failure to predict the terrorist attack on the United States, its director, George Tenet, will either resign or be forced to do so, and questions will surely be asked in Britain about the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and the Security Service, MI5.
All will be asked to come up with plans for slimmer, more efficient services to face the challenges of the 21st century, so different from the comparatively simple days of the Cold War.
Weighing heavily on them will be their failure to offer even a hint of what the terrorists were planning, and the fact that this was only the latest of a long list of disasters. Even though intelligence agencies justify their very expensive existence by promising to warn their governments of threats to national security, their record is very poor.
The CIA failed to predict the first Soviet atom bomb, the Chinese invasion of Korea, the Hungarian revolt, the siting of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. It failed even to imagine the collapse of the Soviet Communism and the end of the Cold War. MI5 never caught a single Cold War spy on its own initiative.
The CIA’s judgement has been as flawed as its intelligence-gathering. It helped to restore the Shah of Iran to power in 1953 and then underestimated support for Ayatollah Khomeini – and was caught by surprise when the Shah was overthrown. It sponsored the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, got mixed up in the Iran-Contra affair with its secret support for the Nicaraguan rebels, spied illegally on thousands of Americans opposed to the Vietnam war and never imagined that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait.
The truth is that American intelligence has never been very good, and since the end of the Cold War it has grown fat and lazy. After the Soviet Union collapsed, American intelligence had to look around for a new enemy or risk losing its multi-million-dollar budgets. It set up a Counter-Terrorism Centre which grew, from a three-man operation working out of one room with one TV set broadcasting CNN, into a major operation. But its mindset never changed. Its officers were reluctant to get down to the dirty business of trying to penetrate Middle Eastern terrorist groups because it would take them away from Washington’s diplomatic conference circuit or the heavily- guarded American embassies from which they sometimes worked.
Over the coming weeks we will no doubt hear the usual excuses wheeled out by the intelligence community to explain their failure to warn about the attacks on America. The favourite one is that they were underfunded. Some CIA officers have already told Jane’s Defence Weekly that the United States had devoted too much money to signals intelligence and not enough to the CIA. But Jane’s, whose resources and funding is minute compared with that of the CIA, was the only organisation which came anywhere near to predicting this week’s attack. In September 1999 Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor reported that Osama bin Laden’s group was preparing for a series of attacks on US targets, especially financial targets in New York. Now that’s real intelligence.
Phillip Knightley is the author of ‘The Second Oldest Profession‘, a history of intelligence agencies.