One Expert's Verdict: The CIA Caved Under Pressure

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The CIA that George Tenet leaves behind next month is a shadow of its imaginary self, a butt of jokes rather than the envy of the world. It is an agency that has become self-protective and bureaucratic; it is too reliant on gadgets rather than spies to steal secrets. Sometimes the CIA has simply been too blind to see what is hiding in plain sight. Tenet restored the agency's morale, but he leaves behind a string of spectacular intelligence failures.

And that may not be the worst of it. In his new book A Pretext for War, intelligence expert James Bamford alleges that the CIA not only failed to detect and deter the secret army of Muslim extremists gathering over the horizon in the late 1990s but also failed to take action when a group of Administration hard-liners, backed by the Pentagon chief and Vice President Dick Cheney, began to advance the case for war with Iraq in secret using data the CIA widely believed weren't supportable or were just plain false. Instead of fighting back, Bamford argues, the CIA for the most part rolled over and went along. The result was a war sold largely on a fiction, confected from unchecked rumor and biased informants.

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A Pretext for War is probably the best one-volume companion to the harrowing events in the war on terrorism since 1996, chiefly because it focuses on the most difficult to pierce subject: the hidden machinery of U.S. intelligence. Bamford is a veteran chronicler of the spy world whose The Puzzle Palace, published in 1982, is still considered the classic account of the mysterious National Security Agency (NSA), which electronically snoops on friends and enemies overseas. His account of 9/11 and its aftermath is studded with new details, including some about the undisclosed location known as Site R, an underground bunker on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border where the Vice President spent much of his time in 2001. Deep under Raven Rock Mountain, Site R "is a secret world of five buildings, each three stories tall, computer filled caverns and a subterranean water reservoir." It is just 7 miles from Camp David.

Bamford maintains that before 9/11, the U.S.'s entire spook network was pretty much out to lunch. It was a community that had done its job well in the cold war and was looking for a reason to exist. By the late 1990s the NSA was becoming obsolete, unable to keep up with the pace of technological change. The NSA netted millions more conversations at its worldwide listening posts than it could translate or interpret. The agency spent billions to eavesdrop on chatter overseas that moved by satellite — only to see the world move to harder-to-steal digitized cellular, e-mail and instant-messaging communications. Meanwhile, at the NSA's sprawling Fort Meade, Md., campus, the agency's director could not send an email to all the NSA's 38,000 employees. Why? The NSA had 68 separate e-mail systems.

Things were not much better at the CIA. In a devastating chronology, Bamford reports that even as late as 2000, the agency was stuck in an old cold war way of doing things — training its agents, recruiting spies overseas and keeping headquarters happy. One agent explains that CIA recruiting overseas was about as rigorous as going to an opening-night mixer at a Las Vegas convention: American agents overseas sometimes competed with one another to see who could collect the most business cards at official receptions in foreign capitals. Then they would return to their embassy to determine the night's winner. Each card, the agents told themselves, represented a potential spy for the U.S. In fact, the agent said, "none of these people had anything useful ... It was just numbers. It's all quantity."

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