Why Didn't We Know?

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The attack on America came from the skies, but it hardly came out of the blue. The fact that the U.S. security and intelligence establishment has for years been focused on thwarting Osama bin Laden's ‘jihad' against America has prompted many to cry "intelligence failure" following the September 11 outrage.

To be sure, the U.S. had plenty of reasons to believe Bin Laden would try and strike at its cities. He's tried before, for one thing, and the motivation to launch a spectacular attack would have grown exponentially over the past year as anti-American feeling surged on the Arab streets in response U.S. support for Israel.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Intelligence is the key weapon in the battle against terrorism, and there have been reports suggesting that U.S. officials may have failed to appreciate the significance of some of the information they gathered in the weeks leading up to the attack. Then again, there's nothing like hindsight.

Whatever the bureaucratic post-mortems reveal, it is safe to assume that Congress will respond by adding billions of dollars to intelligence budgets that have been seriously denuded since the Cold War. But while more money may be essential to improving the nation's readiness to counter the terrorism threat, the crucial question remains how the money will actually be spent.

Faith in technology

The fleet of U.S. intelligence gathering satellites is an awesome apparatus that gives men and women sitting in Washington an ability to read the time on Osama bin Laden's wristwatch and listen in on his every cell phone conversation. That is, of course, if they know where he is. (And the Saudi terrorist-financier long ago figured out that his cell phone wasn't secure.) The point is that the most sophisticated intelligence technology is useless unless some of the simplest information is available.

General Mike Hayden, who heads up the National Security Agency that conducts all satellite intelligence gathering, warned last February that Bin Laden's communication network was more sophisticated than the ability of the U.S. to keep track of it. The problem, Hayden said, was globalization. U.S. capability was built to listen in on the Soviets, a lumbering nation-state that had to rely on its own communication technology. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is able to take advantage of the best the global communications industry can offer. "Cell phones, encryption, fiber optic communications, digital communication. Those are all available to people who would do harm to the United States of America," Hayden told "60 Minutes." He urged Congress to spend a lot more money on upgrading the U.S. electronic intelligence capability.

But that may not help. It is not just getting intelligence, but what you do with the intelligence you get. Evidence introduced in the East Africa embassy bombing trials suggested the NSA had monitored some of the sat-phone communications between Bin Laden and the perpetrators ahead of the attack, but that didn't give them enough information to prevent the deadly bombing.

The human touch

Despite the capability of today's most advanced machines, human intelligence — spies on the ground, as well as analysts who are able to make sense of raw data — remains the indispensable link in the counter-terrorism intelligence chain. "It's a really sophisticated form of intelligence," retired Army General Dennis Rimer said Friday. "You can't pick this up from satellites. The only way to do it is to penetrate some of these organizations."

Human intelligence has certainly proved indispensable to Israel's ability to strike at terrorism. When an Israeli helicopter fires rockets into a car and kills an intended target, they've been helped not only by electronic tracking technology, but by agents on the ground who help identify the target. Of course Israel has a certain advantage here, in that it can utilize Jews born in the Arab world who are able to blend in to Arab communities. But the Israelis are as likely to rely on Palestinian car thieves or drug dealers, or even members of radical organizations who have been "turned" through blackmail or other measures. Counter-terrorism is by nature "dirty" warfare, and a government that forbids assassinations and instructs its intelligence agencies to avoid recruiting "unsavory sources" is at a distinct disadvantage.

Spies, unlike us

It may prove excruciatingly difficult for U.S. operatives to directly penetrate Bin Laden's networks. His cells are often formed on the basis of family or kinship ties, and may even require a new recruit to kill in order to prove himself. The operatives, who would have to blend in ethnically, would have to forego their American lives for many years, years spent in the exceedingly harsh conditions of Bin Laden's mountain camps.

Instead, the U.S. may be forced to rely on the efforts of allied intelligence agencies closer to the action. "We don't do manhunts well," says CIA veteran Robert D. Steele, author of "On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World." "We had to invade Panama to get Noriega. It took us years get Pablo Escobar. And we won't get Bin Laden without help of Saudi and Pakistani intelligence."

Improving intelligence gathering is only part of the problem. "Americans are in love with technology, but we haven't learned to properly process and make sense of the information it helps us collect," says Steele. "We only process 10 percent of what we collect. And often the job falls to inexperienced people who don't understand the significance of what they're seeing. A combination of inexperienced field personnel, a bad processing system and the continuing bureaucratic distance between the FBI and the CIA may have conspired to keep us from breaking the back of Bin Laden's latest operation before it got off the ground." For Steele, then, the question is not whether more money should be spent on intelligence, but how it should be spent.

The end of the Cold War removed the major mission of the U.S. intelligence community, and it suffered consequent funding cuts. Now the spooks appear to have a new overarching mission, and the backing of a U.S. political leadership determined to provide it with the funds to tackle the new challenge. But the way that money is invested may determine the course and duration of the war against terrorism in general and Osama bin Laden in particular.