May 23, 2013
America’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Agencies
Posted on Nov 29, 2007
James Harris and Josh Scheer
“Spying Blind” author Amy Zegart gives Truthdig a status report on America’s intelligence agencies and explains why our intelligence system is so broken and why our democracy may be to blame.
Listen to this interview.
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris with Josh Scheer. We’re talking to the author of “Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11.” Her name is Amy Zegart and she’s on the way to the airport so we’re going to take a few moments of her time to get some information and to learn more about this book. Amy, one of the things that critics say you do really well in this book is deconstruct the myth that national security agencies work reasonably well to serve national interests. I was under the impression that the NSA, the FBI and the CIA did a reasonably decent job at protecting us. Tell me what you learned in the writing of this book that should lead me to believe something very different.
Amy Zegart: Well, I wish I had better news to tell you, but what I found when I was doing this research over the past five years is that these agencies have had trouble functioning for a long time and that the FBI and the CIA, in particular, failed to adapt to the rise of terrorism after the Cold War ended. I’ll give you concrete examples. I learned that there were 23 specific opportunities that these two agencies had to penetrate and possibly disrupt the 9/11 plot. And they didn’t miss some of those opportunities; they missed all 23 opportunities. Because they have been suffering from debilitating organizational weaknesses that we have known about for a long time. And they still do.
Harris: You say since the Cold War we failed to fulfill some of these security needs. What are some of those weaknesses?
Josh Scheer: We know the CIA doesn’t get any oversight. How bad is it today with the CIA and the FBI? After 9/11, did they learn any lessons? Are they still spying blind? Are they still not working together, things like that? When they talk about terrorists, do they have five agents? Or did they learn from these mistakes?
Zegart: Well, I think that the short answer to “Are we doing better in anything in intelligence?” is yes, we are doing better than [we were doing on] September the 10th on most cases, but that’s not saying a whole heck of a lot. When the exchange of officials before 9/11 between the CIA and the FBI was called the Hostage Exchange Program, you could only do [unintelligible] when it comes to detailing officials to different agencies. So if you look at all the major deficiencies that we had before 9/11 with coordination, information-sharing, domestic intelligence, all of those problems are still here. Have we made improvements? Sure. But not nearly fast enough, far enough.
Scheer: ... Has [the Patriot Act] helped? ... [W]here we have military commissions and all these kinds of rights-bending acts, do they help the CIA? Is it worth it to have those kinds of acts? Or is it, what everyone talks about, the take-away of the rights and actually has made us weaker?
Zegart: It’s a very challenging terrain that we’re on, and in some ways we have gone too far in the civil liberties infringements, and we haven’t gone far enough, and I’ll explain what I mean. The whole NSA warrantless wiretapping program —it’s generated a lot of controversy, and many view it as illegal, violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But the idea of the program was dead-on. So one of the things that the 9/11 Commission found was that there’s a gap between the collection of intelligence abroad and the collection of intelligence at home. So we weren’t monitoring the communications between terrorist cells in the United States and abroad. And that’s what the program was designed to fill. Good idea, poorly executed. One could argue, and I argue, that we should think about expanding surveillance so that we cover domestic communication, but with the right oversight. With the right warrants, with the right guarantees of civil liberties. I think it’s pretty complicated territory.
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