America's Dysfunctional Intelligence Agencies
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.
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?
Zegart: That’s right. There are three kinds of organizational weaknesses that these two agencies have. The first is structure. The second is culture; that’s a big one, particular for the FBI. And the third is incentives; how do they reward people and what do they reward them for? So to give you a concrete example of how that played out before 9/11: On August 23rd, 2001, 19 days before the attack, the FBI started a manhunt for the now infamous two 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. But that manhunt was given to just one office; it was given a low priority — the lowest priority — and given to an agent who had just finished his rookie year. Why is that the case? Well, the answer is the FBI had always given lead cases, or assigned cases, to just one office, so it wasn’t a nationwide manhunt. Intelligence cases always took lower priority to criminal cases; that’s culture for you. And promotion incentives made this one of the least desirable assignments because convictions made careers; the least desirable assignment went to the least experienced investigator.
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.Harris: And one of the things that I noticed about your book is that you say the reason for many of these failures are the cherished features of American democracy. Frequent elections, the separation of powers, majority rule, political compromise — these all constrain presidential power and give Congress little incentive to create an effective foreign policy system. Can you elaborate on that for me?
Zegart: Yeah, it’s one of the great ironies of our democratic system. What some of the things that we think are so wonderful about our democracy, the separation of powers and the congressional bicameral Congress, create a fragmented system that requires compromise to succeed. We typically think compromise is a good thing; but from the standpoint of designing an intelligence agency, it’s a terrible thing. Because what it does is it means that opponents of any reform have a say in how that reform is created. And so you’re literally allowing enemies of a new agency like the CIA, back in the 1940s, or the director of national intelligence today, you’re allowing opponents of that new agency to sabotage its creation from the outset. So one of the reasons why the CIA could not coordinate all the other agencies of intelligence of the 50 years before 9/11 was because that agency was deliberately crippled in the legislation that created it in 1947.
Harris: This is simply fascinating. Why have I never heard anything like this before?
Zegart: Because my parents haven’t sent you my last book.
Harris: Now how did you come about his information; how did you even start to study this? Are there people doing similar studies?
Zegart: Not many people are actually studying intelligence. In fact I took a look at the top 25 universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report to see how many of the universities were offering undergraduate courses on intelligence agencies. And the answer was just four last year. More universities on the top 25 offered courses on the history of rock ‘n’ roll than U.S. intelligence agencies. So it’s an area where you’d think there would be a lot more interest in studying, but there hasn’t been in the academic community.
Scheer: And why is that? Why don’t we care about the history, or certainly in the top 25 universities, care about the history of the intelligence community? Is it that we like rock ‘n’ roll ?
Zegart: I think with the incentives that academics have to focus on theory rather than policy relevant issues; it has to do with the difficulty of getting information. Forget classified information. It’s incredibly difficult even to get unclassified information on these topics from government agencies. It took me five years to get my hands on the documents and the interviews that I needed to be able to write this book. So it’s a real challenge. And academics don’t, in political science — these days don’t get rewarded for doing policy-related work because policy is a dirty word in academia these days.
Scheer: … [T]he NSA and the security agencies seem not to ever let anything out. Is that secrecy? It doesn’t seem good; it doesn’t seem to allow for things to be fixed because there’s no one doing oversight, there’s no one watching the store, right? Wouldn’t it be better if some of the stuff was made public quicker and earlier so we would know what’s going on and we could help … Congress or the executive branch … ? Couldn’t we help them better if we knew what was going on? Or is it important to keep it secret?
Zegart: I think it’s both. I think there are certain things we have to keep secret, and I understand and appreciate that. But there’s no reason, for example, the CIA’s own 9/11 review is classified two years after it was finished except for the 19 pages that Congress required the agency to release a few weeks ago. So I understand the need for secrecy, but I think that it’s really important, not just for academics, but for the public and the Congress, to have an idea of what these agencies are doing and what the continuing problems are. Because you can’t fix problems you don’t know about.
Harris: Amy, how prepared are we to respond in catching the criminals, in your opinion, given the report you’ve just written?
Zegart: Well, I think there are two components to that question. One is, are we in a better position now to prevent the next 9/11? And I worry that the answer is not much. As a second is, are we going to do ourselves more damage in our response to the next catastrophic attack, and I worry about that response, Homeland Security part of the equation, as well. We still have things like interoperability problems between first-responders. We still don’t have good triage systems for getting, say, the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, where I live, the nation’s busiest port, up and running again after a catastrophic incident. We have a long, long way to go.Scheer: What about the people, we hear Chalmers Johnson about blowback. That 9/11 is blowback from the CIA in Afghanistan and helping bin Laden. And we have blowback from putting our bases in Saudi Arabia. How many of these terrorist actions may be a result in failures maybe in being able to spy, but also our failure in our foreign policy?
Zegart: Well, the foreign policy is obviously a huge part of the equation. You can have the best intelligence and homeland security system in the world, but if your foreign policy is generating interest by angry radical communities to blow themselves up and kill as many Americans as possible, you’re still not going to protect American lives. So the policy in the long run, in solving that demand side of the equation, keeping people from wanting to join extremist, terrorist organizations, is critical.
Harris: If you could tear it all down and rebuild a system that works, where would you start? What’s the most critical or central piece to replace in rebuilding this system so that it begins to function properly?
Zegart: That’s a great question. Initially I would have said the domestic intelligence piece, because I’m hesitating because one of the dangers of intelligence reform is that we hard-wire this system to deal with today’s threat. And we make the system unable to adapt to tomorrow’s threat. As one intelligence official put it to me, by the time we master the al-Qaida problem, will al-Qaida be the problem? So if you think about developing all-around athlete capabilities or intelligence agencies, if I had to focus on one thing, it would be fixing the problem at the top, so that the director of national intelligence has the authority that’s commensurate with his responsibility to knock those bureaucratic heads together. He doesn’t, he hasn’t ever had it; the CIA director before him didn’t have it either.
Harris: Amy, you are about the most pragmatic and straight-forward writer that I’ve talked to in a long time. I think you’ve written a great piece here.
Zegart: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Harris: I hope that people will pick up this book. Where can they get a copy?
Zegart: You can get a copy cheap at Amazon.com or at Princeton University Press on their Web site. And in many Borders bookstores near you.
Harris: And if you see her mom, she has copies in her trunk, so be sure to ask her.
Zegart: She actually may send them by airdrop if you e-mail her.
Harris: For Josh Scheer, for Amy Zegart, author of “Spying Blind,” this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.