Jewish World Review June 7, 2004/ 18 Sivan, 5764
Tenet's fall shows that spies can't rely on television for intelligence
Scratch around the roots of the war on terror and you keep running into the Saudis. Scratch around the screw-ups in the war on terror and you keep running into the CIA. I wrote in The Spectator last year that Mr Bush has the same relationship with the agency that General Musharraf has with Pakistan's ISI: every time he makes a routine request, he has to figure out whether they are going to use it to set him up. If at any one time half-a-dozen of Tony Blair's biggest political problems arose from MI6, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that it is time to deal with the source rather than the symptoms.
Everything that is wrong with the agency was made plain a few weeks ago with the much-anticipated release of a classified CIA "Presidential Daily Brief" from August 6 2001. This was supposed to be the smoking gun which would reveal that Bush knew 9/11 was coming. It turned out to be far more damaging than that. It revealed somewhat carelessly that the CIA - the most sinister acronym in the world, the all-knowing spooks behind the dirty tricks in a thousand Hollywood thrillers - crib most of their info from television shows and foreign intelligence services.
Terrific. Your crack CIA operative knows how to go into deep cover in his living room and pose as an average American couch potato by switching on the television. Then, just when the rest of the country is settling in for the Friends rerun, he surreptiously flips the remote to the Osama interview on CNN.
Next in the briefing came a couple more historical generalities about bin Laden supplied by foreign intelligence agencies in the late 1990s.
Third on the list was the CIA's only self-generated contribution to the assessment - one sentence, three years old: "A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks." This turned out to be wrong. The attacks in New York were perpetrated mainly by Saudi youth, let into America on inadequately-filled paperwork processed through the State Department's Saudi "Visa Express" programme.
The CIA ended the briefing on a reassuring note: "The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related." That was also false. The FBI may have had several dozen "open cases" vaguely bin Laden-related, but it wasn't "conducting" anything like that number of active investigations. So that is the Agency's summation on Osama bin Laden as it stood in August 2001: two old television interviews, two generalities from foreign agencies, one rumour from the late 1990s, and a concluding assertion that demonstrates the CIA doesn't even know what the FBI's doing, never mind anybody else. Hard to see why it was ever "classified", as you could have picked 99 per cent of it from your daily newspaper. This would just about pass muster for an intelligence briefing in a small nation with no role in the world - Luxembourg, say. But, assuming that Luxembourg has an intelligence service, I'll bet it's paying a lot less for it than America is.
This isn't George Tenet's fault, nor that of James Pavitt, the head of the clandestine service, whose (long-scheduled) resignation also took place last week. The decay of the ruthless regime-topplers of the 1970s into a bunch of desk-jockeys watching television and monitoring e-mails from outer space is the result of a remorseless quarter-century emasculation at the hands of Congressional Democrats. But, after September 11, the question was: OK, forget the past 20 years, what are you going to do now? Last month, in his testimony to the special commission, Tenet said that it would take another half-decade to rebuild the clandestine service. In other words, three years after 9/11, he's saying he needs another five years. Imagine if Franklin Roosevelt had turned to Tenet to start up the OSS, the CIA's wartime predecessor. In 1942, he'd have told the President not to worry, he'd have it up and running by 1950.
Tenet's defenders say, ah, well, easy for you to say, but it's very hard to get a guy and plant him in al-Qaeda's inner circle. True. But no one is asking that. The CIA's critics want to know why its human intelligence is so poor even in nominally friendly states. One reason why Bush has been embroiled in this business about Saddam trying to buy uranium from Niger is because it's obvious that the CIA has no clue about what is going on in that part of Africa. And, when they were invited to check out the claims of British and French intelligence, the agency dispatched not an intelligence specialist but an ex-career diplomat turned "adjunct scholar" at the Saudi-funded Middle East Institute. So, to investigate the case for war with Iraq, the CIA sent an anti-Bush partisan on the House of Saud's payroll who drank mint tea with a couple of Niger bureaucrats and then wrote it up as a third-rate travelogue for The New York Times ("Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger river"). The CIA are tourists in the heart of darkness.
"Language skills" is the problem the critics cite, and it's correct that there were embarrassing misses in the India-Pakistan nuke race and the North Korean situation mainly because the one guy in Langley who spikka da lingo nuke happened to be off that night. But it goes way beyond that. Eight rungs of lethargic, formal bureaucracy separate analysts from the director in ways that no efficient business would tolerate. America needs something purpose-built, as the OSS was for the world war and the CIA was for the Cold War. It's time to get on with it.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.