Howard's End: Alarm Bells Unheeded

Published: Tue 18 Sep 2001 01:09 PM
Historians of the future will record the recent terrorist attacks on the United States as an intelligence disaster comparable not only to Pearl Harbour but also Hitler's attacks on the Soviet Union in 1941 that cost millions of Russian casualties. The alarm bells rang but no one took notice. Maree Howard writes.
For those of us who are interested in intelligence and counter-intelligence the terrorist attacks on the United States last week were an intelligence blunder of monumental proportions.
The instances of early warning included:
A man in the Cayman Islands wrote to US authorities on August 29 saying he had overheard conversations about an upcoming attack on US targets. The CIA followed it up on September 6 but apparently did not have enough staff available to take it any further.
An Iranian deportee in a prison cell in Germany contacted US police alerting them to probable attacks in the US using hijacked planes . He was not believed because it was thought he was mentally unstable.
Another Iranian man was also detained in Hamburg Germany who specifically mentioned the World Trade Centre complex.
The FBI had two men under surveillance for the past month over connections to Osama bin Laden and their seeking flight training.
Another bin Laden sympathiser was taken into custody last month when he tried to enter the US with false documents. Among his possessions were aeronautical maps and pilot manuals on how to fly Boeing 757's.
These are just a small number of some of the blunders - so how did it happen?
Clearly, the four concentric circles of American security failed:
- The CIA's foreign intelligence;
- the FBI;
- the Immigration Service domestic security;
- and the Federal Aviation airport security.
Last year two US Congressional task forces on security assessed domestic terrorism response capabilities and weapons of mass destruction stating " Based on classified briefings as well as open-source information, it is clear that the U.S. Intelligence Community's foreign intelligence collections and analysis against terrorism has been excellent."
The National Commission on Terrorism said last year that the FBI was doing a very good job of disseminating information concerning immediate threats.
Both the task forces outlined some faults, particularly with the guidelines, but they were only minor.
However, for years the FBI had no procedure for disseminating useful information for analysis within the agency or sharing it with other government agencies.
In the case of the investigation of El Sayyid Nosair as far back as1990 for the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York, it was found that the FBI failed to translate papers found in Nosair's home because the New York office had no Arabic translator available.
Those papers contained useful leads which would have enabled the FBI to prevent the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.
It was such an intelligence blunder that when the papers were finally translated it was done so poorly that the name al Qaida was mangled and wound up as "the basis".
As a result, the FBI completely failed to recognise that the proper translation should have been "The Base" - Osama bin Laden's international terrorist organisation.
Other blunders in counter-intelligence have also been committed by other agencies. When the master mind of the 1993 Trade Centre bombing Ramzi Yusuf, entered the US with a false passport he was caught by the Immigration Service but released because they lacked space in the local holding facility.
Like hundreds more, he disappeared and it took thousands of hours, a manhunt spanning three continents and millions of dollars to hunt him down in Pakistan.
Immigration Service managers simply failed to recognise the critically important role they played in the national security area.
Even today, anti-terrorism is simply not been as high on the priority list as counter-narcotics. Immigration officials believe that terrorism is not their responsibility.
Accordingly, senior leaders in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Jihad, Tunisian and Algerian radical Islamic organisations, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Triads, the Japanese Red Army, the Russian Mafia etc etc., are allowed to travel the world almost unhindered.
The largest failure rests with the CIA.
In 1995 the guidelines promulgated by then-Director of the CIA John Deutsch, prohibited the engagement of foreign intelligence informants who may have been involved in human rights abuses.
The guidelines, even today, prevent CIA cooperation with numerous intelligence officers around the world and inhibit the CIA ability to recruit sources of informers from terrorist organisations.
On Sunday Vice President Dick Cheney issued a call to rescind these guidelines.
" If you're going to deal with only officially approved, certified good guys, you're not going to find out what the bad guys are doing," Cheney said.
So, smugness, inertia, turf battles and gross over-bureaucratisation all contributed to an historic failure of the US security's four circles of defence.
The price Americans and the world paid was huge.

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