CIA taking heat from all sides
WASHINGTON — With the United States spending billions on counterterrorism in recent years, the attacks this week on targets in New York and Washington must be considered a serious and disturbing intelligence failure, some analysts said yesterday.
But others said such a conclusion is premature and noted the immense difficulties intelligence agencies face in trying to penetrate the shadowy world of international terrorist groups.
At the same time, there was general agreement the airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon likely will bring a searching reassessment of the U.S. effort to combat terrorism and the resources being devoted to it.
"The only conclusion you can come to is a negative assessment as far as the intelligence on this incident," said John Reppert, a retired Army brigadier general who is executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
U.S. officials have said they had no warning of the attacks but have developed significant evidence that points toward Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network as prime suspects in the attacks.
Specialists said the coordination of the attacks suggests there was a substantial amount of planning. Reppert said it is disconcerting that no hint of the operation was picked up beforehand. "This was an action that would have been planned over months, not days, involving multiple parties and multiple locations," he said.
To add to the potential embarrassment, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that "a number of suspected hijackers were trained as pilots in the United States."
Harvey Kushner, a terrorism specialist at Long Island University, said the attacks pointed toward an intelligence failure. "It's bad," he said. "It happened. The intelligence community is supposed to stop such things."
But Kushner said the American intelligence community has not had enough agents on the ground since the 1970s. "We live in a bad neighborhood," Kushner said. "It's no longer in the Middle East. It is worldwide. To deal with the reality of terrorism, you need to have assets in the field."
Bill Harlow, chief of information for the CIA, rejected the criticism that the agency has neglected use of human agents abroad (human intelligence or "humint," as it is called) in favor of spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping.
"We haven't neglected anything," Harlow said. "Do we need more humint? You betcha. But there has been a massive increase in our attention to humint. As you know, it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do in a hostile environment ... "
On Capitol Hill, shaken lawmakers called for improvements in the intelligence system.
"It's an absolute indictment of our intelligence system that an operation of this size was not detected," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness.
Added Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "It tells us that everything that's been in place — from the intelligence standpoint and the defense standpoint — to defend us, is in question,"
Secretary of State Colin Powell responded, "It's easier said than done."
"We did not get the intelligence information needed to predict that this was about to happen, to be aware of this kind of event coming our way," Powell told NBC. Nonetheless, it is premature to cite an intelligence failure, he said.
CIA Director George Tenet, in a speech to agency employees yesterday, said: "Though we did not stop the latest, terrible assaults, you ... have done much to combat terrorism in the past. ... I know that together we will do even more in the future."Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.