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Designed to Fail: National Security, Intelligence, and 9/11

January 28, 2010
 by Kimberly Ruff


Minarchists believe government has a role, albeit limited, in society in which they protect its people from force and fraud. Falling under their jurisdiction are courts, police, and national defense. Yet as events like 9/11 suggests, government can still fail at these core, necessary functions. In this essay, I explore how the organizational composition of the intelligence community made the events of 9/11 possible.

At fifteen to nine on the morning of September 11, 2001, a Boeing 767 commercial jet airliner flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Less than twenty minutes later, another Boeing 767 crashed into the WTC’s South Tower. When the first plane struck, bewildered officials and journalists speculated it was a freak occurrence; even the President wondered if it was because the pilot had a heart attack (Byman, 2005, pp. 153-4). Shortly after the second plane, reports began to surface that several planes had been hijacked and the hijackers were on suicide missions with specific destinations in mind. America was under attack. Indeed, within the hour, a third plane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and a fourth and final plane, believed to be en route to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., crash-landed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. The high-velocity impacts killed the passengers and crews of the planes, caused massive fires, and compromised the structural integrity of the Twin Towers which collapsed into a smoldering heap an hour after the first attack. Before the dust had begun to settle on Ground Zero, 3,000 souls were lost, including citizens of 90 different countries, and we knew who to blame: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (Betts, 2002).

September 11 was not the first time the intelligence community had heard of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, nor were they unaware of the presence of al-Qaeda members within US borders and plans for terrorist attacks (Zegart, 2005; Byman, 2005; 9/11 Commission Report, 2004). As far back as the Reagan Administration, the intelligence community was keenly aware of how dangerous bin Laden was (Byman, 2005). The FBI received reports of an “inordinate number of persons of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Phoenix, the CIA covered a meeting in Malaysia in 2000 of key operatives of al-Qaeda including a future hijacker, known Islamic radicals that the FBI was monitoring were in contact with several of the hijackers (Byman, 2005, p. 152), and less than a month before the attacks, one of the hijackers was put on a CIA watch list (Zegart, 2005, p. 78). Despite the many warnings available, the intelligence community - and America as a whole - was caught completely by surprise on the morning of September 11 (Byman, 2005). Why?

The failure of the intelligence community to predict and prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center can be linked to a design flaw inherent in a liberal democratic society. According to Diamond (as cited in Dahl, 2003), one of the ingredients necessary for a liberal democracy to function is, “in addition to the vertical accountability of rulers to the ruled…[liberal democracies] require the horizontal accountability of officeholders to one another” (pp. 34 – 5). In the United States, this was the solution to Madison’s Dilemma: the establishment of a government with separate, but interrelated branches that was strong enough to control the people as well as itself. In the intelligence community, this translates into a web of multiple agencies, each with their own role and function that answer to different cabinet posts within the Executive Branch. While beneficial during the Cold War, the rise of a new, protean threat, terrorism, has called into question its functional legitimacy. As the period between the Cold War and 9/11 has shown, the intelligence community has been slow to adapt. It is this – its organizational composition and inability to adapt – that is precisely what hindered the intelligence community from making the moves necessary to prevent the “Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century” (Balz & Woodward, 2002).

In 1947, the United States adopted its modern intelligence infrastructure with the passage of the National Security Act (9/11 Commission, 2004). The Act unified military and foreign intelligence, established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and outlined a vertical chain of command for reporting intelligence with the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) at the top (9/11 Commission, 2004). In addition, it created the National Security Council (NSC), which was responsible for synthesizing intelligence from different agencies and creating long- and short-term foreign policy goals. Including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created after 9/11, the intelligence community consists of 16 different agencies, 50% of which are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense (DoD) and one of which, the CIA, is completely independent of a cabinet post (9/11 Commission, 2004). Each organization, courtesy of historical events that have shaped it this way, has its own specific niche; intelligence agencies within the DoD work for the military and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) considers itself a domestic, law enforcement agency while the CIA views itself as responsible for espionage and intelligence abroad (Byman, 2005, p. 149). As far as leadership is concerned, the DCI was assigned the responsibility of overseeing and unifying all these agencies, but certain factors, including an inability to control purse strings and personnel assignments, as well as interagency competition, has rendered him ineffectual in this capacity (9/11 Commission, 2004). In fact, the DCI is oftentimes mistakenly referred to as the Director of the CIA – inaccurate but telling.

During the Cold War, the fragmented nature of the intelligence community proved beneficial; each agency had its respective role and turf, preventing redundancy. The presence of one principal threat, the Soviet Union, meant focused intelligence gathering (Zegart, 2005, p. 79). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, threats to U.S. national security changed, requiring the intelligence community to change (Zegart, 2005, p. 79). The FBI was authorized to begin investigating international terrorists in 1986 and made counterrorism its primary goal in 1998. Each of its 56 field offices became responsible for handling an individual or group engaged in terrorism. The New York office handled all intelligence on Osama bin Laden (9/11 Commission, 2004). While the FBI monitored the home front, the CIA was responsible for monitoring terrorist activity overseas. Intelligence agencies within the DoD focused primarily on the nation-states that harbored terrorists.

Change was made but, as Zegart (2005) points out, “change…is not the same as adaptation” (p. 82). While the intelligence community recognized the threat al-Qaeda posed, they did not adapt their practices to combat it (Zegart 2005, pp. 82 – 8). This stems from the organizational composition of government agencies. The government was designed so that each agency had a specific role and function; independent yet interrelated, requiring consistent, predictable execution. While this is done to ensure fairness and reliability, it makes it difficult for reform to take place (Zegart, 2005 p. 96). Intelligence agencies continued to perform within their roles, oftentimes ignoring or neglecting to pass on intelligence that they felt did not relate directly to their function. Within the FBI, the culture and organizational composition contributed to their handling of intelligence on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Since each field office was responsible for one group or individual, intelligence gathered on bin Laden in another branch rarely made it to their New York office. Additionally, the culture of the FBI stressed trials and arrests as a final solution and field officers, responsible for setting the goals of their individual branches, preferred to focus their efforts on solving crimes committed by terrorists, rather than predicting and preventing future acts of terrorism (9/11 Commission, 2004).

Each agency’s role in combating terrorism has shaped itself according to their primary function. The CIA continued to focus on foreign threats, adhering to its role as an international intelligence agency, failed to acknowledge the probability of a domestic terrorist attack (Byman, 2005). When a string of controversies emerged during the 1960s and 70s beginning with the Bay of Pigs, it brought their clandestine organization, the Directorate of Operatives, under scrutiny, ending with the establishment of Congressional Oversight Committees (9/11 Commission, 2004). Coupled with tight regulations made in the mid-1990s on recruiting “unsavory” foreign individuals as assets, CIA activity nearly ground to a halt with a series of international offices closing and few new recruits (9/11 Commission, 2004). Finally, the DoD, adhering to their role as a military organization, determined that their primary method for countering terrorist activity was through conventional warfare, a belief that proved to be highly inaccurate (9/11 Commission, 2004). While hindsight affords us a chilling picture of all the events leading up to 9/11, agencies within the intelligence community were only seeing seemingly irrelevant pieces of the puzzle.

Knowing that the organizational composition of the intelligence community, which made intelligence sharing so difficult, also makes it resistant to reform does not mean reform should not be made. Various scholars, including the 9/11 Commission, have analyzed the data before them and proposed a multitude of suggestions for improvement, including establishing an intelligence center and unifying the agencies under a Director of National Intelligence (DNI) - stronger, more capable versions of the NSC and DCI (9/11 Commission, 2004; McConnell, 2007). Whether these proposals put into application will prove to alleviate some of the organizational strain and grease the wheels for noncompetitive cooperation remains to be seen. One thing to note as we look forward is that despite the gross oversight of the intelligence community on 9/11 is that, for the most part, is does a really good job. Its difficult to quantify events that have never come to pass, but it would be safe to say that for every event that happens, many more don’t. Thus, future reform should make the appropriate changes without destroying the entire system.


9/11 Commission (2004). The 9/11 commission report. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

Balz, D. & Woodward, B. (2002, January 27). America’s chaotic road to war: Bush’s global strategy began to take shape in first frantic hours after attack. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wpdyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId= A43708-2002Jan26.

Betts, R. K. (2002). Long war in the making: The limits of prevention. Foreign Affairs (81)

Byman, D. (2005). Strategic surprises and the september 11 attacks. Annual Review of Political Science (8), 145-70.

Dahl, R.A., Shapiro, I. & Cheibub, J. A. (2003). The democracy sourcebook. Camden, MA: The MIT Press.

McConnell, M. (2007). Overhauling intelligence. Foreign Affairs (4) p. 49 – 58.

Zegart, A. B. (2005). September 11 and the adaptation failure of US intelligence agencies. International Security (29) 78 – 111.

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Alan Miller, on 1/28/2010 at 2:00pm, said:

Many senior veterans of the US Counter-terrorism and Intelligence services do not believe the official account of 9/11.

- Ray McGovern, former Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) "I think at simplest terms, there's a cover-up. The 9/11 Report is a joke."

- Bill Christison, former Director of the CIA's Office of Regional and Political Analysis. "I now think there is persuasive evidence that the events of September did not unfold as the Bush administration and the 9/11 Commission would have us believe. ... An airliner almost certainly did not hit The Pentagon. ...The North and South Towers of the World Trade Center almost certainly did not collapse and fall to earth because hijacked aircraft hit them."

- Mel Goodman, former Division Chief of the CIA's Office of Soviet Affairs and Senior Analyst from 1966 - 1990. "The final [9/11 Commission] report is ultimately a coverup. I don't know how else to describe it."

For more info, see the article "41 U.S. Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Agency Veterans Challenge the Official Account of 9/11" http://patriotsquestion911.com/#Articles

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