September 11th: One Decade On


09/13/11 by Richard Weitz

Like Robbin Laird, I too found myself at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001.

At the time I was going to work at a nearby federally foundered research and development corporation that supported several Defense Department programs.

The company had shuttle buses that regularly traveled between the Pentagon in Arlington and their main office in Alexandria, and I regularly walked there and back from the Pentagon South Parking Lot and my Pentagon City apartment.

As things turned out, I had left home that morning before hearing the news about the planes crashing into the New York World Trade Center. I walked to the Pentagon area and then boarded the shuttle bus. As soon as I entered, the van began leaving the curb. The driver then saw someone running to catch the ride, so he stopped to let her board. Then he resumed driving through the South Parking lot.

Suddenly a large plane cut right in front of us close to the ground and crashed into one set of the Pentagon’s external walls. A massive fireball ensued, accompanied by a terrific explosion. Then as we drove away we could see people running both towards and away  from the crash site.

We soon encountered police and fire personnel rushing toward the Pentagon. When we arrived at company headquarters, the management staff on duty, after making sure we were OK, asked us to report what we saw to the authorities who were trying to collect eyewitness accounts to compose an accurate picture of what happened that morning.

Aerial Shot of the Pentagon After the Impact Credit:

I still wonder whether, if the van driver had not stopped to pick up the late passenger, whether we would have been hit by the low-flying plane that seconds later struck the Pentagon

It is still hard to describe my feelings on or about that day. It is a mixture of horror, amazement, a desire to understand what had happened and why, combined with compassion for those people who were killed and injured as well as those close to them. I fortunately did not know anyone well who perished that day in Washington, New York, or Pennsylvania, but I know many who did.

The subsequent decision to invade Afghanistan was easy, since that seemed the most effective means of preventing further al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies. At home, Washington’s attention was focused on the issue of whether to establish a new Department of Homeland Security and, less controversially, to strengthen the ability of the U.S. intelligence community, including the FBI, to prioritize countering terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland rather than their traditional non-terrorist duties.

The changes to the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since September 2001 have  been the most comprehensive in decades. Intelligence reformers have strived to restructure the IC to make it more flexible and integrated. They have also aimed to expand the collection and analysis capabilities at the communities’ disposal. They further sought to enhance information sharing both horizontally between federal agencies and vertically between Washington and state, local, and private sector bodies.

Their efforts to restructure the U.S. Intelligence Community to address 21st-century threats led  to the passage of the landmark Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004. The legislation enacted into law many of the recommendations of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission).  Among other measures, the IRTPA established the new position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to oversee the IC and serve as the principal intelligence adviser to the President. These two roles were previously performed by the dual-hatted Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A major factor behind the DNI’s creation was to empower a single person to provide strategic guidance to the 16 separate agencies (then 15) as well as to compel greater cooperation among their sometimes feuding analysts, operators, and managers—but without creating a single Department of Intelligence to replace the current federative IC model. The hope was also that the CIA Director, freed of extra-agency responsibilities, would concentrate on improving the performance of that agency.

The reforms achieved important progress in some areas, though old practices and patterns invariably persist given the lengthy time it takes to change bureaucratic cultures and authorities. The progress, though limited, may help explain why the United States has not experienced another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11—but, as with nuclear deterrence, one can never be sure what are the causes of a nonevent. On the other hand, the reforms clearly have raised the financial costs of U.S. intelligence activities by creating an enormous IC enterprise of people, facilities, and institutions.

Although extensive, these reforms have not changed the fundamental federative structure of the IC, which still consists of 16 major intelligence agencies, most of which fall under the control of the Defense Department. The men who have served as DNI have exercised little authority over the budgetary, personnel, or operational policies of even the civilian-controlled intelligence agencies. All the 16 intelligence agencies it oversees remain largely under the control of their home departments, thereby ensuring turf battles over the extent to which the agency heads must follow DNI guidance rather than the priorities of their department.

Although the DNI is often held most responsible for any intelligence blunders, as evidenced by the forced resignation of Admiral Dennis Blair after the Times Square bombing attempt, President Obama has continued the practice of picking strong leaders to head the CIA.

Leon Panetta was a former member of Congress who retained extensive ties and support with his former colleagues that he could use to support agency priorities and resist DNI control.  Although IRPTA gave the DNI authority to nominate the CIA Director to help ensure a compatible relationship, in practice the DNIs have most often assumed their position with a sitting CIA Director already in office. The IRPTA also gives the DNI the authority to co-nominate many senior military intelligence officials along with the Secretary of Defense, but does not give the DNI explicit authority to fire these individuals if the director considers them incompetent or insubordinate. With Iraq war hero General David Patreus now replacing Panetta as CIA Director, it is likely that the CIA head will continue to overshadow the DNI. The authority and roles of the Office of the DNI desperately require, if not enhancement, than at least clarification.

At the international level, there has been lots of progress in countering terrorist financing. through international banks and in securing potential weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, from possible use by terrorists. Bankers have shown great aversion to engaging in practices that knowingly risk their reputations. But transnational law enforcement still has problems dealing with monetary transfers through informal institutions, including Islamist banking practices, as well as in curbing radioactive, chemical, and biological agents that could be used as improvised weapons such as if combined with conventional explosives.

The United States and other countries have developed extensive bilateral intelligence sharing and other liaison operations with foreign countries. These have helped disrupt many terrorist plots. Yet, the international community collectively, through the United Nations, has proven unable to reach a consensus on an agreed definition of terrorism due to two problems. First, what some governments label as terrorists, others see as freedom fighters. Second, certain governments try to label their political opponents as terrorists when there is no evidence that they seek to change their government through violent means. Meanwhile, as the continuing controversy regarding the Guantanamo detention camps makes clear, governments still differ over the legality of various means of interrogating, incarcerating, and executing terrorists.

The reforms have also been conducted in a patchwork manner, leaving gaps and inconsistencies in the legal and congressional framework governing U.S. intelligence activities. The White  House and the Congress should cooperate to integrate the legal framework for all the intelligence reforms that have occurred since 9/11. Many of these reforms have been made piecemeal by individual legislative acts, executive branch orders, and court rulings. The resulting patchwork grows more dysfunctional with each year, with persistent gaps and occasional contradictions in an area where legality is essential to avoid potential abuses. The White House and the Congress need to take up these reform and integration issues while encouraging a public debate on what intelligence reforms since 9/11 have worked and what further changes are needed.

Fears persist that the intelligence reformers remain so focused on averting another 9/11 terrorist attack that they are not adequately preparing for next-generation intelligence challenges. Previous Second Line of Defense reports make clear that one of these challenges could be in the cyber domain. DHS is formally the lead agency for protecting civilian federal government computer networks (the “dot-gov” domain) and working with state, local, tribal and territorial authorities as well the private sector to secure critical U.S. information systems and infrastructure.

Strengthening U.S. cyber security has been a formal DHS priority since the department’s creation, but it has only been during the last few years that DHS has launched major initiatives to meet its mandate in this area. In 2009, DHS has reached an agreement with the  Defense Department to draw on DoD’s superior cyber security assets, especially the National Security Agency. In September 2010, DHS developed the first National Cyber Incident Response Plan. It coordinates the response of many federal agencies, state and local governments, and private firms to a variety of possible cyber threats. The DHS Computer Emergency Readiness Team contributes to both U.S. threat analysis and incident warning capabilities. The DHS-coordinated Cyber Storm incident response exercises have generated profitable lessons that have hopefully been learned by its public, private, and international participants.

DHS continues to suffer other problems. State and local officials as well as private sector infrastructure managers complain about most information flowing from them to the feds but not the reverse. Often DHS and FBI classifies this intelligence, which then prevents local officials, lacking the still scarce security clearances, from participating in the resulting deliberations on a policy response. At the international level, DHS has developed some improved means for detecting chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents. But the department has been faulted for inadequately coordinating  its risk assessments (one or two of these classified reports appear every year) with other U.S. government agencies or their foreign partners. DHS managers also need more explicit measures of effectiveness to determine if it is making progress in constructing its fabled global nuclear detection strategy.

More generally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently cited several fundamental management problems that have impeded the ability of DSH to efficiently and effectively meet its mandated missions:

(1) the need to integrate and strengthen management functions;

(2) the need for increased use of performance assessments;

(3) the need for enhanced use of risk information to inform planning, programming, and investment decision-making;

(4) inadequate sharing and use of terrorism-related information;

(5) partnerships have not been sustained or fully leveraged; and

(6) limitations in developing and deploying  technologies to meet mission needs.

And  as GAO notes, these problems can have national and sometimes world-wide implications since DHS is often the lead or coordinating agency for many missions that intersect the fields of international and homeland security.

One final observation: despite 9/11, the war on terror has not resulted in a major enhancement in executive power, as occurred during many earlier wars. Although President George W. Bush was able to secure support for the war on Iraq and some controversial domestic law enforcement legislation, terrorism has fallen down the list of most American concerns and American politics has again become dominated by economic issues and a struggle between the executive and legislative branches, and the two main political parties, over government spending, taxes, and other budgetary issues. A decade after 9/11, we are getting back to politics as usual—not necessarily a bad thing given the emotional roller coaster ride of the last ten years.