BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: In Depth: America attacked
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

banner Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 03:22 GMT 04:22 UK
The CIA's greatest failure
President Bush
President Bush said the CIA is essential to the war on terrorism
Tom Carver

US TV network CBS recently aired a fictionalised series based on the CIA.

The Agency is an exciting tale of how the CIA foils an attempt by an Islamic group to commit a major terrorist outrage.

Unfortunately it is all fiction since the CIA is now being blamed for the worst failure of intelligence in US history.

CIA's greatest failure

The Agency is the first TV series to be made with the CIA's co-operation and filmed inside the CIA's headquarters. There are eerie parallels to real life. The plot is even masterminded by none other than Osama Bin Laden.

But in real life, it is now clear that the CIA is a long way from trapping Bin Laden. Its mindset still set in the Cold War, it was preoccupied with rogue missiles and chemical attacks rather than the idea of suicide bombers. It was quite simply looking in the wrong direction.

James Bamford, who has written extensively about US intelligence, said: "Everybody in the intelligence community saw this happen on television.

"Nobody knew about it an hour in advance, a week in advance or a month in advance so it was a total intelligence disaster."

He believes the failure to foresee the attacks on 11 September was the greatest failure in the CIA's history.

Calls for change

Last week, President George W Bush went to the CIA to try to revive morale. Mr Bush paid a visit to the CIA following the attacks and told them that he had full confidence in their ability to fight terrorism.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the CIA. And so should America," he said.
George Tenet
CIA Director George Tenet may lose his job over the failure of agency to foresee the attacks

The last thing he needs is a witch-hunt inside the same organisation that is now in charge of his war on terrorism. But republican colleagues like Richard Shelby on the Senate intelligence committee say the CIA needs a new leader.

"What we really need is someone who could really manage the agency, someone with the stature of [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, of [Secretary of Defence] Donald Rumsfeld, of [Deputy Secretary of Defence] Paul Wolfowitz," Mr Shelby said.

Although he likes the Director of the CIA George Tenet and some of the things he's done, Mr Shelby said: "I think the job is getting away from him."

The intelligence community's biggest problem is that it is designed to spy on governments and fixed installations not small fluid terrorist outfits.

The NSA is America's eavesdropper, the equivalent of GCHQ, and may well have picked up evidence about bin Laden's plans, but James Bamford says it did not have enough analysts who understood the culture of fundamentalism and failed to spot the clues.

"It was focused for half a century on Russia, and for the last 10 years since the end of the Cold War, NSA has been trying to cultural and technological methods. It just hasn't done it in time," Mr Bamford said.

Difficult search ahead

And even without these problems it is going to be very hard for the CIA to penetrate the complex clan and blood ties surrounding Bin Laden.
A US military helicopter flies over Somalia
James Woolsey: The US couldn't find one warlord in a city in Somalia, finding bin Laden will be harder

When Jim Woolsey was in charge of the CIA he was told by President Clinton to track down the Somali warlord, Mohamed Aidid.

"We had a lot of people on the ground in Mogadishu. We controlled the skies. We had a number of American troops, including military intelligence people, and although we came close to finding him a couple of times, we never did actually find him and that was in one city," Mr Woolsey said.

The difficulty of finding someone like Bin Laden and his senior associates is extraordinary, he said.

The agency usually does get its man in the end. It tracked down those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing, but it took years.

In the meantime, the American public may be better off watching the fictional stuff.

The BBC's Tom Carver
The CIA was preoccupied with rogue missiles rather than suicide attacks
See also:

01 Oct 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's 'cash link' to hijackers
01 Oct 01 | Americas
Profile: US special forces
21 Sep 01 | Americas
Fighting a 'dirty war'
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more America attacked stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more America attacked stories