President George W. Bush’s rebuilding of an intelligence community broken and demoralized under Bill Clinton should be embraced by conservatives as the U.S.’s best response to the September 11 attacks.
Clinton had so downsized and discarded the Central Intelligence Agency, and 15 other intelligence agencies, that his first CIA director quit. George Tenet, the longest-running CIA chief under Clinton, later wrote that his agency was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy as Clinton was leaving the presidency. The National Intelligence Agency, the nation’s listening post, was going deaf, Tenet wrote. It had not kept up with basic technology to penetrate cyberspace.
As I wrote in Sabotage: America’s Enemies Within the CIA, under Clinton the CIA rolled up operating bases around the world and all but shut down larger stations. It was in Hamburg, Germany, that leaders among the 9-11 hijackers were radicalized in a mosque and dispatched to Afghanistan for training. The CIA’s base in Hamburg where officers could track radicals had been closed by that time. It reopened after 9-11.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks highlighted a decade of negligence. Bush began immediately to mobilize the CIA and bolster the ability to analyze the radical Islamic enemy and to track its perpetrators. Subsequently, there were many successes.
Yet, to the Washington Post, which is running a series this week on the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy, none of it worked. The Post reporters, who include William Arkin, a dedicated leftist who once referred to our men and women in uniform as mercenaries, could not find one intelligence official who thinks we are safer nine years later.
Forget the fact many officials believe we are safer. I would offer one piece of evidence amid thousands of pieces of evidence: the CIA tracked down and captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003. As Osama bin Laden’s master planner, Mohammed orchestrated 9-11 and was in the middle of executing more massacres. There was no al Qaeda killer quite as good. Now, he’s out of circulation, thanks to the CIA.
Maybe the Post series will do some good in forcing Congress to finally enact an intelligence authorization bill—essentially orders from Congress on what to do—after a five-year absence. Maybe there are too many contractors on the government payroll.
But the series, at least by day three, did not reveal any abuse of power, financial scandals or new blunders. It is more of a "list" service. Lists and locations of military facilities and private contractors where top secret intelligence is conducted—a good guide for would be saboteurs.
"In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space," says the story, headlined, "A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control."
Well, these are interesting numbers. But on their face, do they mean the intel community is out of control? Or do they mean something more benign? Maybe they show a robust response by a nation at war? Or, does it symbolize that, like any federal bureaucracy, there are logjams, petty disputes, a lack of information sharing and redundancy?
In response to the Post series, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) put out a statement, "Key facts about contractors."
The article says contractors are breaking the law by performing core government work. The DNI says they are not.
The intelligence budget is not 70% for contractors—it is for contracts, things like satellites, computer systems, and logistics overseas.
The DNI said it knows how many contractors it hires and how much it spends—contrary to what the Post implies.
"’Top Secret America’ has lots of interesting graphics and neat pictures of secret IC facilities in your neighborhood and mine," writes Daniel Goure, a vice president at the pro-business Lexington Institute. "What it lacks are the facts."
Why have intelligence agencies turned to private contractor expertise?
The DNI said, "The growth in contractors was a direct response to an urgent need for unique expertise post-9/11. The surge in contractors allowed the IC to fill the need for seasoned analysts and collectors while rebuilding the permanent, civilian workforce. It also allowed agencies to meet required skills, such as foreign languages, computer science, and electrical engineering."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA director, provided part of the answer in a 2007 speech in which he chronicled the Clinton-era disaster.
"By the mid-1990s, recruitment of new case officers at CIA had hit a historic low, and the agency’s funding was a prime target for budget-cutters," Gates said. "Indeed, within three years of my retirement in 1993, CIA’s clandestine service had been cut by 30%—just when Osama bin Laden was gearing up his war on the United States."
Wrote Tenet, "The fact is that by the mid-to-late 1990s American intelligence was in Chapter 11."
Why the CIA, et al, needed to grow should be clear. We knew little about al Qaeda in 2001, owing to Clinton’s disinterest and the NSA "going deaf," as Tenet phrased it.
The U.S. needed to soak up everything it could about bin Laden’s terror squads, plus a laundry list of other Islamic extremist groups all around the world.
The military became involved in three hot war spots—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan—plus a global conflict that took troops to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. All these deployments cried out for more intelligence—overhead photos, human sources, intercepts and analysis.
I reported in Sabotage on the rebuilding’s growing pains. The CIA performed dismally in Southern Afghanistan, failing to property prepare the battle space for invading Green Berets.
In Iraq, the CIA station seemed disinterested. It was slow to realize and identify the varied insurgent groups.
But it, and military intelligence units, aided by the intelligence expansion that the Washington Post bemoans, got better with time. Sabotage detailed how gumshoe detective work and innovative monitoring of Internet cafes in Iraq helped special operations forces find Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s most murderous terrorist in the Middle East. He’s now dead.
There were ground-breaking improvements by the NSA. It launched the Digital Network Intelligence program to hone its ability to intercept emails and cell phone communication.
NSA also created the Office of Target Reconnaissance and Survey to come up with new gadgets to intercept calls.
Bush himself authorized the NSA to finally enter the 21st Century by listening in on terrorist communications routed through this country. (The Left railed against the program. Obama has continued it.)
Former Vice President Dick Cheney forced the Obama Administration last year to release parts of a CIA report on the number of terror plots it stopped against the U.S.
None of this could have been done without an expansion of the intelligence budget.
With its graphics identifying contractor sites in America doing top secret work, the Post is sure to delight the Lyndon LaRouche crowd and the hard Left.
It may even win a Pulitzer under the title: "Bush’s Bloated Intelligence Budget Left U.S. No Safer."