Former CIA officer Hulnick: how pre-9/11 intelligence went wrong, and how to fix it
By Brian Fitzgerald
When it comes to scrutinizing intelligence failures associated with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, fingers are usually pointed at the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency (NSA). Then again, there are plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks in this country who like to play the blame game.
“Hindsight always makes the intelligence process look easy,” writes Arthur Hulnick in his new book, Keeping Us Safe: Secret Intelligence and Homeland Security. Indeed, he notes, intelligence failures are usually heralded, and successes are quickly forgotten.
Hulnick knows firsthand about government intelligence: he spent 7 years as an Air Force intelligence officer, and beginning in 1965, 28 years working for the CIA. He came to BU in 1989 as part of the CIA officer-in-residence program, and remained on the faculty after his retirement from government service in 1992. He has been a CAS associate professor of international relations since 2001.
But, in assessing the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor (another massive intelligence failure), he doesn’t spend 238 pages making excuses for the intelligence community — far from it. He writes explicitly about what went wrong pre-9/11 and examines key proposals for improving intelligence-gathering and homeland security.
“One of the things that needs to be done is to break down barriers between intelligence agencies and law enforcement,” says Hulnick. As the evidence of lapses in intelligence piled up after 9/11, it was determined that there needed to be more sharing of information and better communication between agencies rife with bureaucratic rivalries and turf battles. For example, Hulnick writes about working-level FBI agents frustrated in their efforts to go after suspicious Middle Eastern men enrolled in flight schools because their bureau bosses argued that the suspects had committed no crimes. The FBI was focused on pursuing criminals, not developing intelligence.
In theory, the director of central intelligence (DCI) leads the CIA and is charged with coordinating the activities of the NSA and more than a dozen other intelligence agencies and units. “But in reality, the DCI had real authority over only the CIA,” says Hulnick. Nonetheless, he points out, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC), which was supposed to bring together intelligence officers from different agencies, was “hot on the trail” of al-Qaeda terrorists — close enough for DCI George Tenet to issue intelligence warnings in July 2001 that a major terrorist strike on a U.S. target was being planned. “But close was not good enough,” he says. The CTC, with limited resources against an elusive enemy, was supposed to be a clearinghouse for information on terrorism, but it failed to prevent the attacks.
There should be one person in charge of the entire intelligence community, Hulnick writes — a sentiment shared by the 9/11 Commission in its July 22 report— and because Tenet had defended the existing intelligence system, his resignation last June may make reforms a bit easier.
But at present, is the nation prepared to thwart a terrorist attack? “We’re getting there,” Hulnick says. In 2002, President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to serve as the main center for sharing and analysis of homeland security. “Some people expect miracles,” he says. “They expect that DHS is somehow going to come together instantly and automatically — but it doesn’t work that way.”
Problems still need to be ironed out. Hulnick says that DHS has yet to be given all the tools to fulfill its mission. “The problem, as I see it, is that the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to have an intelligence function as part of the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate,” he says. “Some of it has been developed. They’ve developed the Homeland Security Operations Center, which is kind of an indications and warnings center, but given the disparate nature of homeland security as a department — 22 agencies brought together under one roof — what they don’t have yet is an effective intelligence analysis system. They could have had one, but they’ve farmed this out to what’s called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center.” This center assesses threats, but it’s far from being a clearinghouse for intelligence-gathering, leaving vulnerability analysis and communications to DHS.
“And now the president has ordered the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center,” says Hulnick. “It’s not clear how this is all going to work. The end result is that all the intelligence agencies that analyze intelligence on terrorism and the other threats to homeland security are still doing it, so not much has changed yet.”
Fortunately, the U.S. intelligence community can be fixed, says Hulnick — it just requires an overhaul. “It’s going to take time. Much of the problem is that the present system was designed to fight the Cold War,” he says. “It isn’t flexible enough for a different type of threat. During the Cold War, our indication system was set up to tell us if the Russians were coming. We did this by watching a whole series of indicators like communications, oil supplies, tanks, and planes, on the theory that when something was about to happen, we’d see movement. We saw these kinds of signals before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and before they invaded Prague in 1968.” In 1981 the CIA had a spy in Poland — army officer Ryszard Kuklinski — who managed to find out the intention of the country’s Communist government to declare martial law.
But can the United States develop similar indicators, such as spies, to combat terrorism? “So far we haven’t been successful,” Hulnick says. After all, terrorist groups are nearly impossible to infiltrate. But intelligence agencies may still be able to pick up the timing of a terrorist operation. “For example, some indicators are financial transactions,” he says. “If al-Qaeda tries to move money around, we should be able to pick that up because when money is moved, data is created.”
Hulnick says that significant progress has been made — including much, of course, that we are unaware of — in bolstering America’s domestic security. He adds that the same resources should be used to fight other threats to our country: global organized crime, technology theft, and industrial espionage. “On the upside, DHS has begun to circulate some information to state and local governments and the private sector,” he says. “Every state now has an antiterrorism task force.” And in the event of a bioterrorist attack, “we’re better at detecting disease than we used to be because we have a more efficient system now to report diseases from biological weapons.”
He also says that thanks to the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration, al-Qaeda or another group “would have a tough time” committing an act similar to 9/11.
Regarding intelligence reform, the American people are willing to trade a certain amount of liberty for security, according to Hulnick, but the Bush administration has gone to extreme measures, such as the rounding up and deporting of suspected terrorists, illegal aliens, and alleged enemy combatants without due process of law. Hulnick, whose Intelligence and Homeland Security course at BU includes a critical look at the USA Patriot Act, suggests the appointment of a nonpartisan ombudsman who can determine the fairness of the government’s actions in these cases.
“Good intelligence is the first line of defense in homeland security,” writes Hulnick. “Combined with effective law enforcement, and the steady and consistent application of the judicial process, Americans can be protected from terrorism, global crime, and espionage. Certainly, the American people are prepared during periods of extreme emergency to cede some of their liberties in exchange for enhanced security, but they are not prepared to give the government a blank check. They expect their freedoms to be restored promptly when the emergency is over, and they deserve no less.”
Hulnick will discuss his book Keeping Us Safe: Secret Intelligence and Homeland Security (Praeger Publishers, 2004) on Monday, October 18, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble’s fifth floor reading room in Kenmore Square.