TOPICS : Post-9/11 changes have made US safer

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon five years ago exposed fundamental weaknesses in America’s intelligence community, particularly the FBI and the CIA. The absence of any terrorist attacks against the US since 9/11 suggests that the reorganisations and reforms of the past five years, as well as increased vigilance, have made the nation safer. The intelligence picture remains complicated, however, and much work needs to be done to limit our vulnerability to international terrorism.

There have been several notable achievements, starting with the operational success of the CIA against Al Qaeda since 2000. Too much attention has been devoted to the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, and not enough attention has been given to the logistical and financial disruption of his organisation that has limited bin Laden’s ability to plan follow-up operations in the US and to operate abroad.

The CIA and the FBI, along with foreign intelligence liaison services, have operated effectively in capturing and killing top Al Qaeda leaders. But when FBI Director Robert Mueller III claimed to know that “Al Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning,” the congressional intelligence committees should have demanded his evidence.

The creation of the National Counterterrorism Centre in January 2005 has provided the beginning of a central repository for terrorism information and greater connectivity among all 16 intelligence agencies and their databases. The CIA dominates the staffing of the counterterrorism centre, but all agencies are represented, and these representatives are charged with sharing information with their sponsoring agencies. There has been greater consolidation of information, particularly a more comprehensive watch-listing system that could have prevented 9/11 terrorists Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi from falling through the cracks.

There is still an inadequate flow of information between federal and state or local intelligence agencies. The CIA has streamlined its own counterterrorism centre, concentrating on more innovative operational plans. The centre is better connected to other intelligence agencies, but it has not abandoned the “fusion centre” concept that mixes intelligence analysts and clandestine operatives. The fusion of analysts and operatives has led to politicised intelligence.

The greatest setback to US efforts has been the profligate military campaign in Iraq, which created a new source of terrorism and terrorists, thus weakening the campaign against terrorism and US national security.

There were very few jihadists in Iraq before we invaded. Overall, the post-9/11 changes have made us safer over the short term, but as long as terrorists can operate the world over, we must demand better management of our $45 billion intelligence and $40 billion homeland security industries. — The Christian Science Monitor