Could the CIA and FBI Have Stopped 9/11?

We may have misinterpreted 9/11 as a harbinger, when it was really just an outlier.


Well before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. officials had plenty of reasons for paying close attention to Al Qaeda. In addition to the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, Osama bin Laden had made his hatred of the United States well-known in a series of interviews and grandiose statements going back to 1995.

Given this long history, and given the ample evidence that Al Qaeda posed a threat to Americans, Washington's failure to stop the attacks has been a source of considerable attention and consternation. As with so much in intelligence collection and analysis, the central challenge is in separating the signal from the noise.

The 9/11 Commission report identified a series of opportunities to disrupt the 9/11 attacks, laying much of the blame on a lack of coordination and communication between the CIA and FBI, with some additional criticism leveled at the National Security Agency. In particular, the report focused on 10 instances from January 2000 to August 2001 when information regarding Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, two Saudi nationals residing in the United States, should have been shared between the CIA and FBI. Mihdhar, Hazmi, and three others hijacked and crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11. When the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General reviewed how the FBI handled intelligence before 9/11, it dedicated a chapter to information related to Mihdhar and Hazmi. According to these and other studies, a combination of bureaucratic impediments and personality clashes impeded efforts that might have complicated, or even thwarted, Al Qaeda's nefarious plans.

Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, for example, focuses on the turf battles between Alec Station (the CIA's Bin Laden unit headed up by the mercurial Michael Sheuer), the FBI counterterrorism guru John O'Neill, and White House advisor Richard Clarke. O'Neill had left the New York FBI office just prior to the attacks and taken a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. He was killed on 9/11, but both Scheuer and Clarke wrote books generally celebrating their role in trying to stop the attacks and faulting those who didn't listen.

Numerous other books, articles, and documentaries by more objective and disinterested observers have explored the CIA versus FBI story too. One of the first post-9/11 accounts, The Cell, even put it in the subtitle: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It.

Some serious and seasoned observers anticipated that the failure to share information within the sprawling national security apparatus could expose the United States to preventable dangers. In May 2001, President George W. Bush tapped Brent Scowcroft to head up a 12-member commission to assess the intelligence community and make recommendations for reform.

According to Scowcroft biographer Bartholomew Sparrow, the commissioners concluded that post–Cold War budget cuts contributed to low morale within the intelligence agencies prior to 9/11. Quoting from interviews with several commission members, Sparrow writes in The Strategist: "There was a general recognition that 'the whole concept of central intelligence had broken down. And largely because of budgetary reasons,' because the Department of Defense 'controls so much of the budget.'"

But Scowcroft also sensed that the intelligence agencies were focused on the wrong threats. "At the review board's first meeting," in July 2001, "Scowcroft said that terrorism had to be the nation's highest national security priority, but that the United States had not yet come to grips with the matter." The 9/11 Commission reached a similar conclusion. "The specific problems" associated with poor coordination and communication, the commissioners wrote, "are symptoms of the government's broader inability to adapt how it managed problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century."

Scowcroft, the only person to have served as National Security Advisor to two different presidents, presented his recommendations to Vice President Dick Cheney in August 2001, and then returned about a month after the 9/11 attacks with a similar message. As Ron Suskind wrote in The One Percent Doctrine: "Knowing what we need to know, when we need to know it, Scowcroft said to Cheney, would mean rethinking the nature of intelligence. The intelligence function was now parceled out among a wide array of agencies, and intelligence services of the military branches." Scowcroft's conclusion: "We need a massive intelligence research library."

That isn't exactly how it played out. For one thing, the competition between the CIA and the Pentagon continued, with the latter winning many of the battles. While the intelligence agencies' budgets ballooned after 9/11, the Department of Defense grew even more. Meanwhile, the creation of a new office—the director of national intelligence—to coordinate among the various intelligence agencies engendered resistance. The post-9/11 reorganization of the various counterterrorism and homeland security agencies remains a work in progress.

Some impediments to information-sharing were there for good reason. Former CIA General Counsel Jeffrey Smith advised just after 9/11 that it would be "premature to conclude" that "rules and regulations, which have been designed to constrain the activities of an intelligence agency in a democracy…need to be thrown out just because of this one terrible intelligence failure."

He noted that Congress was already enacting new laws, and relaxing earlier restrictions to, for example, "make it easier….[to use] wiretaps to collect information," and to make that information "available to the intelligence community for foreign intelligence purposes." Smith thought these changes were appropriate, but he warned that the prior regulations "were put in place for good and valid reasons at the time. They have worked to protect the rights of American citizens, because we are still worried about an overreaching national security and law enforcement apparatus. And we're still worried about protecting American rights under the Fourth Amendment. We can move too quickly; we can move the line too far in the wrong direction, and find that we are abusing the rights of Americans."

Some now question whether the costs of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, writ large, were offset by the benefits. These include the abuses visited upon American Muslims and others. They also include the opportunity costs—how focusing on foreign terrorists, for example, may have prevented us from seeing other threats.

As we assess the counterterrorism measures instituted after 9/11, we should beware of post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning. Immediately after 9/11, Americans expected there to be a wave of similarly spectacular terrorism incidents. Because that didn't occur, some have concluded that those measures must be why. But that isn't necessarily the case: We may have misinterpreted 9/11 as a harbinger, when it was really just an outlier. John Mueller and Mark Stewart have suggested that the enormous effort by the CIA and FBI to find terrorists since 9/11 mostly amounted to "chasing ghosts." Mueller's running database of the known terrorist cases in the United States since 9/11 suggests that there is a fine line between diabolical and delusional; some would-be terrorists don't deserve to be taken seriously.

In short, making it easier for the feds to find a needle in a haystack may mostly reveal lots of unthreatening hay.