Sunday, July 27, 2003

Old problems, new warnings

9-11 report: Intelligence review

The special Congressional report on intelligence failures connected to the 9-11 attacks forcefully drives home two points: Better communication between our intelligence services might have thwarted the attacks; and there are still thousands of terrorists out there plotting new attacks.

The CIA estimated as many as 20,000 people were trained in Afghanistan under the auspices of Osama bin Laden, according to the report. Those forces have been scattered in countries around the world. Bin Laden and al-Qaida developed an extensive network in the United States that is believed to have aided the 19 hijackers who staged the 9-11 attacks. The report indicates that at least some parts of that network may still exist.

"The big threat people now must focus on is these (hijackers) were not loners," said Eleanor Hill, staff director for the joint House-Senate intelligence committee that produced the 900-page report. "These people were coming in with a support network already and the serious question we all need to look at and what the intelligence community needs to focus on aggressively is, 'Is that network still intact and is it still operational?' " Hill said in an interview Thursday after the report was released.

More than 3,000 members of al-Qaida have been killed or captured around the world since 9-11. Many of the organization's top leaders have been eliminated and millions of dollars in its assets have been seized. But the report notes that some key players have been kept out of the reach of U.S. interrogators. One is Omar al-Bayoumi, who the report said paid many of the expenses of two hijackers and "had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia." He remains in Saudi custody. Demands from several American lawmakers that President Bush push the Saudis to turn al-Bayoumi over to the U.S. for questioning seem reasonable.

As chilling as the findings about the terrorists were conclusions in the report that the attacks might have been prevented if various U.S. intelligence agencies had done a better job of sharing and acting on information they had.

The report recommends a further review to determine if anyone should be held accountable for those failures. It also recommends creating a cabinet level "intelligence czar," to preside over all of the intelligence agencies.

If it can be determined that someone's incompetence is directly responsible for letting 9-11 happen, that person should certainly be held to account, but we should not allow our quest for improved security to degenerate into scapegoating.

As for an "intelligence czar," such a position will be useful only if it can be guaranteed that all of the subordinate agencies will share all their information with him.

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