The 11 September intelligence post mortem's lessons for Europe

Despite the extensive history of congressional scrutiny of the US intelligence community, from the Church Committee to investigations into Vietnam and the Watergate affair, few such efforts can match the level of interest and exposure afforded to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (commonly known as the 9/11 Commission), or the political debate surrounding its findings. As part of the general chain of events pertaining to reform in the national security sector in the US, the report and related evidence and recommendations bear examination on their own merit and with regard to what Europe can learn from this post mortem.

The 9/11 Commission's conclusions

While the final report (without certain sections deemed sensitive enough to be removed until after the November presidential election) and its appended findings runs to several volumes and hundreds of pages - versions of which can already be found in most American bookshops - it is possible to précis the most important observations and conclusions brought by the joint committee. They are that:

  • The US intelligence community (IC) had before 11 September 2001 a large amount of intelligence as its disposal relating to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda activities but possessed no specific information as to the time, place and nature of the imminent attacks;
  • in the months immediately preceding the attacks there was a marked increase in intelligence to the IC that indicated an imminent attack on the US mainland;
  • from at least 1994, the IC received information that terrorists were planning to use aircraft as weapons. This information, however, did not prompt any assessment from the IC of this form of attack;
  • the IC demonstrated a lack of initiative in coming to grips with developing transnational threats;
  • the National Security Agency (NSA), in particular, intercepted communications by participants in the attack that connected them to terrorist activities;
  • critical fragments of intelligence concerning key figures, such as eventual hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, "lay dormant" within the IC for as long as 18 months before the attacks, according to the 9/11 Commission. Also, the CIA missed repeated opportunities to act on information it already had in its possession regarding al-Mihdar and al-Hamzi;
  • al-Mihdar and al-Hamzi held several meetings with an experienced FBI counter-terrorism informant operating in California. The CIA also failed to forward relevant information on these individuals to the FBI that could have prompted the Bureau to use its informant to target the future hijackers; and
  • in July 2001, an FBI agent in Phoenix electronically informed Washington headquarters of the FBI and its New York field office that Osama bin Laden was co-ordinating efforts to send students to the US for civil aviation-related training. The communication stirred "little or no interest" in either office, the 9/11 Commission says. Likewise, a senior Al-Qaeda operative and a major figure behind the 11 September hijackings, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had already been connected not only to bin Laden but also to plans to use aircraft as weapons and to terrorist activities in the US.

In short, the 9/11 Commission believes that "the Intelligence Community failed to capitalise on both the individual and collective significance of available information that appears relevant to the events of September 11th". The IC thus failed to take steps that "could have greatly enhanced its chances of uncovering and preventing" the plan to attack the US.

More criticism of US national security policy

Many of the 9/11 Commission's more scathing findings have been used to retroactively justify the wide-ranging reforms implemented by the Bush administration to the US national security architecture. In various steps, no less significant in total than the 1947 National Security Act that created the CIA and most of the existing national security infrastructure, the White House has radically regrouped existing agencies and capabilities. First came the creation of the Office of Homeland Security within the White House, followed later by the creation of a new mega-ministry, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania. Bringing together more than 20 existing agencies and competencies, with a staff of well over 100,000 employees and a budget in excess of US$30 billion, the DHS represents a massive undertaking

However, given the hyper-mobile, internationally dispersed, flexible and institutionally horizontal nature of the core threat that is Al-Qaeda, the DHS may not be the most appropriate body to deal with the problem, reflecting a Cold War mentality rather than a modern transnationally focused approach.

Even sharper criticisms have been made in recent weeks. While the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of yet another new cabinet-level position, Director of Intelligence, seven Republican members of Congress have gone further. They proposed, given the sorry state of the existing US intelligence capability and the infighting that affects it, that the CIA itself be disbanded and its various functions be hived off into existing or new structures more applicable to domestic intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence against international espionage. The White House remains tight-lipped in response to the various criticisms, at most floating a possible review of a watered-down version of the Commission's lesser recommendations.

Lessons for Europe

Although reaction from Europe to the 9/11 Commission's recommendations has been muted, at least outside academic circles, there are clear operational and strategic lessons to be learnt. It is clear, based upon the recently published EU Security Strategy document released by the office of EU High Representative for European Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, that at least some European policy makers share elements of the US worldview. Although this may seem surprising given the rancour between Europe and the US over Iraq and other issues, it is worth comparing the EU Security Strategy to the US’s own National Security Strategy, also released recently. The threat perceptions in each strategy are quite similar, especially with regard to weapons of mass destruction, despite the EU document not necessarily being a reflection of the opinion of all EU members' administrations or ministries of defence.

On a more practical level, there is the basic fact that the terrorism of 11 September 2001 was facilitated by the actions of many terrorists based for a time in EU member countries. The German cells surrounding the alleged mastermind, Mohammed Atta, are of particular significance since recent developments have connected members of these cells to the logistical support structures behind the March 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Even so, at a more public and political level, the difference of opinion or of threat perception between the US and Europe is exacerbated by more obvious differences between the two on Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay detainees and other issues. There was an expectation in Washington that a mass casualty attack on a European city would create a renewed spirit of co-operation and sympathy with the US. Madrid proved that this expectation was unfounded. This begs some pertinent questions: does 'Europe' as a collection of independent national governments see itself threatened in a radically new and significant way by Muslim extremism as typified by Al-Qaeda? If it does, are Europe's existing national security tools capable of preventing further Madrids?

If the answer to the latter question is 'no' or a half-hearted 'yes', then it is worth Europe considering its own version of the 9/11 Commission: a wide-ranging review of security and intelligence capabilities that goes beyond the politically charged question of why Iraq was invaded. To wait for another 'smoking gun' after Madrid, to be in the hands of Osama bin Laden or another terrorist, is defensive, reactive and neither a mature nor a responsible policy stance.

Sebestyen Gorka is Executive Director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security located in Budapest, Hungary

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