November 5, 2001

Fixing the blame


WASHINGTON - We are now beginning to seek answers to the questions that historically arise in the aftermath of national trauma. The clear objective is to fix the blame for what occurred, but not just on those who carried out the atrocity - we all agree who that was. The objective is also to blame the institution that failed to see the atrocity coming.

There seems to be enough blame to go around, for, after all, no one stopped the events of Sept. 11. But the one organization that appears the most convenient target is the CIA. From its inception 54 years ago, the CIA has been dodging the bullets of outraged politicians who would hold it accountable for nearly every foreign policy failure that stemmed from poor intelligence.

In fact, the CIA almost died at birth in 1947 when Congress, fearing that its creation would result in an unwarranted intrusion on Americans, was ready to pitch Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan's brain child and him with it onto the scrap heap. It was saved only by a compromise that included in its charter a prohibition against domestic operations of any kind. Donovan became the first victim of political trashing when he was denied the directorship of the new agency by Harry Truman.

Part and parcel of establishing blame for this latest example of a massive intelligence collapse is how much it cost to overlook abundant signs of impending doom. The amount most cited is $30 billion a year allocated to all agencies for gathering critical information to protect us from just such a disaster. That's a sizable sum and it is only natural that the main spender of this money, the CIA, would be at the top of the list of culprits.

Is that fair? Certainly not. It wasn't fair for the commanders of both the Army and Navy installations in Hawaii to be tried for Pearl Harbor, but that's exactly what happened. As in Pearl Harbor, the entire system is at fault.

Congress itself, for instance, must bear a large share of the blame. Then-Sen. Frank Church's investigation of the CIA in the 1970s did as much to harm our capabilities as any other single thing. It was a debilitating extravaganza of guilt aimed at absolving Congress of any responsibility for some of the nastier aspects of spying that it had been regularly financing without question at considerable cost.

In the current case, the FBI also is as responsible as the CIA, if not more so, given its quite obvious lapses in the processing of information, some of it supplied by the CIA, that should have sounded alarms. The bureau failed to keep track of several of the culprits and to follow up on reports about pilot training that might have provided a clue that something was amiss.

There is a substantial amount of irony in the fact that the FBI has spent millions on its own in the last five years to create an antiterrorism capability that fell flat on its face in this instance. Why this is so is still unclear. One credible explanation might be that the bureau's main mission always has been law enforcement and that its understanding of the nuances of intelligence-gathering left a great deal to be desired. Its seeming thrust since Sept. 11 has been to investigate the past act, not to prevent a second.

But the FBI, despite the wholesale tarnishing of its reputation over the last 10 years, isn't entirely at fault, either. Besides, it still has powerful friends in Congress who can most likely protect it when the legislative branch begins a wholesale spectacular on blame-fixing, which it inevitably will, probably with all the bells and whistles of national television.

In the meantime, it is necessary to remedy the shortcomings of the fractured U.S. intelligence apparatus and give Americans the protection their money deserves. This undoubtedly will require some painful structural revamping if we are to have an effective deterrent to future terrorism. Some of the restrictions that have handcuffed the CIA overseas have been removed and there is more coordination between rival agencies. Sharing information, establishing joint task forces, and most importantly setting aside turf considerations is essential.

The hodgepodge of often-conflicting missions and responsibilities in the system that existed before Sept. 11 probably is the real reason we had no advance warning. The blame then is in the overall approach subscribed to by "experts" who saw little beyond their own agency borders and, like the rest of us, really didn't believe this could happen.

Copyright 2001 Scripps Howard News Service