By far the most significant intelligence error of the Bush Administration has been the decision, contrary to established American policy and common sense, to treat terrorism not as a crime, to be solved by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but as an existential military threat, to be confronted with tanks and Marines. This was not an abstract choice. The administration has worked for years to embed Bush’s worldview in the highest levels of the American intelligence system.
Bush made his philosophy explicit in 2004. “I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all,” he said. “They view terrorism more as a crime, a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted and tried and convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got.”
This presidential antipathy to intelligence is new. As Bush noted, after the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the FBI and the intelligence agencies did in fact work together to bring the perpetrators to justice. In November 1997, Ramzi Yousef was convicted of conspiracy in planning the attack. Meanwhile, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman—who many believe was behind the attack—had already been sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in plots to destroy the United Nations and the George Washington Bridge, among other Manhattan landmarks. Nine others were convicted as well, and all of them were locked away in small, windowless cells. Similarly, following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the FBI painstakingly pieced together the method of attack and escape and convicted the perpetrators, who were either imprisoned for life or executed. And when American embassies were blown up in East Africa, again the FBI and the intelligence agencies managed to arrest suspects, prosecute them in federal court, and put them in prison.
The most senior person involved in the attacks on 9/11, organizer and operational chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, wasn’t captured by the Army or the Marines but as a result of good intelligence work by the CIA and the National Security Agency, which helped pinpoint his location through cell phone calls in Pakistan. Had the Bush Administration stayed on this path, it is likely that Osama bin Laden and the others involved in planning the 9/11 attacks would also be sitting in a supermax prison and attracting little attention instead of sending out regular propaganda video- and audiotapes to attract recruits.
Instead, the world is at far greater risk, from bin Laden and from many others. An April 2006 report from the administration’s own director of national intelligence found that “the Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists” and was “shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.” Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, reported in Mother Jones that the war had “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.” They called this increase the “Iraq effect.” Meanwhile, the administration is no closer to capturing its three most wanted men—bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar—than when the wars began.
Undoing the war in Iraq is impossible, of course, but the next president, with the help of Congress, can undo the bureaucratic choices that sprang from Bush’s aversion to intelligence. They can start by abolishing the position of director of national intelligence, which was created by Congress in 2004 and has become little more than a redundant layer of bureaucracy. Originally set up to take some load off of the CIA director, it is instead bogging down the entire system. The position was first held by John Negroponte, who immediately prior to that was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and who this February made an unusual lateral shift to the State Department; he was replaced by Mike McConnell, a former Navy vice admiral and NSA director. The head of the CIA should once again be made the director of central intelligence and given overall responsibility for America’s spy operations.
The next president, again with the help of Congress, should also abolish the position of undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Congress created that job in 2002, and it was held by Stephen Cambone, a protégé of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, until this year. In essence, Cambone acted as Rumsfeld’s intelligence czar. The Pentagon has always controlled the vast majority of the intelligence budget—the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and others—but giving the defense secretary his own czar has allowed him to essentially bypass the increasingly powerless CIA. “The CIA doesn’t have the number of assets to be doing what the secretary of Defense wants done,” one Pentagon official explained to the Los Angeles Times. And what did the secretary want done? Several officials told the Times that the purpose of the new approach was to produce “actionable intelligence,” which the paper described as “a Pentagon buzzword for information leading to military operations.”
Rumsfeld has accomplished this particular mission, of course. The United States is undertaking military operations aplenty, and the first step to avoiding future such operations will be shifting the center of gravity away from the Pentagon and back to the CIA. This would by no means eliminate all of the problems that have plagued the intelligence community over the course of the Bush Administration. But the country would at least face fewer wars, its intelligence would be more independent and less biased toward the military, and the CIA chief would again reign over the community, eliminating a thick Defense Department layer of bureaucracy.