What elements of the intelligence cycle failed in the period leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?
The terrorist attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001, constituted a series of failures at every component of the intelligence cycle, especially if one factors in both domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, and especially if one factors in, as one should, the initial stage of that cycle: clear direction provided by the National Command Authority, also known as the Office of the President.
The planning and execution of the terrorist attacks by members of al Qaeda was initiated in 1996. From that date on, numerous opportunities to detect the planning of the operation were missed. As important was the failure of the Administration of President George W. Bush to focus on the threat from al Qaeda during its first seven months in office. As former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke has written, getting senior members of the new administration to focus and act on intelligence regarding al Qaeda was extremely difficult:
“My message was stark: al Qaeda is at war with us, it is a highly capable organization, probably with sleeper cells in the U.S., and it is clearly planning a major series of attacks against us…Cheney had heard me loud and clear about al Qaeda…I hoped he would speak up about the urgency of the problem…He didn’t.”
Right from the start, the new administration was excessively focused on the wrong threats – mainly Iraq -- to U.S. security – the failure of the first stage of the intelligence cycle. Absent direction from the decision-makers, the intelligence community lacked guidance. The next phase of the cycle, the collection of intelligence on the designated target, failed by virtue of the intelligence community’s failure to devote sufficient resources to the threat from al Qaeda despite a series of devastating attacks on U.S. targets (e.g., 1993 World Trade Center; 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen), and the CIA’s inadequate attention to human intelligence sources. The third stage of the cycle, processing of intelligence, failed insofar as the intelligence agencies did not adequately focus on information it was successful in collecting, for example, on known al Qaeda operatives meeting to discuss operations. In addition, FBI memos regarding suspicious activities on the part of potential suspects in the United States were ignored because the FBI as an organization was not focused on al Qaeda.
The fourth stage, analysis and production, similarly broke down due in part to the shortage of trained counterterrorism analysts devoted to the threat from al Qaeda and to the failure of analysts to “connect the dots” between the various pieces of intelligence that had been collected and processed.
The final stage of the intelligence cycle, dissemination of the finished analytical product to the decision-makers, cannot necessarily be said to have failed, inasmuch as the previous stages had already failed and so the picture of the looming conspiracy was not presented in coherent form to the White House. Having said that, and as noted in the quote from Richard Clarke, sufficient notice was provided to key officials in the White House in the final months leading up to the attacks about the general but serious threat from al Qaeda, but was not given adequate attention, thereby constituting a failure on the part of the decision-makers to address the issue.