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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2001 / 7 Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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Cloak without dagger -- NEARLY everyone agrees that the hijacking of four airliners, and their lethal use in last week's terrorist attack on the United States, was an intelligence failure, in one journalist's words, "of massive proportions."

To many, the attack represents yet another example of the inability of intelligence agencies to spend their resources wisely. The federal intelligence budget (spread out among several agencies) is thought to be approximately $30 billion a year and, according to critics, is largely wasted on programs and activities that should have been discarded along with the Cold War.

For some years, before his retirement, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, crusaded for the dismemberment of the Central Intelligence Agency on the basis that an institution that had been established in response to Soviet communism ought to have been abolished when Soviet communism ceased to exist. We spend all this money on the CIA, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and others, and what do we get in return? The most devastating attack on the United States in modern times, with no advance warning.

In that sense, of course, the critics are right. For all our knowledge of Osama bin Laden, and official concern about the threat of terrorism, no one seems to have picked up the relevant signals -- including, some would argue, an explicit warning a few weeks ago -- that something was going to happen. What is the point, after all, of possessing technology that enables us to read license plates in downtown Baghdad from orbiting satellites, or intercept phone calls in the steppes of Central Asia, if we cannot get wind of a massive conspiracy, carried out on U.S. soil?

It's a fair question; but the customary answer, assessing blame, may well be missing the mark. Rep. Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, speaking on the day of the bombings, made the same point about a failure of intelligence. But, he added, "this was a failure that was caused by a lack of resources and by a complacency that set in in America over the past 10 years, a complacency that convinced all of us that the with the demise of the Soviet Union there were no more threats."

In fact, the complacency did not set in over the past decade, but over the past quarter-century. The fall of the Soviet Union only accelerated the process. If you want to identify the point at which the effectiveness of intelligence agencies, and specifically the CIA, began to deteriorate, you should look to the summer of 1975, and the Senate hearings conducted by Sen. Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho.

In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, when executive power was in retreat, Congress effectively turned the national security apparatus upside-down. The powers of the president to conduct foreign policy and wage war were appreciably restricted; the defense budget began a swift decline that was arrested only by the advent of the Reagan administration; above all, Congress trained its sights on the CIA.

Senator Church, and his House counterpart, Rep. Otis Pike, Democrat of New York, not only conducted a series of well-publicized hearings to discredit the clandestine activities of U.S. security agencies, they stigmatized the very business of gathering intelligence. Senator Church described the CIA as a "rogue elephant," and delighted in revealing details of secret operations.

The practical effect was devastating, and is still being felt. Congress demanded, and got, extensive oversight powers, and bullied President Gerald Ford not only into signing an executive order banning the assassination of overseas terrorists, but gutting the CIA's directorate of operations. The crippling process begun by Congress was continued by President Jimmy Carter and his CIA director, Stansfield Turner, in the late 1970s.

Their unlimited faith in electronic technology, at the expense of agents and human intelligence, remains official policy. Now, however, we see the cost of such short-sightedness. A superpower can invent all sorts of remarkable gadgets to monitor the world. But there is no substitute for agents "on the ground" who can pick up information, insinuate themselves, grasp meanings, translate messages and recognize symptoms beyond the purview of machines.

Spying is a difficult, and morally ambiguous, activity. But nations subsist in a dangerous world, and after Sept. 11, does anyone need reminding that the United States still has enemies? The failure of intelligence was, indeed, massive and may not have been preventable. But the answer is not to castigate the Central Intelligence Agency, or pass the buck around for blame. It is to recognize that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified the demise of only one, among many, dangers to our country.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal