THE ROLE OF INTELLIGENCE IN THE WAR ON TERRORISM:
U.S. COUNTERTERRORIST EFFORTS BEFORE 9-11
By George J. Tenet
What I will offer today is a personal perspective.
Nothing I have worked on is more important or more personal than the war on terrorism. I am a New Yorker. And, like many others in our country, I had friends who were killed in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. The fight against this enemy has shaped my years as Director of Central Intelligence. September 11, 2001, was -- and is -- a tragedy that we will all carry with us for the rest of our lives.
The intelligence community, which I am privileged to lead and represent, has also lost officers in this war. Those who now fight this battle through long days and nights are devoted to a single mission: trying to ensure that the terrorists who committed these atrocities will never live in peace.
I have worked for two different administrations, two different political parties. Both sets of policy-makers care deeply about the challenge of terrorism. The first group, the Clinton administration, lived through the terrorist phenomenon and wrestled with difficult issues thoughtfully and diligently. The second group, the Bush administration, was working hard before September 11 to devise a comprehensive framework to deal with Al-Qa'ida -- a framework based on the best knowledge that we in the intelligence community could provide, and, during this time, the intelligence community did not stand still.
I, as the Director of Central Intelligence, must tell you clearly that there was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced.
The recent years of this war on terrorism are well publicized, but the early years are not. For us, the conflict started long ago, after we witnessed the emergence of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida in the early 19'90s.
Osama bin Laden was only starting to expand his reach when we saw him as an emerging threat during his time in Sudan. In 1996, he moved to Afghanistan. We characterized him as one of the most active financial sponsors of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
During his years in Sudan, bin Laden was not yet the center for terrorist operational planning that he became in Afghanistan. But we were concerned about him enough that, in January of 1996, we created a dedicated component of the Counterterrorism Center, the bin Laden issue station, which was staffed by officers from multiple agencies with the mission of disrupting bin Laden's operations. We also issued the earliest of what turned out to be a long series of warnings about bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida, and I believe those warnings were heeded.
This terrorism problem changed fundamentally after bin laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996. Afghanistan had become a haven for terrorists -- a place where terrorists could disseminate their ideology and plot, fund, and train for attacks around the world.
In 1998, bin Laden issued a fatwa telling all Muslims it was their duty to kill Americans and their allies, civilian and military, wherever they may be.
We recognized, through our collection, analysis, and disruption efforts of the 1990s, that we had to change to meet this evolving threat. We had captured and rendered terrorists for years, but we knew we needed to go further to penetrate the sanctuary bin Laden found in Afghanistan. We knew that, because our technical coverage was slipping, Al-Qa'ida's operational security was high. We were taking terrorists off the street, but the threat level persisted.
And finally, we had to operate against a target that was buried deep in territory controlled by the Taliban, an area where we needed to expand our on-the-ground presence. Stand-off operations required predictive intelligence: knowing precisely where a target would be many hours in advance. That we did not have. We needed close-in access to understand the target and maximize our chances for success.
And, while we were collecting, we continued to build a coalition of friendly intelligence, security, military services around the world that would expand our regional access.
So we did change. We developed a new baseline strategy in 1999. Simply, we called it "The Plan." We worked on "The Plan" through the Summer. We told our customers and counterparts in Washington all about it.
Under this plan, we developed a broad array of both human and technical sources. Our efforts were designed to disrupt the terrorists and their plots, collect information, recruit terrorist spies, all to support new operational initiatives.
To penetrate bin Laden's sanctuary, we also worked with Central Asian intelligence services, and with the Northern Alliance and its leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, on everything from technical collection to building an intelligence capability, to potential renditions.
And we developed a network of agents inside Afghanistan who were directed to track bin Laden. We worked with friendly tribal partners for years to undertake operations against him.
Our human intelligence rose markedly from 1999 through 2001. By September 11, 2001, a map of Afghanistan would show that these collection programs, human networks, were in place in numbers to nearly cover the country.
The array meant that, when the military campaign to topple and destroy the Taliban began in October of 2001, we were able to support it with an enormous body of information and a large stable of assets. These networks gave us the platform from which to launch the rapid take-down of the Taliban.
The worldwide coalition we built allowed us to respond during periods of high threat. The millennium period was the first of a series of major coordinated operations among a coalition of countries. I told the President to expect between five and 15 attacks against the United States.
We disrupted terrorist attacks that saved lives. They were actions in 50 countries, involving dozens of suspects, many of whom were followed, arrested, or detained.
During the same time period, we conducted multiple arrests in Near East Asia, leading to the arrest or detention of 45 members of the Hezbollah network in a totally separate operation.
During the Ramadan period in the Fall of 2000, we helped break up cells planning attacks against civilian targets in or near the Persian Gulf.
These operations netted anti-aircraft missiles and hundreds of pounds of explosives and brought a bin Laden facilitator to justice. During this time, we began to fly the Predator in the reconnaissance.
Finally, during the Summer of 2001, reacting to a rash of intelligence reports, I personally contacted a dozen of my foreign counterparts. This intense period, and thanks to our partner's work, led to arrests and detentions in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Turkey. It led to disruptions in two dozen countries. We helped halt, disrupt, or uncover weapons caches and plans to attack U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and Europe.
In a few minutes, I've described what thousands of people did over the course of years in this country and overseas. But despite these efforts, we still did not penetrate the plot that led to the murder of 3,000 men and women on that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
Since September 11, we've worked hard, not only to enhance intelligence, but also to improve the integration of the counterrorist efforts of the U.S. government. We've strengthened our ties to law enforcement, from having officers work jointly in the field in this country to breaking down walls that impeded cooperation, improvements made possible by enactment of the USA Patriot Act of 2001. We have a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center. We have made a much more comprehensive and integrated effort to fill critical gaps we had in our process of watch-listing potential terrorists. We now have a Department of Homeland Security.
All of this is to make a final key point: As a country, you must be relentless on offense, but you must have a defense that links visa measures, border security, infrastructure protection, and domestic warnings in a way that increases security, closes gaps, and serves a society that demands high level of both safety and freedom.
Collectively, we did not close those gaps rapidly or fully enough before September 11. We have learned and are doing better in an integrated environment that allows us to respond faster and more comprehensively than three years ago. And much more work needs to be done.
The war ahead is going to be complicated and long. We need an intelligence community, we need a Homeland Security Department, and we need stamina to continue in this fight, since it's going to go on for many years.
The Middle East & the Arabs
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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War & Peace in the Real World
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
George J. Tenet is U.S. Director of Central Intelligence and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Director Tennet presented
the foregoing statement, on March 24, 2004, as testimony at the hearings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon
the United States (9-11 Commission.
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