Intelligence reforms were performed in 2004 because of the massive failure of the intelligence community of 17 agencies to prevent the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 incident was like no other attack that the USA experienced before. Firstly, the attack was not only devastating but was also executed by a small group of people. If the incident is evaluated on a government scale, the resources used behind the attack were minimal. The group responsible for conducting the attack was based in one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet, the US government was unable to stop the attack because of the massive failure of the US intelligence community that could not adequately process and utilize the information to orchestrate well-coordinated preventive measures against al Qaeda and Bin Laden. The agencies of the US intelligence community did not have any coordination among them in terms of sharing information. Some crucial data regarding the growing threat of al Qaeda was available to several CIA officials, but the agency’s leaders did not act on that information, resulting in the success of the terror attack against the USA on 9/11. This paper will analyze the terrorism reforms introduced post 9/11; the implementation of those reforms; the remaining gaps in implementing those reforms; and how further reforms are necessary for the current intelligence landscape.
The problem with the 9/11 incident was that the US government did not take al Qaeda seriously. Even though before the 9/11 attack, fewer than 50 Americans were killed by al Qaeda and its affiliates in the Cole attack and the East Africa embassy bombings, the US government did not take the imminent threat from al Qaeda group with the seriousness that it would put a great deal of effort to confront an enemy of the first, second or even third category. The incident of the US Embassy experiencing bombings in August 1998 provided the US government with an opportunity to thoroughly examine the national security threat posed by Bin Laden and al Qaeda (UNT, n.d.). Extensive examination of the national security threat would have made it apparent that the menace projected by the al Qaeda group under the leadership of Bin Laden was more significant than what was perceived by the US government agencies. But the latter ones did not take the threat of the al Qaeda group with much seriousness. Therefore, the diplomatic efforts undertaken by the Department of State were largely inefficient. Al Qaeda and terrorism were just another agenda element for the US government agencies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. However, after the 9/11 incident, policymakers sought help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and covert action to execute policy.
President Harry Truman established the position of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), which is the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in 1946. DCI is responsible for advising the president and National Security Council on matters related to foreign intelligence. Undoubtedly, the DCI and the CIA played an important role in counterterrorism endeavors (FAS, 2005). Before the 9/11 attack, only the CIA was responsible for fighting al Qaeda, but the agency had its limits. The CIA could not perform paramilitary operations using only its personnel and never sought a large-scale expansion of its capabilities. For that, the blame goes to the then DCI of the CIA (UNT, n.d.). Post 9/11, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the CIA stated in its review that since neither the US government nor the intelligence community showed any comprehensive plan for fighting al Qaeda, the DCI also showed unwillingness to utilize the full range of intelligence community resources required to combat the growing threat to the USA (FAS, 2005).
Before the 9/11 attacks, the USA tried to address the problem of the al Qaeda threat using the same government capabilities and institutions it had used during the last stages of the Cold War and in the wake of its immediate aftermath. Even though these capabilities were not sufficient, little to none was done to reform these measures. Even though the formation of the al Qaeda group took place in 1988 after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended, the US intelligence community did not document the presence of this organization until 1999. A National Intelligence Estimate conducted in July 1995 predicted future terrorist attacks against the USA, and the greatest danger stemmed from small groups of individuals without strong organizations operating outside traditional circles. New information was received by the intelligence community between 1996 and 1997 and made clear that Bin Laden led his terrorist group with his agenda for operations (UNT, n.d.). This new information also revealed what was unknown before: that Bin Laden was involved in the 1992 attack on a Yemeni hotel that targeted US military personnel; the downing of the US Army Black Hawk helicopters in 1993 in Somalia, and also Riyadh bombings of the American training mission to the National Guard of Saudi Arabia in 1995. The 1997 update of the National Intelligence Estimate mentioned Bin Laden only in two references in a six-page long report, but It did not mention the al Qaeda group at all. Moreover, it was the last update of the National Intelligence Estimate of the terrorism danger before 9/11. Between 1998 and 2001, a few well-described analytical papers touched upon the political philosophy of Bin Laden, the operational style of al Qaeda, and the emergence of the Islamist extremist movement and analyzed information related to terrorists captured in Jordan in 1999 (UNT, n.d.). Despite the publication of such reports, the US intelligence community did not provide any authoritative description of the al Qaeda group’s relationship with other governments and the assessment of the threat al Qaeda posed to the USA.
In its post 9/11 review, the OIG team found that the DCI received regular updates starting from 1999 on endeavors to monitor and disrupt Bin Laden and al Qaeda group and that the DCI was personally responsible for informing about the threat to different stakeholders within the policy community, including the Congress, public, other intelligence agencies, and the military. The DCI, however, never made any comprehensive plan to execute a counterterrorism endeavor at the intelligence community level (FAS, 2005). It was also revealed by the OIG team that the CIA officers worked relentlessly against the al Qaeda group and Bin Laden, but there were loopholes on the operational level as critical processes were not implemented properly.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Defense was not granted the mission of eliminating the sanctuary of al Qaeda in Afghanistan (UNT, n.d.). Both the Bush and Clinton administrations considered the full-scale US invasion of Afghanistan unimaginable. The invasion of Afghanistan was out of the scope of deliberation for intel agencies. There were differences in opinion among government officials regarding the extent of threat the al Qaeda group posed to the USA. Many officials, such as the head of analysis at the Counterterrorist Center (CTC), downplayed the significance of al Qaeda group threats. Others considered Bin Laden an emerging unprecedented threat to the USA, but they had to prove their point to win large-scale support (UNT, n.d.). As a result of the combined failure of the government agencies to consider Bin Laden and the al Qaeda group as a serious threat, no action was taken to prevent the attack of enormous proportions like that of 9/11.
The 9/11 attacks highlighted the failure of coordination and integration among different federal agencies of the intelligence community as the sharing information process was not organized properly. Therefore, in subsequent laws and reforms implemented post 9/11, the process of information sharing received primary attention.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) aimed to improve information sharing, promote our unified and strategic direction, and ensure integration across the nation’s intelligence community. It brought organizational changes to the intelligence community and established the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI). DNI serves as the chief intelligence advisor to the US President and the head of the intelligence community, making sure that the 17 agencies of the intelligence community work in coordination (DNI, n.d.). The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was also established by IRTPA. NCTC serves as a multiagency center responsible for integrating and analyzing all types of intelligence related to terrorism threats to the USA domestically and internationally. The National Counterproliferation Center (NCPC) was also established by IRTPA for coordinating the strategic planning of intelligence support to supervise and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated technologies worldwide. These organizational and institutional reforms bolstered the process of information sharing among multiple agencies and stakeholders. Section 1016 of IRTPA enacted some fundamental principles that facilitated creating the Information Sharing Environment (ISE). IRTPA requires the ISE to be in a decentralized and coordinated environment that connects existing systems and facilitates information sharing across all levels of national security, incorporating protections of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties. Additionally, IRTPA mandated the appointment of a Program Manager responsible for managing the ISE, supervising its implementation, helping develop ISE standards, as well as evaluating and monitoring the implementation of these standards by federal agencies and departments (DNI, n.d.). IRTPA also mandated establishing an Information Sharing Council to provide advisors to the program manager and the President on the development of ISE procedures, policies, standards, and guidelines to ensure proper collaboration and coordination among different federal agencies and departments involved with the ISE.
Since the intelligence community did not coordinate and link intelligence collection requirements to the priorities of broader national security, in compliance with section 1016 of the IRTPA, the Bush administration in 2005 issued a memorandum, which included two requirements and five guidelines to prioritize certain endeavors considered to be most critical for the development of the ISE and resolving some more complex issues involved in the process of information sharing. The guidelines stated that the War on Terror should be a national effort involving local, state, and tribal governments, as well as the private sector as full partners in the information sharing environment (DNI, n.d.). The guidelines also stated to enhance the process of sensitive but unclassified information sharing and the requirement to facilitate and support the exchange of information regarding terrorism with foreign allies and partners.
In practice, considerable progress was made by the Office of DNI (ODNI) in terms of breaking down the barriers standing in the way of information sharing across the intelligence community. An assessment of ODNI after five years of establishment showed that it helped the intelligence community successfully combine foreign and domestic intelligence to disrupt many significant threats to the USA and provided important information on international threats to the general public. The information sharing with local and state fusion centers also improved because of the increased coordination with the Department of Homeland security due to updating the process of granting security clearances (Best, 2010). The 2013 assessment of ISE showed that one of the positive accomplishments of IRTPA has been the creation of the Suspicious Activity Reporting Program. It allowed state, federal, and local jurisdictions to perform information-sharing regarding suspicious activity faster.
Even though IRTPA brought positive changes to the operation of the intelligence community by improving the coordination between different agencies, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 summary also faced some opposing views. Many believe that the position of DNI is fundamentally flawed. The US President Intelligence Advisory Board reportedly recommended downsizing ODNI by transferring specific functions performed by ODNI to other agencies. Specific functions recommended for transferring included the role of the Program Manager for ISE, the office responsible for the National Intelligence University management, the office running a classified government-wide Internet site, and the Center for protecting the methods and sources (Best, 2010). The National Intelligence Coordination Center (NICC), established as part of the ODNI, has been criticized as a simple staff element that remained dependent on the voluntary participation of large data collection agencies. The interagency training program to facilitate an intelligence community culture has shown limited outcomes (Best, 2010).
As the cybersecurity threats have increased today, ISE plays an essential role in thwarting cybersecurity threats by directly collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and critical infrastructure companies to implement technical and governance standards so that sensitive information related to cybersecurity threats can be securely shared (Spires, 2014). Even the improvements have been made in information sharing compared to pre-9/11, some gaps still exist. Some of these gaps are cultural, but some could be resolved to properly utilize advanced technologies. Specifically, programs relying on access management and Federated Identity should receive support so that these programs could seamlessly share information. Enhanced information sharing also requires the adoption of new technologies and the upgrades to existing technologies and the elimination of the older systems (Spires, 2014).
Today’s intelligence landscape is quite different from that of 2001. Terrorists are not the only concern for the USA. There are other concerns associated with the escalating conflict between the USA and Russia, the USA and China, nuclear threats from North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and India, and the ongoing instability in the Middle East region among others. On top of it, because of the advancements in technology, state-organized cybersecurity threats have grown bigger. Therefore, the old reforms introduced with the implementation of IRTPA are not sufficient to deal with the existing problems. The failure of the intelligence community to figure out Russian involvement in the 2016 American presidential election showed that the intelligence community is not fool-proof yet (Zegart, 2019). Before the 2016presidential election, the USA intelligence community did not have any clue what was happening in the background of the election process. After the election, revelations regarding Russia’s participation in holding a social media campaign to create a divide among Americans and give one presidential candidate an edge over the other points out the failure of the US intelligence community. The advancements made in artificial intelligence technology are also being misused to create fake videos, photographs, and audio. These fakes look so realistic that they can be misused to build a more significant threat to US interests. A cyberheist involving a deepfake audio has been reported by the Wall Street Journal recently. In this incident, the fake audio impersonated the voice of a senior executive; as a result, the junior executive of the British-based energy firm felt that he was talking to his boss, leading to a transfer of $243,000 to the fraudulent caller (Zegart, 2019). Such deepfake videos and audios can be created to falsify the invasion and instigate one nation against another.
In recognition of the change due to the advancement in technology, Congress has already initiated some early reforms, such as the creation of a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence to implement the means and methods required to facilitate the development of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and relevant technologies to address the USA defense needs and national security issues comprehensively. Also, a new directorate has been established for digital innovation in the CIA, new artificial intelligence initiatives have been undertaken for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and new cloud computing initiatives have been implemented in the National Security Agency (Zegart, 2019).
But these endeavors are not sufficient to deal with modern cybersecurity threats. Earlier, the side that efficiently collected better technical platforms or better secrets and employed better analysts outsmarting the analysts of the other side performed better in intelligence collection. However, nowadays, anyone can collect information openly, and advanced platforms and codes can be accessed by anyone online for free or for a nominal price. Algorithms that process vast amounts of information can be employed for various data gathering purposes (Zegart, 2019). Therefore, the intelligence collection environment will become more complex. Hence, the US intelligence community should deploy strategic efforts to US intelligence agencies sustain their advantage without compromising the civil liberties and privacy rights of Americans in this massively different technological landscape.
The 9/11 attacks against the USA highlighted the failure of the US intelligence community in preventing a well-organized terrorist attack. Even though the intelligence community had substantial information available regularly, the intelligence community did not act on that information and could not orchestrate a coordinated attack against the target terror groups. Had the US government and US intelligence agencies performed a full-scale national security threat analysis, they could have found many loopholes in the then US intelligence landscape. Yet, it was the US government’s and the intelligence community’s failure to rely on the means and methods employed during the Cold War without fully realizing the changing scenes in international terrorism and the need for reforms in how intelligence was handled within the US. The implementation of IRTPA brought a lot of operational reforms and organizational changes within the intelligence community, and as per the periodical assessment of the IRTPA, it has become evident that some signs of progress have been made in the way the intelligence community coordinated information sharing among different government agencies. However, it has been more than a decade since the last reforms were introduced. The existing landscape of national security threats differs from that of the 2000s. The advancement of artificial intelligence and computer technologies made the intelligence collection environment more complex. Therefore, it will not be possible to deal with modern challenges using previous intelligence community reforms. Current challenges require up-to-date strategic initiatives on the part of the intelligence community to deal with the growing state-organized cybersecurity threats and counterterrorism operations.
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