Reviewed in the United States on July 1, 2012
An in-depth study of the 9/11 tragedy and the state of affairs within the nation's various security apparatuses leading up to it. The recommendations of this commission, while seeking to absolve any of the political leadership, still have managed to provide at least a beginning to workable solutions to our various problems regarding the prevention of terrorism. As the commission states, no defense can be perfect, but it should be cooperative, layered, focused, and able to respond both before and after attacks by Islamist fundamentalists are perpetrated against the American people.
The writing style takes the form of a narrative throughout the majority of the book, making it surprisingly easy to follow. Recommended if you want to understand the terrorist threat and the inter-agency developments that have followed 9/11.
What did the commission get right about interagency operations?
The most obvious answer to this question is that the commission report exposed shortcomings within the IC which were already common knowledge, but that had not been acted upon due to a self-serving environment which provided little incentive to engage in activities carrying inherent political risk. There were a host of assumptions in play during the decade prior to 9/11, but the IC had chosen to focus on the wrong things, the old threats, while largely ignoring the developing threats like Al Qaeda that defied convention. It was not only the IC, however, which suffered from these conditions. Every aspect of US bureaucratic infrastructure seems to have been stricken with this short-sighted malaise.
Early on, the commission points out that protocols in place just prior to 9/11 for interagency collaboration between FAA and NORAD for hijacking events were "unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen" (9/11 Commission, 17). This was due to popular presumptions that hijackings would continue to assume their traditional form and would not become suicide missions. A similar presumption, that terrorism would remain a foreign threat best suited to the domain of the CIA, was correctly identified as having prevented the FBI from responding to the several Al-Qaeda miscues in hijacker travel to the United States and their activities within US borders. The Wall of regulation between the intelligence and domestic agencies was erected on the common belief that securing sensitive information from prying eyes was far more beneficial than widely sharing it within the appropriate communities. This attitude only served to maintain an overly cautious attitude of interagency turf warfare, "blocked the arteries of information sharing", and did little to augment collective anti-terrorism capabilities beyond that of each particular organization (9/11 Commission, 79).
The 9/11 Commission also correctly recognized the problem of stove-piping in intelligence organizations and the inadequacy of the DCI to oversee all of the functions and budgeting of the IC, while still maintaining the objectivity needed to excel in the role of the lead national intelligence analyst. As a whole, "the agencies and the rules surrounding the intelligence community have accumulated to a depth that practically defies public comprehension" (9/11 Commission, 410). The commission rightly called for an overarching intelligence framework, the Director of National Intelligence, which sought to operate free of the systemic failures of the DCI arrangement and exert the control necessary to direct the IC on an aggregate level.
Most critical of all, the commission firmly grasped the underlying cause of the US's inability to act in a collectively forceful manner in the years leading up to 9/11. It is not additional resources or personnel which are needed to defeat the current terrorist threats. Rather, "the government should combine them more effectively, achieving unity of effort" (9/11 Commission, 399). Unity of effort has both structural and spiritual components. In terms of information sharing, these two sides must complement each other. Need-to-know can no longer be anticipated, and the commission calls for a "culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to the information--to repay the taxpayers' investment by making that information available" (9/11 Commission, 417). The same sense of duty and cultural grit that propelled America through WWII has the potential to be reborn in a successful interagency fight against Islamist terrorism.
What did the commission get wrong about interagency operations?
The most obvious answer to this question is that the commission focused primarily on the symptoms and not the disease. In other words, the political developments leading up to 9/11 were not meaningfully questioned. This is, however, quite understandable. The commission's efficacy to affect any type of interagency restructuring was largely dependent on its being viewed as an impartial, bipartisan effort. Due to these limitations, no significant degree of responsibility was assigned to policy makers within the Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, or George W. Bush administrations. A truly objective assessment, above and beyond the political entanglements the commission found itself immersed in could not have afforded to ignore this other critical side of the interagency equation. As the commission states, "while we now know that al Qaeda was formed in 1988...the intelligence community did not describe this organization...until 1999" (9/11 Commission, 341).
The Reagan administration successfully countered the Soviet threat by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan but apparently gave little thought to the long-term consequences of empowering their "Arab" allies once the politically satiating objective of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was completed (Clarke, 52). The Bush Sr. administration moved strongly in a conventional military manner against Saddam Hussein's incursion into Kuwait, and utilized the US's budding relationship with Saudi Arabia to this end. They did not perceive, however, that the presence of US troops in the most sacred of Muslim nations, even though protecting the House of Saud from Iraq's aggression, also served to further inflame the religious sensibilities of Islamist Wahhabi extremists such as Osama bin Laden, propelling al Qaeda forward in terms of resonance with the Muslim population.
The Clinton administration, with Richard Clarke's ascendance as the counter-terrorism czar, finally began to confront elements of al Qaeda militarily, but failed to respond to direct provocations such as the U.S.S. Cole bombing, sending mixed messages and further emboldening bin Laden. Despite a 1995 NIE stressing the potential for Islamist terrorist attacks, Clinton did not make any significant moves against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, constrained as he was by the political implications of his actions in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Despite intelligence reporting pointing to al Qaeda as the primary threat to the US, the George W. Bush administration had a myopic focus on Iraq as a conventional military threat (9/11 Commission, 333) and seemed to dismiss terrorism as a priority until after 9/11 had already taken place.
Finally, the 9/11 commission's fixation with developing unity of effort through joint operations and bureaucratic restructuring misses the mark in understanding that it is the very diversity of disciplines and ways of thinking found interspersed throughout the IC as a whole which should be leveraged and preserved. While joint structures have served the military generally well, intelligence is a far more esoteric endeavor. This is a case where the catch-phrase "strength through diversity" really has substance, not referring to ethnicity, but to discipline and experience. Standardization should be devoted to high payoff targets of the moment, such as Arabic name standardization for travel documents. Instead, the commission has suggested standardizing education and training, trying to develop generalized rule-based systems to fight terrorism. We don't need everyone to think the same way; we need tools everyone has the potential to use.'
9/11 Commission. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: Final report of the national commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Clarke, Richard. 2004. Against all enemies: Inside America's war on terror. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.