In April 1946, at a forum organized by the New York Herald- Tribune, General Wild Bill Donovan gave a speech entitled ‘Our Foreign Policy Needs a Central Intelligence Agency.” During World War II, Donovan had been the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the United States’ chief wartime intelligence organization, and once the war ended he became a loud public advocate for the creation of a more powerful peacetime version of the OSS. Before the war, the United States had divided intelligence-gathering responsibilities among the different military services. But the failure of any of those services to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor— despite what seemed, in retrospect, to be ample evidence that a major Japanese strike was in the works—had pointed up the system’s limitations and suggested the need for a more comprehensive approach to intelligence gathering. So, too, did the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union, which even in 1946 loomed as a real possibility, and the advent of new technologies—Donovan cited “the rocket, the atomic bomb, bacteriological warfare—that made America’s borders seem far from impregnable. In his April speech, Donovan hit on all of these themes, arguing that what the United States needed was “a centralized, impartial, independent agency” to take charge of all of the country’s intelligence operations.
Donovan’s public speaking didn’t do much for his own career, since his sharp criticisms alienated the intelligence community and probably doomed his chances of returning to government service. Nonetheless, in 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act and created the Central Intelligence Agency. As historian Michael Warner has put it, the goal of the law was to “implement the principles of unity of command and unity of intelligence.” Fragmentation and division had left the United States vulnerable to surprise attack. Centralization and unity would keep it safe in the future.
In fact, though, the centralization of intelligence never happened. Although the CIA was initially the key player in the postwar period, as time passed the intelligence community became more fragmented than ever, divided into a kind of alphabet soup of agencies with overlapping responsibilities and missions, including not just the CIA but also the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the intelligence arms of each of the three major military services. In theory, the director of the CIA was in charge of the U.S. intelligence community as a whole, but in practice he exercised very little supervision over these agencies, and most of the money for intelligence operations came from the Department of Defense. In addition, the FBI—which was responsible for domestic law enforcement—operated almost completely outside the orbit of this intelligence community, even though information about foreign terrorists operating inside the United States would obviously be of interest to the CIA. In place of the centralized repository of information and analysis that Donovan had envisioned, the U.S. intelligence community evolved into a collection of virtually autonomous, decentralized groups, all working toward the same broad goal—keeping the United States safe from attack—but in very different ways.
Until September 11, 2001, the flaws of this system were overlooked. The intelligence community had failed to anticipate the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Kenya and the USS Cole in Yemen. But not until September 11 did the failure of U.S. intelligence gathering come to seem undeniable. The Congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks found that the U.S. intelligence community had “failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information that appears relevant to the events of September 1 1.” Intelligence agencies “missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11th plot,” and allowed information to pass by unnoticed that, if appreciated, would have “greatly enhanced its chances of uncovering and preventing” the attacks. It was, in other words, Pearl Harbor all over again.
The congressional inquiry was unquestionably a classic example of Monday-morning quarterbacking. Given the sheer volume of information that intelligence agencies process, it’s hardly surprising that a retrospective look at the data they had on hand at the time of the attack would uncover material that seemed relevant to what happened on September 11. That doesn’t necessarily mean the agencies could have been realistically expected to recognize the relevance of the material beforehand. In her classic account of the intelligence failures at Pearl Harbor; Warning and Decision, Roberta Wohistetter shows how many signals there were of an impending Japanese attack, hut suggests that it was still unreasonable to expect human beings to have picked the right signals out from “the buzzing and blooming confusion” that accompanied them. Strategic surprise, Wohlstetter suggests, is an intractable problem to solve. And if a massive Japanese naval attack comprising hundreds of planes and ships and thousands of men was difficult to foresee, how much harder would it have been to predict a terrorist attack involving just nineteen men?
And yet one has to wonder. Given the almost complete failure of the intelligence community to anticipate any of four major terrorist attacks from 1993 through 2001, is it not possible that organizing the intelligence community differently would have, at the very least, improved its chances of recognizing what the Joint Inquiry called “the collective significance” of the data it had on hand? Predicting the actual attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have been impossible. But coming up with a reasonable, concrete estimate of the likelihood of such an attack nay not have been.
That, at least, was the conclusion that Congress reached: better processes would have produced a better result. In particular, they stressed the lack of “information sharing” between the various agencies. Instead of producing a coherent picture of the threats the United States faced, the various agencies produced a lot of localized snapshots. The sharpest critic of the agencies’ work, Senator Richard Shelby, argued that the FBI in particular was crippled by its “decentralized organizational structure,” which “left information-holdings fragmented into largely independent fiefdoms.” And the intelligence community as a whole was hurt by a failure to put the right information in the hands of the right people. What needed to be done, Shelby suggested, was to abolish the fiefdoms and return to the idea for which Bill Donovan had argued half a century ago. One agency, which could stand “above and independent from the disputatious bureaucracies,” needed to be put in charge of U.S. intelligence. Decentralization had led the United States astray. Centralization would put things right.