Mises Wire

9/11 Was a Day of Unforgivable Government Failure

Perhaps more than anything else, the rationale given for the necessity of the state—and the necessity of supporting the regime at any given time—is that it “keeps us safe.” This permeates thinking about government institutions at all levels, from “thin blue line” sloganeering at the local level, all the way up to jingoism surrounding the Pentagon.

Presumably, the hundreds of billions of dollars extracted from taxpayers, year after year after year, is all both necessary and laudable because without it, chaos would reign on our streets, and foreign invaders would slaughter Americans.

Yet this rationale for state power also presumes that the nation’s alleged defenders are actually competent at their jobs.

Whether or not this is the case certainly remains debatable, as the recent military disasters in Afghanistan have made clear. The Pentagon brass pushed for continued war in Afghanistan for twenty years, and, ultimately, lost the entire country to the Taliban, the very people Pentagon generals assured us they would eliminate “soon.”

[Read More: “The Pentagon and the Generals Wanted This Disastrous War“ by Ryan McMaken]

Moreover, the so-called intelligence community in the United States has repeatedly failed in its mission at crucial times. This can be seen in the fact the CIA was asleep at the switch in the lead-ups to both the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962—both of which constituted an immense blow to American “safety” by the American regime’s metrics.

Needless to say, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were made possible by an immense military and intelligence failure on the part of the United States government. Not only did the US government provide the motivation for the attacks—through endless meddling in Middle Eastern regimes—but the US regime failed to protect its own citizens when the blowback arrived. 

Yet, as is so common following displays of incompetence by government bureaucrats, virtually no government agents were held accountable for this failure. The head of the CIA on 9/11, George Tenet, continued at his post for years afterward. There certainly was no “house cleaning” at the FBI either. 

Yet the federal agencies allegedly formed to “keep us safe” were more or less AWOL in the lead-up to 9/11, choosing to focus on relatively petty goals, and on augmenting their public relations efforts, rather than on terrorism.

The CIA at the Center

A bevy of books have been published over the last twenty years examining the massive intelligence blundering that preceded 9/11. Many of them are partisan, and many attempt to blame everything on elected officials. But the failures leading up to 9/11 go much deeper than that. Much of this is described in detail by Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn in their book Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001.

The authors note that the 9/11 failure was a failure of multiple intelligence agencies, as well as numerous US policymakers across many agencies and institutions.

But, as Jones and Silberzahn contend, “the CIA stands at the center of the failure…. [p]rior to 9/11, the CIA was primus inter pares among the agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, chartered specifically to coordinate the community’s activities against threats—especially surprise attacks originating abroad.”1

The story of the CIA’s failure is one of an organization that was repeatedly warned of the al-Qa’ida threat by internal analysts. But both the CIA leadership and the rank and file chose to ignore the warnings. Rather, before 9/11, the leadership insisted on focusing on China, Iran, and Iraq. Other priorities included drug trafficking, organized crime, illicit trade practices, and “environmental issues of great gravity.”

Thanks only partly to guidance handed down from the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, “intelligence about al-Qa’ida [was] equal to that [on] … the illegal trade of tropical hardwood.” Jones and Silberzahn note the CIA did not “push back” against these priorities but concerned itself with telling politicians what they wanted to hear. 

Looking at “CIA budgetary decisions prior to 9/11” it becomes clear that intelligence on terrorism and al-Qa’ida were “extremely low priorities” at the CIA and that ”the agency had repeatedly diverted money away from counterterrorism to other purposes.”

For instance, the CIA’s intelligence briefings for the Bush administration in 2001 (prior to September 11) were extremely vague and never communicated much beyond the bland facts that Islamic terrorists exist and might carry out attacks—sometime, somewhere. The agency never devoted many resources to following up on the possibility of these attacks. Briefings on the topic of Islamic terrorism were historical in nature, with little effort given to anticipating the details of possible future acts. There was no “actionable warning.”

The 9/11 Commission noted this problem:

Commission staff member Douglas McEachin—a veteran former CIA analyst himself—thought that it was “unforgivable” that no NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] on al-Qa’ida or terrorism of any sort was produced for four years before the attacks. McEachin was “shocked that no one at the senior levels of the CIA had attempted for years— to catalog and give context to what was know[n] about al-Qa’ida.”2

Yet, to this day, apologists for the CIA will shrug their shoulders and insist “hindsight is 20/20!” and “How could anyone have known?” These defenders of the regime, of course, ignore the fact that the intelligence community in 2001 was receiving $30 billion in taxpayer money—an amount that was real money in 2001—to anticipate security threats. Providing “early warning of an enemy attack” was (and is) their job.

(It’s also worth asking if the perennial excuse makers for government failure can provide an example of a military or intelligence failure that they wouldn’t shrug off.)

The CIA Was Warned, and Did Nothing

Moreover, the data is clear that it didn’t require revolutionary thinking to anticipate that Islamic terrorists might use airplanes as weapons, or that al-Qa’ida posed a credible threat.3

After all, the CIA leadership was warned by its own analysts, especially those under Michael Scheuer, who headed up the CIA’s much-ignored bin Ladin unit. As early as 1996, Scheuer had attempted to warn his superiors at the CIA of the threat of Islamic terrorism in general, and al Qa’ida in particular. Usama bin Laden had been publicly threatening Western nations to Western media since 1993, and publicly declared war on the United States on September 2, 1996.

Unlike most staffers and officials at the CIA, Scheuer took bin Ladin seriously, but he and his unit were regarded with little esteem at the agency. While Scheuer was attempting to raise the profile of al-Qa’ida, “[a]nyone with seniority or savvy avoided assignment to the bin Ladin unit.”4

Scheuer was regarded as “obsessive” and those who were assigned to work with him were usually “very junior” and also female. Indeed, the bin Ladin unit, staffed as it was by Scheuer and a number of women, came to be derisively called “the Manson Family” among CIA staff.5

Scheuer lost what little influence he had in 1999. Frustrated with senior officials, Scheuer attempted to engage CIA director Tenet directly. This was regarded as an unforgiveable breach of bureaucratic protocol and Scheuer was demoted to the position of librarian and shunted off to a cubicle in the library at Langley.

Airplanes as Weapons: It Was Predictable

Having studiously ignored the potential threat of al-Qa’ida throughout the late 1990s, CIA staff and leadership also failed to anticipate the methods eventually used on 9/11.

Followers of early 2000s popular culture will sometimes recall that the television show The Lone Gunmen—a spinoff of The X-Files—aired an episode in March 2001 in which a nefarious “hacker” deliberately flies a 747 at the World Trade Center.

Many note with amazement that authors of fiction saw the potential for the use of airplanes as weapons while the intelligence community apparently ignored the idea. Yet the writers at The Lone Gunmen were hardly the first to conceive of the idea, which further illustrates the lack of imagination employed at the CIA.

As Jones and Silberzahn note,

In 1994, an Algerian group hijacked a plane in Algiers and apparently intended to fly it into the Eiffel Tower; in 1995, Manila police reported in detail about a suicide plot to crash a plane into CIA Headquarters; since the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the NSC actively considered the use of aircraft as suicide weapons. Tom Clancy also wrote a novel about such an attack. As the [9/11] commission itself noted, the possibility of commercial planes as suicide weapons was both “imaginable and imagined” not just at the CIA.6

A Lack of Expertise

So why was the CIA leadership so incapable of taking the al-Qa’ida threat seriously?

Much of it, Jones and Silberzahn conclude, was due to sizable weaknesses in the CIA’s analytical capabilities. Just as a general example, the authors note that even as late as 2013, “very few CIA analysts [could] read or speak Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, or Farsi—which collectively comprise the languages spoken by nearly half the world’s population.”7  

Jones and Silberzahn note this is part of a general problem at the CIA of cultural homogeneity. Prior to 9/11, and likely still today, the CIA capabilities in understanding foreign cultures is limited by the fact the CIA is largely the domain of college-educated Americans, generally from the same socioeconomic strata.

As noted by one CIA officer shortly after 9/11:

The CIA probably doesn’t have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern Background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist…. For Christ’s sake most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia.8

Indeed, “In 2001, only 20 percent of the graduating class of clandestine case officers were fluent in a non-Romance language.” It’s unlikely that in 2001, the CIA had even a single case officer who spoke Pashto, the language of the Taliban. These great intelligence “experts” were groping around in the dark, often due to bureaucratic laziness and ignorance. 

The CIA’s defenders today may still make excuses for the CIA’s failure to know the details of the 9/11 conspiracy ahead of time, but it is clear today that the CIA wasn’t even looking in the right general direction to discover such information had it presented itself. Rather, in 2001, the CIA was apparently more interested in working with policymakers and media to leak headlines that would play up the foreign threats the CIA was most interested in talking about.

Unfortunately, in spite of these enormous failures, the CIA and the intelligence community have seen little damage to their reputations. Nor is there any reason to assume the situation has substantially changed and that the federal bureaucracy is any more competent today than it was on September 10, 2001. There is no market test or objective measure of success in government bureaucracies. In the decade following 9/11, the US’s intelligence agencies were rewarded with a marked increase in funding over 1990s levels

Twenty years after 9/11, a much-needed culture of skepticism around the nation’s “intelligence community” has yet to arise. This attitude will only pave the way for the next time it becomes tragically clear that America’s well-funded collection of intelligence agencies doesn’t actually “keep us safe.” 

  • 1Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn, Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA 1947-2001 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 194-95.
  • 2Ibid., p. 215.
  • 3In order to simplify matters, in this article I use the CIA’s spelling for Usama bin Ladin.
  • 4Ibid., p. 228
  • 5Ibid., p. 228
  • 6Ibid., p. 222.
  • 7Ibid., p. 223.
  • 8Ibid., p. 209. 
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