Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11

Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11

Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11

Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11


In this pathbreaking book, Amy Zegart provides the first scholarly examination of the intelligence failures that preceded September 11. Until now, those failures have been attributed largely to individual mistakes. But Zegart shows how and why the intelligence system itself left us vulnerable.

Zegart argues that after the Cold War ended, the CIA and FBI failed to adapt to the rise of terrorism. She makes the case by conducting painstaking analysis of more than three hundred intelligence reform recommendations and tracing the history of CIA and FBI counterterrorism efforts from 1991 to 2001, drawing extensively from declassified government documents and interviews with more than seventy high-ranking government officials. She finds that political leaders were well aware of the emerging terrorist danger and the urgent need for intelligence reform, but failed to achieve the changes they sought. The same forces that have stymied intelligence reform for decades are to blame: resistance inside U. S. intelligence agencies, the rational interests of politicians and career bureaucrats, and core aspects of our democracy such as the fragmented structure of the federal government. Ultimately failures of adaptation led to failures of performance. Zegart reveals how longstanding organizational weaknesses left unaddressed during the 1990s prevented the CIA and FBI from capitalizing on twenty-three opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot.

Spying Blind is a sobering account of why two of America's most important intelligence agencies failed to adjust to new threats after the Cold War, and why they are unlikely to adapt in the future.


I was not surprised. I was horrified.

—General Brent Scowcroft,
former national security advisor

IN JANUARY 2000, al Qaeda operatives from around the world gathered secretly in Malaysia for a planning meeting. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was watching. Among the participants was a man named Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the September 11 hijackers who would later help to crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. By the time the meeting disbanded, the CIA had taken a photograph of al-Mihdhar, learned his full name, obtained his passport number, and uncovered one other critical piece of information: al-Mihdhar held a multiple-entry visa to the United States. It was twenty months before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. George Tenet, the director of central intelligence (DCI), later admitted that the CIA should have immediately placed al-Mihdhar on the State Department's watch list denying him entry into the United States, and it should have notified other government agencies such as the FBI. But the CIA did not do so until August 23, 2001, just nineteen days before the attacks and months after al-Mihdhar had entered the country, obtained a California motor vehicle photo identification card—using his real name—and started taking flying lessons.

The case of Khalid al-Mihdhar provides a chilling example of the subtle yet powerful effects of organization—that is, the cultures, incentives, and structures that critically influence what government agencies do and how well they do it. Why did the CIA take so long to put this suspected al Qaeda operative on the State Department's watch list, especially given Director Tenet's earlier declaration that the United States was “at war” with al Qaeda, his clear public warnings to Congress—for three consec-

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