U.S. Intelligence in the Wake of September 11: The Rise of the Spy Commando and Reorganized Operational Capabilities

By Hitz, Frederick P. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

U.S. Intelligence in the Wake of September 11: The Rise of the Spy Commando and Reorganized Operational Capabilities


Hitz, Frederick P., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


As the nation witnesses the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it might be worthwhile to assess the steps the United States has taken since the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (1) and the USA PATRIOT Act (2)--to combat future acts of terrorism against the United States. Ten years ago I wrote an Essay for this Journal calling for the federal government to unleash one of its under-used resources, the CIA. (3) In the years since that Essay, the CIA has experienced some astonishing successes--spy commandos and drone warfare--and some troubling failures-extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation--on an operational level. Bureaucratically the intelligence community has been shuffled and reshuffled, adding new layers of management but not necessarily making the intelligence community more effective. The joint CIA and Navy SEAL operation of May 2, 2011, which resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, (4) offers an opportunity to examine U.S. intelligence efforts to combat terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Ten years after September 11, there has not been an attack in the United States on a similar scale since that horrific day. We have experienced near misses, such as the failures of both the underwear bomber on Christmas Day, 2009 (5) and the Times Square bomber in May 2010. (6) We experienced the shootings of twelve soldiers by an Arab-American military psychiatrist at Fort Hood Army base in November 2009, (7) although it is not clear that attack was terrorist-inspired. Nonetheless, there have not been any recurrences of terrorist killing in the United States on a mass scale. Why? A simple answer is that we are no longer the unaware, unprotected country we were in early September 2001. Airport security procedures are more elaborate, and the notion of "if you see something, say something" (8) has become widespread. Nonetheless, it is important to ask if we have just been fortunate or if we are demonstrably better at international counterterrorism.

Ten years after September 11, there are many new players in the world of U.S. counterterrorism. In addition to calling for the creation of a Director of National Intelligence (9) and a National Counterterrorism Center, (10) the 2004 9/11 Commission Report encouraged information sharing among government departments with access to intelligence on terrorism. (11) Indeed, the 9/11 Commission noted that the September 11 attacks were the product of a plot dreamed up in Hamburg, Afghanistan, and Madrid, within the operational jurisdiction of the CIA and the U.S. Department of State, but the action was destined to take place in the United States, where responsibility for stopping it fell largely to the FBI and local law enforcement. (12) In an age of instant communications, the CIA and FBI ought to be in constant contact about matters that relate to national security. But do the relevant elements of the U.S. Government regularly communicate with one another as the 9/11 Commission envisioned, or have bureaucratic setbacks like Wikileaks driven the intelligence community back to old information stovepiping habits?

Thus, the events of September 11 led directly to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a gigantic agglomeration of domestic law enforcement, immigration, customs, and coastal protection authorities that did not include a domestic intelligence gathering entity separate from the FBI, like the UK's MI5. (13) In addition, the United States has committed $75 billion annually to counterterrorism, (14) including the hiring of hosts of contractors holding an estimated 265,000 top secret clearances. (15) What have we to show for this extraordinary expenditure of resources?

With this background in mind, I turn to the role of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA. The CIA rebounded quickly after the September 11 debacle by inserting a team of civilian special operations case officers into northern Afghanistan three weeks later. …

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