To what extent does 9/11 was a reflection of intelligence failures?

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“True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”

– Clarence Darrow –

September 11 is a nightmare that came into reality, not only for the Americans but as well for the rest of the world. It shows that the state of America has failed to protect the citizens and failed to maintain its security. It has also shown the world that the rise of terrorism has started to appear and possible war is coming. Many argued that the intelligence service is, the agency to blame for its failure to prevent the attack. However, would it be right to conclude that the case of 9/11 was a reflection of intelligence failures? According to the 9/11 Commission (2004), the 9/11 attack should not be a surprise to the government, because the terrorist had given more than one warnings that they would kill Americans in large numbers. Hence, if there were more than one warning, why the government was not able to stop the attack from happening. This research paper will discuss some factors why the state has failed to prevent the attack. Firstly, this paper will give a brief narrative and speculations before, during and after 9/11. Secondly, it will state some of intelligence failures on the occasion. Thirdly, it will discuss on whether it would be right to conclude that the intelligence failure is the primary cause of September 11.

Narrative and Speculations of 9/11

Al-Qaeda first emerged after the 1998 August bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004: 2). Al- Qaeda was firmly related to Osama Bin Laden, as he was the leader of the organisation. President Bush has received specific information and warning about Al-Qaeda and Usama bin Laden. After Bush came into power, Clinton told Bush that Osama Bin Laden was the most significant enemy and Clinton feel disappointed that he could not catch him during his administration. Five days after Bush get elected, a memo was sent to him from Richard Clark as a member of White House Terrorist Commission. It was written, “We urgently need a principles level review of the Al-Qaeda network” (911 Reality, 2015). However, for nine months of Bush administration, Al-Qaeda was a low priority.

Furthermore, many warnings have appeared before the incident. During spring and summer 2001 – the intelligence started to aware of Usama Bin Laden plans interest in using commercial flight to attack the US. On June 22nd – The CIA federal reported that – “… possible hijacking flight by Islamic terrorists” (911 Reality, 2015). Three days after, the intelligence has advice all government agencies that there would be a high chance for a terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda in the offing. On 10 July 2001, Kenneth Williams (a veteran FBI agent) sent a memo to six officials warning that he believed Usama Bin Laden was on its way to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges (Zegart, 2007: 172). Hence, it raised a question why president Bush has been ignoring the warnings. Another oddity was the fact that president Bush ignored the August 6th warning document. The August 6th warning document was written to the president, stated that Bin Laden determined to strike in the US (911 Reality, 2015). Moreover, in the same month, the CIA told the FBI that two Al-Qaeda members were in the United States with US visas, attending flight schools in Arizona (Betts, 2007: 589). It was written “Phoenix memo” which warned that it could be related to bin Laden planned to attack the US (Betts, 2007: 589). The CIA requested the FBI to track them down. Unfortunately, the FBI labeled the report as “Routine” which took 30 days to respond. Ray McGovern argued that the government was told not to listen to the CIA (911 Reality, 2015). The FBI headquarters finally notice that the two have landed in LA 18 months earlier. However, by the time the FBI headquarter asked the FBI in LA for help, it was too late as it was one day before the attacked.

On the day of 9/11, there were several miscommunications. Firstly, the president could not communicate with people in the White House when he was on its way to the airport. The president was out of reach, and the White House was unprotected. Secondly, no one informed the military, and the military seems unprepared. The news came very late, which was thirty minutes after the United Airlines realised that another flight they have, was hijacked. At 9.30 am when two military aircraft boarded, they went almost 250 km in the wrong directions. The military had no plan towards the last airlines that about to get hijacked. On the last airline that was hijacked – the military only found out about the hijacked flight after the flight crash in the northeast of Camp David. Thirdly, there was only one person in the FAA who’s allowed to give the order, and that person could not be found.

The most controversial question was “who has the rights to give the order?”. Who could give the order to shoot airlines if they were hijacked? The record shows that between 10.10 and 10.15, at the White House Bunkers – the Vice President was asked if they could shoot any flights that was hijacked, and he said “Yes.” There was only one pilot that was given an order to shoot down. He received the order directly from the secret services in the White House – from the Vice President but he wasn’t in a position to execute because only the President has the authority to do so and he was not there to be found (911 Reality, 2015). Moreover, the rest of the military and pilots argued that there was never an order to shoot down the flight. The president claim to the 9/11 Commission that he has actually given an order to shoot down the aircraft 15 minutes before the attack – but the White House called record do not support the claim (911 Reality, 2015). The 9/11 commissioner have suggested that the president and vice president have not forth coming about the issues and that the truth has yet to be reveal. Lee Hamilton as the Vice Chair of 9/11 Commission argued that “It was not clear who gave the order because the principles have not said. The president and vice president is the only one who can clarified, we just don’t know what happened there.” (911 Reality, 2015).

After 9/11, the way the government of the United States responded to the incident was poor (Suganami, 2002: 3). The decision that was made after the incident by Bush administration was arguably unjustified. Clinton’s concern with Afghanistan was substituted by Bush obsession with Iraq (Ryan, 2002: 64). Not long after the attack, Bush administration team declare a war towards Iraq. Richard Clarke together with the 9/11 Commission has tried to warn the administration that it was not the right decisions to bomb Iraq. The intelligence, presented by the CIA does not support Bush’s demand to attack Iraq, together with Iran and North Korea, in the name of threatening the peace of the world (Ryan, 2002: 58). In the Camp David meeting of top national security officials to discuss whether or not to go to war with Iraq, CIA wrote a paper titled “The Perfect Storm: Planning for Negative Consequences of Invading Iraq” (Betts, 2007: 597). These negative consequences include, the possibility of war and instability in other Arab states, interruption of oil supplies, diplomatic conflict with European allies, and a possible emerge of Islamic terrorist around the world (Betts, 2007: 597). However, according to Richard Clarke, Bush administration does not show any concern with the warnings (911 Reality, 2015).

Furthermore, the decision to declare a war in the Middle East, right after the 9/11, has created another controversy. The main reason is that there was no evidence delivered to the public why the government started to bombing Afghanistan (Suganami, 2002: 8). Hence, the people could not understand the main reason for bombing Afghanistan, rather than because of the 9/11 incidents – still, no evidence has proved that Afghanistan is the country to blame. Some of the speculations started to rise. It could be argued that Bush administration was seeking a war with Afghanistan in order to achieve global geopolitical goals (Gokay, 2002: 17). These goals contain political, military, as well as economic reasons to turn Afghanistan as an American military operation in the Middle East (Gokay, 2002: 16). Nevertheless, no evidence could prove or justify the action. In the end, speculation is what people could make, because the government does not provide details on the occasions. John Farmer, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, argued on his book that at some level of the government, there was an agreement not to tell the truth about what happened (Scott, 2010: 194). It was even forcefully argued that there was a fraud to the 9/11 events (Scott, 2010: 194). There was no transparency of the 9/11 investigation. President George W. Bush, CIA Director George Tenet and the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees were adamantly opposed to any investigation or post-mortem. President Bush did not permit his secretaries of state and defense to testify to the joint congressional investigation in public session. According to Senator Shelby, the administration has ‘delayed cooperating fully, knowing it (the committee) has a deadline to meet’ (911 Reality, 2015). Even worst, eight months after the attack – the Bush Administration stated that there was no warning of the attack. As there were several warnings of the attacks, it seems quaint to said that there were no warnings.

Some Factors of Intelligence Failures

Intelligence plays an important role in providing security and protecting the citizens. It supposed to set a certain amount of security standards and protect those security measurements (Herman, 1996: 182). For this reason, it is not a surprise that intelligence was accused of failing to prevent the incident of 9/11. In the case of 9/11, the United States intelligence agency has been unable to achieve these goals. The warnings have broadly seen by a terrorist expert that there is a high possibility of Al-Qaeda to destroy World Trade Center by hijacking several commercial airlines (Wechsler, 2001: 131). Hence, the intelligence supposed to see the warnings as well and it is the intelligence jobs to prevent the attack from happening. The failure of the intelligence service started from before September 11. Training for the September 11 attacked has begun more than one year before the incident (Jenkins, 2001: 9). Meaning that the intelligence was given time for more than a year to gather information and prevent the event from happening.

For the past one year before September 11, the intelligence has failed to acknowledge the possible attack as well as failed to communicate to the other agency in the government regarding the terrorist suspect. Arguably, the most failure intelligence made was its inability to put terror suspect on a watch list and shared it with the other department (Paretta, 2012: 311). The Intelligence, which in this case is CIA, did not recognised the possibility of Al-Qaeda members to attack World Trade Center using commercial flight until two months before the attack. In within these two months, several miscommunications lead to failing to avert the incident from happening. The White House and the CIA refused to declassify the information provided to the president before the attacks. The intelligence never catalogued information on the use of commercial airplanes as weapons. The CIA also did not share the information with another department including the immigration border. If the CIA did share the data to the immigration border, the immigration border could enhance the security at the airport – which might, to some extent, change the situation. Furthermore, the CIA took a long time to put Khalid al-Midhar as one of the suspected terrorists and failed to notify the FBI that he had gotten a visa to travel the United States (Betts, 2007: 590).

In addition, it could be argued that the capabilities of the intelligence service to solve Al-Qaeda problem before September 11 has the same level with its quality during Cold War period (The 9/11 Commission, 2004: 8). Meaning that there was not much improvement of the services inside the intelligence since the Cold War period. It was seen as the intelligence struggled to collect and analyse information of the phenomenon of transnational terrorism (The 9/11 Commission, 2004: 10). The director of central intelligence declared war on terrorism in 1998. However, he allocated no additional funding or personnel to the task force on terrorism (911 Reality, 2015). Thus, the terrorist is aware of the US as a threat to them and prepared for it, while the US, on the other hand, left unprepared. The terrorist had planned it way more ahead than what people thought. It could be argued that the planning for the embassy bombings, the attack at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and the bombing of the USS Cole was only a preparation for the September 11 attack (Jenkins, 2001: 9). The explosion was intentionally made to fail. Hence the government would think that they are capable of stopping the terrorism and will not increase the security. If the LAX attack succeeded, it might have advocated increasing the aviation security that would make the September 11 attack difficult (Jenkins, 2001: 10).

Would it be right to conclude that the 9/11 was an intelligence failure?

The main reason why intelligence was created is to give influence towards government action (Herman, 1996: 137). Its function is limited to only as a complementary and not the leading actor. It is said that intelligence does not have the rights to make a full decision towards any occasions. Even though there are some of the intelligence failures, but to conclude that the intelligence is the only department to blame is not entirely correct. The intelligence has shown some efforts to fight against terrorism even before the 9/11. For instance, CIA has launched operations in fifty-five countries against thirty-eight separate targets after they heard information of Usama bin Laden planned to attack five until fifteen times to different countries, which could be including the US (Betts, 2007: 589). It had also frequently giving reports of attacks planned by Al-Qaeda and generated a plan to improve intelligence collection on Al-Qaeda before the attack (The 9/11 Commission, 2004: 5). Moreover, according to The 9/11 Commission (2004), no agency did more to attack Al Qaeda rather than the CIA.

Other factors could be seen as a reason why the tragic events happened. Some of the failures that could be analysed are the organisational failures of government and strategic or policy failures (Paretta, 2012: 303). The primary organisational failure is the miscommunications between each agency. The confusion on which has the responsibility to do things. For instance, NASA, FBI and the intelligence failed to recognised the phone calls (Kaplan et al., 2004: 3). The CIA has a responsibility to track terrorist abroad while the FBI responsibility is to monitor the terrorist at home (Zegart, 2007: 167). However, nobody knows for sure who has the obligation to monitor communications and movements between the terrorist both inside the US and in foreign countries (Zegart, 2007: 167). Moreover, the NSA did not think it was its job to initiate the research on its own; it tends to wait to be asked (Kaplan et al., 2004: 3). Therefore, they missed at least seven opportunities throughout the summer of 2001 to put the pieces together (Zegart, 2007: 174).

Furthermore, the FBI and others departments tend to ignore any reports that were reported to the agency. For instance, the content of al-Mihdar conversations when he was in the US and called the house in Yemen was reported to the FBI. However, neither the FBI nor the NAS investigate much further (Kaplan et al., 2004: 2). Another vital failure the FBI made was when the office in New York had received information on two terrorist suspects – it was deliberated not as a high priority criminal investigation as it should be (Zegart, 2007: 166). In addition, the capabilities of FAA was weak (The 9/11 Commission, 2004: 8). Thus, it was unable to support others departments. Another factor is the failures of strategic and policymakers. The role of policymakers is crucial, mainly to consider what the government should do with all the warnings and make it into one big decision (Betts, 2007: 595). However, policymakers during Bush administration failed to put terrorism as number one concern. Terrorism was not the primary national security concern during Clinton and Bush administration until before the September 11 (The 9/11 Commission, 2004: 8).

In addition, there are speculations on the peculiarity of Bush administration. The odd behaviour of Bush administration is another term that needs to be discussed. According to Betts (2001), no evidence in public could prove if the government had spent more times in any program to delve the Al-Qaeda, it could avoid the incident (Betts, 2001: 146). This statement is not accordance with the fact that many warnings were observables. It was problematic for Bush to acted surprised and confused with the terrorist attacked (Mamdani, 2002: 59), when there were many warnings have been provided to him, such as the 6th August document. Bush actions that ignored the intelligence about Al- Qaeda initiated two things. Firstly, it shows that there were other interests to work in Afghanistan, with the suicide hijackings, it could lead into giving enough reason to go to war with the country (Ryan, 2002: 64). Secondly, the fact that Bush administration war on Iraq has existed before the war on terrorism (Ryan, 2002: 64), which indicate that the war after 9/11 is just a continuous action to finish something that was started before the incident. There was no specific reason why Bush decided to go to war in Iraq. Some argued that the fundamental nature of post-war Iraq is because the undemocratic political culture in the country and the leaders that have had difficulties in giving compromised (Best, 2008: 299). However, it still does not make it right to attack Iraq and accuse them to take responsible for the 9/11 attack. The CIA has not been supporting the policy that was created under Bush administration decision to go to war with Iraq (Ryan, 2002: 71). Richard Clarke, Lee Hamington, and others 9/11 Committee have also shown their disagreements towards the action. Nevertheless, Bush administration does not seem bothered and still went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, during Bush administration, the intelligence, CIA together with NSA, do not indeed appear in the press and their activity is not protruding (Ryan, 2002: 68). It denoted how the administration does not openly cooperate with others departments, including the intelligence, and made their decision based on the administration only, without considering to get advice from others departments. Furthermore, there was uncertainty on why Bush administration did not want to fund the 9/11 Commission that makes it seems like the commission was formed only to fail.


The case of 9/11 is a reflection of state failure in general. The United States has failed to protect the citizens. The intelligence play an important role and has also take responsibility for the failure of preventing 9/11 to happen. However, the intelligence is not the only department that takes the responsibility. The government, Bush administration, the immigration border, FAA, the military, others agency such as FBI and NSA – all shared some part of the responsibility. The primary failure is the inability of connecting all the ambiguous information, miscommunications between different departments and the failure to coordinate all parts to counterterrorism. Moreover, there are some ambiguity and speculations to the case. The government under Bush administration do not provide full details of the occasion and has failed to answer questions asked by the citizens. The decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of fighting for terrorism is unjustified. Nevertheless, even though there was just speculations, condemning the intelligence for the incident is not justified. There are others factors that evidently stronger to be seen as the cause of 9/11 attack.


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Featured Image taken from Google Search.

“You can be sure that the American spirit will prevail over this tragedy.”

– Colin Powell –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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