• U.S.

Halting the Next 9/11

9 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

On Sept. 11, declared the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks in its 567-page report, the “United States became a nation transformed.” From the shipyards of Seattle to the conventioneer-stuffed ballrooms of Boston, the scramble to prepare for the possibility of another attack offered a panorama last week of the country’s metamorphosis. Police divers in the Port of Seattle combed the hulls of cruise ships for explosive devices. The Secret Service ordered that all food deliveries to Boston’s Fleet Center, site of the Democratic National Convention, be tested for radioactive material. In Hennepin County, Minn., 2,500 government employees did a simulated evacuation of their 24-story office building. (They got out in 43 min.) “Complacency is a commodity we can’t have,” says Al Bataglia, Minnesota’s homeland-security chief. “We need to train like we would fight in the real event.”

The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report hope they have sounded a call to battle. In official Washington, the arrival of the tome was greeted with a grim solemnity that reflected the panel’s decision to apportion blame across dozens of agencies spanning two presidencies. Meticulous in its reconstruction of the attacks and unflinching in its conclusions about why the government failed to stop them, the report singles out the U.S.’s sprawling intelligence apparatus for an overhaul, hammering the nation’s spooks for their inability to piece together Osama bin Laden’s plot–and raising new doubts about whether they are better positioned to detect the next one. Timed for release just before the start of the election season, the report landed amid galloping anxieties among U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies about the imminence of another terrorist attack. U.S. officials say reports from agents and “code talk” picked up from extremists’ e-mail point to a possible al-Qaeda attack before the Nov. 2 election. A counterterrorism official tells TIME that a recent analysis of al-Qaeda’s 2001 timeline shows that the hijackers started to gather in the U.S. 20 weeks before Sept. 11 and the entire strike team had infiltrated the country no later than 7 1/2 weeks before, leading some intelligence analysts to conclude that members of the operational cell must already be here. Says a CIA official: “We have some fairly specific information that al-Qaeda wants to come after us.” The chairman of the 9/11 panel, Tom Kean, reiterated the sense of foreboding. “An attack of even greater magnitude is possible and even probable,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”

The politicians appear to be listening. The White House, which had opposed the creation of the commission out of fear of a politically damaging verdict on its pre-9/11 performance, gingerly welcomed the panel’s proposals, then quickly seized the opportunity to champion reform. Bush has asked chief of staff Andrew Card to head a working group to look at how to best assess and carry out the recommendations. The Administration has been cool to the panel’s proposal, long debated in intel circles, that a National Intelligence Director (NID) oversee all 15 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. But after John Kerry declared that “when I’m President, it’s going to happen,” Bush aides hinted that Bush too may back the idea of a new intelligence czar. “Nothing’s off the table,” says a senior White House official. “And it’s definitely not off the table before the election.”

Between now and then, much of the pressure to take action will come from the 10 commissioners, who plan to flood congressional hearings and stump for their reforms in the heartland. Kean told TIME that the panel hopes to release at least four additional staff-written reports, on such topics as aviation and border security and terrorist financing. Since some contain classified documents interested parties may have to first sue the government to see them. But the gentility with which lawmakers treated the commission since the release of its report seems to be evaporating. The panel’s call for streamlining the number of congressional intelligence committees and eliminating limits on their members’ length of service–in the name of developing a pool of specialists in Congress who can challenge the analyses of the intelligence community–has already provoked grumbling from House Republican leaders. The push to create a new intelligence czar, meanwhile, may run aground at the Pentagon, which has made clear it doesn’t like the prospect of surrendering its considerable authority over how intelligence resources are allocated. In March, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned the commission that consolidating authority over the myriad intelligence agencies “would be doing the country a disservice.” The bottom line, says Jeffrey Smith, who served as the CIA’s top lawyer for part of the Clinton years, is that “major reform is needed, but my sense is nothing will happen this year.”

Even if the panel’s recommendations are acted upon, would it make a difference? Could such changes actually enable the intelligence community to uncover and prevent the next 9/11? Backers of the panel’s call for a single NID say the move would reduce the bureaucratic logjams that have contributed to the intelligence community’s string of failures, from its inability to track the hijackers before 9/11 to the fruitless hunt for bin Laden to the missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. “You need someone who can give orders,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Defense Secretary, “telling the NSA to focus its wiretap on a specific target, the CIA to focus its human intelligence there and the [National Reconnaissance Office] to focus [its] satellites there. That’s not happening now.”

But while the advent of an NID would recast the intelligence community’s pecking order, it could also make things worse. “There’s too little competition for ideas already in this business,” says John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration. “That’s what happened with WMD. If you have one guy for whom everybody works, then you’re going to start getting a homogeneous view.” And despite its calls for sweeping organizational change, the 9/11 panel offers few specific suggestions for how the U.S. and its allies can improve in the most critical area of all: getting actionable human intelligence on al-Qaeda and its attack plans by infiltrating terrorist networks. Says Hamre: “All these reorganizing efforts are kind of rearranging the boxes of the people that supply intelligence, when we really need to be talking about how we demand better-quality intelligence across the board.”

Since Sept. 11, say intelligence and counterterrorism experts, the U.S. and its allies have made significant strides in keeping al-Qaeda off balance. Better coordination among intelligence services around the world has led to several major busts, including the liquidation of the terrorist cell suspected of carrying out March’s train bombings in Madrid. Western agencies that once ignored websites, chat rooms and other communications channels used by extremists are now tapping them effectively to pick up chatter. “They’ve gotten good at not only picking up possible messages between plotters but analyzing information more quickly to determine what is just radical railing and what has substantial hidden meaning,” says French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. Despite the continued debate over the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, CIA and FBI officials insist that some high-level detainees have proved valuable in decoding talk among operatives. The war in Afghanistan and the global dragnet have taken out of circulation about half of bin Laden’s senior lieutenants. “The kinds of people who are coming in simply can’t match their predecessors and their ability to run the organization,” says a CIA official. But he adds that “as we kill a group, we are facing a movement.” Al-Qaeda and like-minded extremist outfits are thought to be operating in as many as 60 countries and may have as many as 20,000 trained militants on their rolls. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a consultant to several governments, estimates that even if this Administration or the next one gets serious about intelligence reform, “it will take five to 10 years for U.S. intelligence to have adequate resources” on the ground for countering the full range of forces fueling extremist terrorism.

Even then, better intelligence wouldn’t be enough. In another set of proposals, the commission recommends that the U.S. expand its efforts to reach out to the Islamic world through more active public diplomacy and small-bore programs such as scholarships and cultural and educational exchanges. The trouble is that even as the U.S. tries to defuse the appeal of fanatics like bin Laden, its policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East since Sept. 11 have inflamed some Muslims and almost surely driven some fence sitters into the camps of the extremists. “Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world,” the panel writes. “Those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.”

In the long run, making America and its allies safe again will require far broader changes than even the 9/11 panel was empowered to propose. In the meantime, the U.S. has little choice but to brace itself for the possibility of another strike. “We do not believe,” the commissioners write in the report’s conclusion, “that it is possible to defeat all terrorist attacks against Americans, every time and everywhere.” In that sense, the 9/11 commission’s legacy may ultimately be determined by how long the U.S. can deter the inevitable. –Reported by Timothy J. Burger; Massimo Calabresi; James Carney; Matthew Cooper; Bruce Crumley/Paris; Sarah Sturman Dale/Minneapolis; J.F.O. McAllister/London; Viveca Novak; Margot Roosevelt/Los Angeles; and Elaine Shannon and Mark Thompson/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com