If Congress tries to pass a bill restructuring the nation’s intelligence services before the election recess it’s liable to get the job only half right, warned Frederick P. Hitz, a former inspector general for the Central Intelligence Agency who is currently teaching a course on anti-terrorism law at the Law School. He is The author of the recently published book The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. Hitz spoke on “The Deceptive Allure of Intelligence Reform” at a lunch meeting of the J.B. Moore Society of International Law Oct. 5.
Hitz said he was “worried the bill wouldn’t approach the fundamental problems.” The Senate passed its version Oct. 6.
He predicted the proposed director of national intelligence will be “cut to ribbons if he doesn’t have his own troops”—an agency of intelligence gatherers whose product supports the DNI’s views and gives him an institutional foundation. “This office won’t make the kind of difference that is being advocated for it.” It doesn’t add any analytical expertise to intelligence gathering, for example, he said.
“Congress wants someone to beat up on and hold accountable,” he said, likening the role to one Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge must sometimes play before congressional committees.
“If they stop at an imperfectly drawn DNI, it will be been-there-done-that when they get back in session and they won’t go back into the real issues of the 9/11 report.
“I have less trouble with the idea of a counterterrorism center at the top level,” said Hitz, but he noted that the Bush administration had already created essentially the same structure in response to 9/11, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. Would one unit be folded into the other, he wondered. “The real point is that the congressional oversight committees haven’t been doing their job and taking the [intelligence] agencies to task for their failures. I mean, ‘It’s the people, stupid.’ You have to have people who are capable of dealing with these [Islamic terrorism] issues.”
We were surprised by the 9/11 attacks, Hitz argued, because intelligence agencies were preoccupied with problems they thought were more immediate and because they were not forecasting threats on the horizon.
“It was regrettable, but 9/11 was a surprise to everyone. It was a failure of intellect. We didn’t get it.” Tom Clancy had written about such a scenario, Hitz acknowledged, and a similar attack had been plotted against the Eiffel Tower, “but—you call it—cultural hubris? It wasn’t a failure to connect the dots, but like [former secretary of defense] James Schlesinger said, an absence of dots.”
The more critical question, he said, was “why was there not a unit at the CIA looking at fundamentalist Islam at least since the Shah [of Iran] was overthrown in ’79? The CIA has not been doing a good job at crystal-ball gazing, looking at issues five years down the road. We have to look at things across a greater range and over a much longer time.” Hitz cited a New York Times report that there were only 22 students majoring in Arabic studies at American universities in 2003, a situation that he said calls for the government to start offering scholarship incentives. “If we need to we should bribe students to go into this area in exchange for five years working for the feds. The law allowing that exists.”
Responding to students' questions, Hitz said that the nation failed to wake up to the terrorist threat after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center because “we thought we could deal with it in a lawyerly way,” and also because the lack of information sharing between the FBI and the CIA left the magnitude of the danger unclear.
On possible future targets in the United States, Hitz said, “Fill in the record. They came back and got the World Trade Center. We know they nabbed an Algerian headed for LAX [Los Angeles International Airport]. A terrorist attack is designed to shock a civilian population. One possibility could be a suicide bomb in a suburban shopping mall to make the point that you’re not safe anywhere. There’s no way we can assure ourselves of safety. We have to stamp out the reason for the terrorism.” Hitz added, “there is no answer to the question of what do you do to stop someone who is willing to die to take you out.”
On the role of foreign intelligence in the war on terror, Hitz said, “We’re very dependent on foreign intelligence services, especially Pakistan’s. It’s understandable so long as it’s temporary. We have to develop our own penetration sources. That’s going to be damned hard. Terrorists don’t even trust their own families. But we did succeed in penetrating mafia families and the Columbian drug rings.”
Hitz said U.S. intelligence agencies “have not been successful
in bringing on our own native resources,” meaning Americans with
pertinent ethnic backgrounds. “Agencies worry that likely recruits
also have relatives in the region and they fear their being compromised.
Somewhere along the line we’re going to have to take some chances.
We shouldn’t judge someone’s loyalty by their ethnic origin.”