It might be useful to call a truce, step back from the finger-pointing about who in the government made what mistakes before Sept. 11, and look for a moment at who was doing things right.
Based on what is now publicly known it looks as if a handful of people were demonstrably prescient before Sept. 11 about terrorists being trained as pilots and crashing aircraft into major buildings in the U.S.:
-- The late Rick Rescorla, the remarkable chief of security for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center, who foresaw the magnitude of the attack and died a hero's death while saving over 3,000 people.
-- Two FBI agents, Kenneth Williams in Phoenix and another agent in Minneapolis, each of whom separately shared his specific concerns about terrorist pilots with colleagues inside the FBI.
-- Rex Hudson, an analyst at the Library of Congress, who was asked to assess the psychology of terrorists by the National Intelligence Council in 1999 and whose analysis of suicide pilots was published well before Sept. 11.
-- Stephen Gale, a terrorism expert at the University of Pennsylvania, who, together with two colleagues, gave the Federal Aviation Administration in 1998 an analysis of how suicide pilots would operate, and was met with a shrug.
-- And Tom Clancy, who published a novel ("Debt of Honor") in 1994 centered on the concept of a rogue pilot flying a 747 into the U.S. Capitol.
Much of the information upon which these men reached their conclusions was available to the rest of us. Why weren't we as perceptive as Rick Rescorla et al.?
It is probably in part because in order to make decisions about what we need to do to thwart terrorist attacks in this country we've been relying too much upon the prospect of obtaining foreign intelligence. For a number of reasons this source of information -- stealing secrets abroad by, principally, recruiting spies and intercepting communications -- will only rarely be able to give us advance warning about terrorist attacks. If we are smart and lucky we may conceivably strike gold -- recruit a member of al Qaeda's inner circle or tap into their communications -- but during the years, perhaps decades, of war that lie ahead this will occur at best only rarely. It would be extremely difficult for a CIA case officer to recruit and run an agent who stays in place in al Qaeda and gives us a continuing stream of information. To find one who has access to the organization's advance plans would be more difficult still.
Intercepted communications could be a more promising source of intelligence if it weren't for our national tendency to logorrhea about the subject. U.S. intelligence figured out in the late 1990s how to intercept bin Laden's satellite telephone conversations and then someone talked to the press about it; the source of course dried up. Recently there have been periodic press reports about how we have been able to intercept al Qaeda e-mail and other communications. (Hint to the blabbermouths in the government who have access to intercepts of terrorist communications: Members of al Qaeda read newspapers.)
The most useful thing the president could do to avoid intelligence failures in the war against terrorism would be to order the government to treat intercepted communications the way we treated the fruits of U.S. and British code-breaking in World War II: Cut back the number of people with access to intercepts by about 99.9% and threaten the few who retain access with severe punishment if they even think of talking about intercepts outside authorized channels.
In part because of these problems there apparently was no foreign intelligence (in the sense of secrets stolen abroad) that was available before Sept. 11 and that would have reasonably led the government to expect that terrorists would fly airliners into buildings, on that date or any other time. The intelligence warning given the president by the CIA last Aug. 6 about possible al Qaeda hijackings was, as is often the case, vague and general; it did not deal with suicide pilots at all. As long as the White House was relying on the foreign intelligence it was given, it is hard to see how the president could reasonably have done more than he did -- alert law enforcement agencies and the airlines.
Each of the half dozen or so individuals who did take some action before Sept. 11 to get us to focus on the threat of suicide pilots attacking buildings did so based not on foreign intelligence but on his own judgment, sparked by other sources of information. The two FBI agents were acting on hunches developed during law enforcement investigations inside the U.S. Mr. Hudson, the Library of Congress analyst, had read that after his capture Abdul Hakim Murad, Ramzi Yousef's colleague in the 1995 plot to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners, had reportedly spoken of the possibility of a suicide pilot attack against CIA headquarters. The University of Pennsylvania researchers were insightful for similar reasons. Mr. Clancy presumably decided on the plot of his novel based on his own fertile imagination, combined with his extensive research. The extraordinary Rescorla, who had also foreseen the earlier truck bomb attack against the World Trade Center, was just one of those rare individuals -- as he had shown in his distinguished military career -- who have an invaluable sixth sense of being able to think like their enemies and the intellectual courage to act on their judgments. The question is how to replicate such insights across the spectrum of government.
We will pick up a good deal of information about possible terrorist attacks in the future from a number of different sources: by interrogating prisoners captured abroad, by our armed forces capturing terrorists' computers in Afghanistan, by law enforcement investigations here in the U.S., by tips from friendly intelligence and law enforcement organizations in other countries, and to some extent through our spies and our collection of electronic intelligence. Military actions abroad may be quite fruitful, but foreign intelligence that we ourselves collect -- the secrets we steal abroad -- may be a relatively small share of the important information in the government's hands.
One major reason is that much of the terrorists' plotting may be done here in the U.S., as terrorist expert Steven Emerson has been saying for years. Much of the hijackers' planning for Sept. 11 apparently took place in the U.S. and in Germany. Neither the FBI nor its German counterpart have a hunting license to spy domestically on whatever interests them. Both investigate specific crimes, past and potential. The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing -- they worked out of two countries where civil liberties are strongly protected and, as long as they obeyed the law, they knew they would probably not even be watched, much less interfered with.
Some of the pre-Sept. 11 barriers to communication about terrorism within and between the intelligence and law enforcement communities have been removed in the last eight months. The CIA has reportedly now suspended, at least in matters relating to terrorism, the highly dysfunctional guidelines it issued in late 1995 that deter case officers from recruiting spies who might have some propensity to violence -- obviously a major obstacle to penetrating terrorist groups. The USA Patriot Act made it legal last fall (it was illegal before) for the FBI to provide material to the CIA obtained pursuant to grand jury subpoenas in domestic terrorism investigations. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who inherited from his predecessor an extremely decentralized organization that was not well-focused on dealing with terrorism, has recently consolidated counter-terrorist work; this should help ensure in the future that FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis who have suspicions about a terrorist threat will not work in ignorance of one another's efforts.
What is needed, urgently, is a way for the potpourri of information available to the government -- including assessments of our infrastructure's vulnerabilities, foreign intelligence, law enforcement material, and the hunches of FBI agents and academic analysts -- to be pulled together in one place and assessed by people with the sixth sense of a Rick Rescorla. The only institution which both the law enforcement and intelligence communities recognize as their superior is the presidency, so this task, it would seem, must be done in the White House. The most obvious place to focus it would be in Tom Ridge's Homeland Security office.
But Mr. Ridge needs more resources than civil servants on loan from other parts of the government. And to get the job done properly his charter needs to let him move well beyond coordinating the efforts of various government departments. Among other tasks, he needs to take charge of both assessing and correcting the vulnerabilities in all of our national networks -- the electricity grid, the Internet, food production and distribution, oil and gas pipelines, and so on. Each of these networks has different vulnerabilities, and it is necessary for those who understand the networks and those who can put themselves in the shoes of the enemy to work side-by-side.
During World War II the most talented people in the country were brought to Washington and many worked for a dollar a year to handle the myriad new tasks needed to win the war. Something like that spirit and commitment are needed now. President Bush and Mr. Ridge should ask the best people that the country can provide to help assess, network by network, our vulnerabilities and especially those (such as flimsy airliner cockpit doors before Sept. 11) that invite terrorist attack and exploitation. Congress should then be asked to give the executive branch whatever authority it needs to get those vulnerabilities fixed promptly.
The White House could start with the collection of Nobel Prize winners and top industry experts now involved in the National Academies' (Science, Engineering, Medicine) forthcoming report on using technology to protect us from terrorism; divide them up into different working groups for each network; add the nation's best experts on the Mideast such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami; season with FBI agents and others who have demonstrated prescience about terrorists' tactics; add Tom Clancy for a dash of spice; give them full access to all terrorist-related information; put a picture of Rick Rescorla on the wall as their guiding spirit, and tell them to get busy.
We must now concentrate on finding, and getting judgments made by, the people who are likely to be right. Put off the recriminations and televised hearings. There's work to do.
Mr. Woolsey, director of Central Intelligence from 1993 to 1995, practices law in Washington.