MADELEINE BRAND, host:
A blistering internal report on the CIA details mistakes top officials made in the months and years leading up to 9/11. The report was written by the agency's internal watchdog; portions of it have just been made public.
Steve Coll, staff writer at the New Yorker is the author of "Ghost Wars," a book that describes the CIA's activities before 9/11. And Steve, welcome back to DAY TO DAY.
Mr. STEVE COLL (Staff Writer, New Yorker Magazine): Thanks, Madeleine. Good to be with you.
BRAND: What does this report - it was written two years ago - tell us that we haven't heard from the 9/11 Commission or indeed from the countless books and articles on the subject?
Mr. COLL: There are not a lot of new facts. There's a new authoritative interpretation that the inspector general offers that reflects a long-running debate within the CIA about how to allocate responsibility for the agency's failures before 9/11. And the inspector general comes down very hard on the top leadership of the agency.
BRAND: And the inspector general says that George Tenet and others, basically, quote, "did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner." Specifically what was he referring to?
Mr. COLL: The inspector general gives Tenet and his leadership team credit for being alert to the threat that al-Qaida posed and to issuing repeated warnings inside a government that otherwise somnolent about the threat. But the inspector general feels that they didn't take enough action to follow through on their own sort of perceptions that this was a serious problem, that they sort of saw the problem but they didn't pull the levers in a way that the inspector general thought was adequate.
BRAND: And of course Tenet has responded by saying the inspector general is, quote, "flat-out wrong." So you've done a lot of reporting on the CIA and 9/11; who's right here?
Mr. COLL: Well, you know, honestly, I have some sympathy for Tenet's point of view - for this reason. He was one of maybe three people in the entire United States government who understood that al-Qaida intended to carry out mass casualty attacks on American soil at a time when hardly anyone else in the cabinet was paying attention. He and Richard Clarke and some others were running around issuing repeated warnings.
His budgetary resources were not of his own making. They reflected the Clinton administration's priorities on Capitol Hill and the decisions made by the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill. Certainly there is sharp criticism of Tenet's leadership from inside the CIA bureaucracy that involves his failures to make hard decisions and to solve some problems of disputes with other intelligence agencies.
But the structure of failure in the United States intelligence community before 9/11 was not fundamentally the responsibility of the director of CIA; it was a government-wide problem. And so in that sense I think the inspector general's perspective is narrow, but it has to be put into context. It's coming form inside the CIA. It's sort of an internal conversation rather than a government-wide critique, in my judgment.
BRAND: Well, practically, a lot of people have called for some kind of discipline and some kind of accountability, and yet both General Michael Hayden, the current CIA director, and the previous director, Porter Goss, both refused to do that, to discipline anyone, including George Tenet. This report does call for some disciplinary action.
Mr. COLL: Yes, limited though in its findings. I mean, in this case the inspector general, though severe in his criticisms of Tenet and his leadership group, does not suggest that their failures crossed the more egregious lines of criminal or negligent performance that would absolutely demand disciplinary action. Instead, their findings fall into the category of the discretion of the leadership of the CIA to issue reprimands or to sort of clarify the record and make a note on the record that this failure of leadership was important enough to generate notice.
And so then that falls to Tenet's successors, and neither of them have chosen to do this. I think in part they're speaking to the whole community that they now lead in saying we're not going to second guess you, we're going to always give you the benefit of the doubt as long as you perform honestly, don't commit crimes or fail in grossly negligent way.
BRAND: And I suppose from the public's point of view, the big question is, have any of these systems failures have been addressed, and has communication improved between the FBI and the CIA, and have lessons been learned?
Mr. COLL: Well, the people inside the community that you come across and ask that question give a very mixed report. Certainly inter-agency communication is better than it was, but it's certainly not perfect. And a lot of the culture of bureaucracy that leads people even against common sense, to hoard information or to jealously guard their prerogatives in the system, that clearly persists, even though the structure is better and a lot of the systems are better.
And as to the broader ability to effectively allocate resources quickly to address emerging threats, we still operate a very large and unwieldy bureaucracy. It's been drastically reorganized in the last three years and that reorganization has slowed things down and created yet new sources of conflict. So no, we're certainly in a state of perfect reform at this stage.
BRAND: Steve Coll is an author who has written the book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA." And he's also with the New Yorker magazine. Steve, thanks for joining us.
Mr. COLL: Madeleine, my pleasure.
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