A Critical Mistake

April 16, 2004

[Speaking of that more innocent time of 1996 (see my last post), it was during that summer that I rode as an emergency medical technician in the Wethersfield, CT Volunteer Ambulance Service. From that experience specifically, and I suppose my upbringing in general, I have the utmost respect for those people in professions where mistakes can have dire consequences, ones that put people in their graves and leave him making the mistake with nightmares he’ll take to his own. I’m not sure if that’ll show through my indignation in the following, but it is there in my mind, and that’s why I write it explicitly here.]

Amidst all the attention now finally focused upon the many, many failures that the US government made in the leadup to 9/11, sentiments along the lines of “I’m not sure looking back on these things that anyone of sound mind could have put these dots together,” have become popular platitudes among even the most intelligent members of the punditocracy. (The quote comes from Bob Schieffer, who in my opinion certainly falls in this most esteemed portion of a rapidly degenerating profession, on last night’s Larry King Live.)

Such sentiments arise from a critical mistake. The problem is not that our intelligence services and our leaders made errors. The problem is not even that they allowed institutions to persist that impeded the detection and correction of errors, though this is a graver sin. Rather, the problem is that not enough of them ever came to terms with that unfortunate twist in this mortal coil that one almost never knows enough to choose confidently from one’s options before those options become obsolete. The first essential difference between good strategy and tactics and great strategy and tactics is that the latter compensate for the near-inevitability of incomplete information. The second essential difference between good strategy and tactics and great strategy and tactics is that the latter actually have a nonzero chance of working against the countermoves of a competent foe and the caprices of a cruel Fate.

I believe an excellent example of this critical mistake is the incident in January 2000 where the CIA managed to persuade Malaysia’s security services to surveil a meeting of a dozen major al-Qaeda operatives. In retrospect, this meeting is probably where planning of both the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the September 11, 2001 attacks was initiated. Infamously, a tragedy of errors ensued after this intelligence break in which essentially all the information gleaned was mishandled. An excellent summary of these errors comes from PBS’s Frontline site), of which the following is but a small excerpt:

The story of this intelligence failure begins with a 1999 CIA breakthrough — the interception of communications from an Al Qaeda logistics center in Yemen about a meeting of operatives that would take place in January 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The names of two of the participants were mentioned: Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

The CIA tracked Almidhar on his way to Malaysia. An agent told FRONTLINE that during a passport check at a stopover, the CIA even got access to his Saudi Arabian passport and learned Almidhar had been issued a multiple-entry visa to the U.S.

Once in Kuala Lumpur, the Al Qaeda operatives were photographed — at the CIA’s request — by Malaysian authorities at a series of meetings. Reportedly, no sound recordings were made, but intelligence sources now believe the meetings were held to plan future Al Qaeda attacks. Among the men captured in the surveillance photos were:

* Almidhar and Alhazmi (later hijackers of American Flight 77 which flew into the Pentagon on Sept. 11);
* Ramzi bin al-Shibh (a Sept. 11 co-conspirator and Mohamed Atta’s roommate. It would not be until after Sept. 11 that bin al-Shibh would be identified in the Malaysia surveillance photos);
* Tawfiq bin-Atash — AKA “Khallad” (a suspected intermediary between bin Laden and plotters of the October 2000 USS Cole attack).

The CIA maintains that it did notify the FBI by e-mail of the Malaysia meetings soon after they occurred — and that it did mention Almidhar had a U.S. visa. The FBI, however, states they have no record of this notification.

The CIA admits that it did not inform the bureau that after the Malaysia meetings ended, it tracked Almidhar and Alhazmi to Los Angeles. The CIA further admits that it failed to warn the INS or the State Department, and as a result, the men’s names were not added to a terrorist watch list.

Not one of the men who attended the Malaysia meetings was, at the time, known to have been involved in any crime against the United States, so it is perhaps understandable that the CIA missed the full significance of the meetings. This changed, however, in October 2000, when the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen and 17 sailors were killed. The FBI’s subsequent investigation into the Cole attack would uncover evidence that would make the CIA’s continued withholding of information incomprehensible.

The key mistake was not any of the grievous ones involving a lack of communication between the FBI and the CIA. The key mistake was deciding to surveil this meeting (especially if it was clear a priori that audio surveillance would be impossible) rather than arrest those involved, and not because arresting those involved would have, in retrospect, incapacitated a significant chunk of Al Qaeda’s operational leadership. It was a mistake because the prospect should have been recognized to be extremely slim that any intelligence agency could successfully track all the people and plans that would emanate from this meeting, a confluence of militants from across the world that is incredibly rare in a professionally compartmentalized organization like Al Qaeda.

[This post is already growing too long, but I feel should anticipate two probable rebuttals to the above criticism:

1) The CIA could not have so acted in Malaysia for legal or political reasons: I do not believe there were any legal impediments, as I believe the bulk of the covert action findings authorized by President Clinton were put into effect after the embassy bombings of 1998. As for political impediments in conducting covert action in a Muslim country, I would argue that the successful semi-covert snatch of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center Attack, in Muslim (not to mention nuclear-armed) Pakistan in September 1995 by the FBI implies that the CIA should have been able to accomplish this arrest of less-infamous men who also need not then be publicly paraded in court afterward.

2) The CIA could not have acted without revealing the fact it was intercepting al Qaeda signals from Yemen: First of all, a meeting with this many participants is an extremely rare event and the prospect of gaining information from their interrogation is much greater than the potential cost of a blackout in signals intelligence. Moreover, a meeting with this many participants would make it hard for Al Qaeda to pinpoint where their security leak was. Finally, while in light of this, Al Qaeda might have nevertheless instituted communications blackout as an appropriately paranoid precautionary measure, it is likely that Al Qaeda already operated under extremely restrictive communication procedures given the widely known (or at least widely rumored) prowess of the US at signals intelligence.]

3 Responses to “A Critical Mistake”

  1. CSTAR Says:

    Strategies should be provably terminating. For political sor military actions thisis usually interpreted as saying there should be an exit substrategy.

    For instance consider the following strategy to produce $5 out of $4

    Free lunch strategy

    Let X = 4


    let Z = X/2

    If 5= X + X
    then return X+X
    else repeat.

    Theorem. If this program terminates it returns 5.

    Of course this is completely vacuous, since the program never terminates.

  2. CSTAR Says:

    Oops. I had really meant this (although as war as nontermination, either one works)

    Let X = 4


    let Z = X/2

    If 5= Z + Z
    then return Z+Z
    else repeat.

  3. Bill Says:

    Who said that either world allows or we should expect terminating strategies that are both (1) successful and (2) provably terminating any semi-specific time scale?!

    As Camus advised (though probably not in English):

    The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus is happy.

    But more seriously, I actually agree with your point. See my subsequent post More on “A Critical Mistake”.

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