Shift away from human intelligence to technology may help explain failure to thwart attacks

Thursday, September 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ A current emphasis on technology over human intelligence-gathering, a funding shortage and an information overload may help explain U.S. intelligence agencies' failure to forestall the worst terror attack on American soil.

``Our raw intelligence has gotten weaker, partly because we're not hiring, we're not paying and we're not analyzing what we're collecting,'' said Anthony Cordesman, an anti-terrorism expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

His comments echoed those of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who told CNN that ``it would be well ... to consider beefing up some of our intelligence capabilities, particularly in the areas of human intelligence.''

That's easier said than done, said Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

``It's incredibly difficult to find the right people who can infiltrate these groups,'' Rose said. ``As far as making other changes, it means going up against Washington's bureaucratic inertia.''

During the Cold War, the United States began pouring billions into satellite imagery, communications interception and reconnaissance equipment. The tools were also useful in monitoring the moves of organizations such as the PLO and the IRA _ which had traditional, low-tech structures that were relatively easy to follow.

But the extraordinary costs meant cutbacks in personnel at the CIA and the National Security Agency, the nation's international eavesdropping arm.

As the Cold War came to a close, the number of threatening groups increased tenfold just as the digital revolution hit, making global communications suddenly very cheap and secure. Meanwhile, the numbers of people working in U.S. intelligence remained constant.

These days, terrorists can download sophisticated encryption software on the Internet for free, making it increasingly difficult to tap into their communications.

One recent report said Osama bin Laden, a suspect in Tuesday's attacks, has used complex digital masking technology called steganography to send photos over the Internet bearing hidden messages.

The head of NSA, Gen. Mike Hayden, acknowledged in an interview with CBS' ''60 Minutes II'' earlier this year that his agency is ``behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution,'' adding that bin Laden ``has better technology'' than the agency.

Former national security adviser Sandy Berger said Wednesday that the terrorists responsible for Tuesday's carnage displayed ``a level of sophistication that is beyond what any intelligence outfit thought was possible.'' Yet, many believe the perpetrators used low-tech methods to elude Western intelligence.

Wayne Madsen, a former NSA intelligence officer, said he believes the terrorists shunned e-mail and mobile phones, using couriers and safe houses instead. He said it was likely the terrorists in each of Tuesday's four hijacked planes didn't know the others existed.

Terrorist ``cells are kept small and very independent so intelligence agencies can't establish any sort of network,'' Madsen said.

Others say the big problem is not the technological shortcomings but the inability to get inside tightly-knit organizations such as bin Laden's.

``It's not easy to knock on bin Laden's cave and say we'd like to join,'' said Frank Cilluffo, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``These are hard targets for Americans to infiltrate and we need to recruit the kind of people who have the language and the cultural understanding to gain access to these organizations.''

Eugene Carroll, a Navy admiral and a defense expert, agreed. ``These people can only be countered by superb intelligence. The U.S. doesn't have it,'' he said.

Experts say intelligence-gathering, to be effective, must involve close coordination between eavesdropping and spying. In practical terms, this means cooperation between the NSA and CIA.

Madsen said there is reason to believe the NSA received some good intelligence showing bin Laden's involvement in Tuesday's attacks but that it wasn't recognized as such.

``There's an information overload out there and not surprisingly it becomes very hard to process, prioritize it and share it,'' said Ian Lesser at the Rand Corporation think tank.

Others said that some of the best intelligence people had been lost to the boom while promising junior personnel were pushed out by inflexible veterans.

``The intelligence community needs to do a lot more to retain the best and the brightest, who are lured away to companies that can offer the kinds of incentives and salary that government jobs just don't have right now,'' Cilluffo said.