Nowadays, intelligence collection and sharing have become crucial elements of the global security framework. Numerous intelligence agencies have been established to respond to threats, such as international terrorism, through prevention rather than reaction. Such departments work on domestic and global levels to identify potential risks and eliminate them before an attack is carried out. Ideally, the situation requires transparent communication between departments, including local law enforcement, because combined effort proves to be the most efficient way of dealing with threats. However, information exchange between agencies and law enforcement departments does not always function as required. The purpose of this paper is to examine intelligence sharing failures based on the case study of the New York and Washington attacks on September 11, 2001.
The Concept of Intelligence from the Historical Perspective
The history of intelligence communities is long and complicated, as they are products of war that serve to maintain peace. The concept itself is widely associated with international espionage and stealing all sorts of secrets for the sake of protecting one’s homeland. Nevertheless, this highly important mission may sometimes be failed due to a lack of communication both within the intelligence communities and between them and local law enforcement. History has seen several examples of such miscommunication that resulted in horrendous consequences for the communities involved and cost countless human lives. The attack on Pearl Harbor is often considered the “leading case in the field of intelligence failures” (Pastorello and Testa, 2017, p. 53). Indeed, the United States agencies failed to anticipate the attack, which led to severe consequences. On the other hand, today’s failures are caused not by the lack of information but by the inability to share it and make meaningful conclusions. These factors led to a series of acts of terrorism across the globe, including the attack on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001.
Summary of the 9/11 Attacks
The day that transformed the global security infrastructure started with four planes being hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists. Around 7:00 in the morning, the terrorist boarded their aircraft, having made phone calls to confirm that the plans were still valid. An hour later, four airplanes are hijacked by the terrorists, who do not follow any ATC instructions. Al-Qaeda members threaten the crew and turn the planes in the direction of their targets. By 8:46 local time, American Airlines Flight 11 appeared in the sky above New York City and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC), causing panic among stunned citizens. Fifteen minutes later, another aircraft hit the South Tower of the WTC in front of thousands of people. The third airplane crashed into the Pentagon’s western side, while the passengers of the fourth flight attempted to regain control. As a result, United Airlines Flight 93 went down and hit the ground at high speed. Fortunately, the fourth crash caused no extra damage, as it happened in the field southeast of Pittsburgh.
Following the attacks, intense fires broke out the WTC and the Pentagon. Between 9:59 and 10:28, both towers collapsed, killing thousands of people trapped inside and damaging surrounding constructions. The death toll nearly reached three thousand people, which included passengers of the hijacked planes, WTC and Pentagon workers, as well as first response teams on the ground. The attack put the entire planet into shock but also raised an array of questions, as to why such a large-scale attack was missed by the intelligence community.
The role of the CIA and Law Enforcement
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established with the objective of protecting the United States against international threats. According to the concept of intelligence, this organization was in charge of collecting, systemizing, and analyzing data concerning possible threats to national security. According to Camacho and Glicksman (2019), the 9/11 Commission created by Congress concluded that “poor communication, inconsistent data collection and circulation” became the leading causes of the U.S. intelligence community unpreparedness (p. 149). Pastorello and Testa (2017) state that the CIA was unable to fulfill its purpose in regard to the 9/11 attacks due to three major factors, that are deficiencies in “structure, culture, and incentives” (p. 57). In fact, it is alleged that Al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks starting with the organization’s meeting in Kuala-Lumpur in 2000. First of all, the CIA identified several potential terrorists and knew that some of them possessed U.S. visas (Pastorello & Testa, 2017). Nevertheless, the agency’s organization was so disjointed that its departments failed to coordinate their actions in order to prevent the terrorists’ arrival in the USA.
Secondly, the information was not sent to other organizations, including the FBI and local law enforcement. Perhaps, the CIA became the victim of its own culture of secrecy that prevented agents from sharing the intelligence data. Pastorello and Testa (2017) note that a flight school official reported a suspicious person with no aviation background only interested in learning how to take off and land an airplane. The man ended up being Zacharias Moussaoui, one of the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, but the case did not receive proper attention, as the information was incomplete for each law enforcement agency.
It is possible that proper communication would change the outcome of the events. The FBI handled the case of Zacharias Moussaoui along with local law enforcement, but agents were not informed on the terrorists’ plans from Kuala-Lumpur. According to Pastorello and Testa (2017), the 9/11 Commission confirmed that the Bureau and the CIA failed to “connect the dots,” as each organization had its own agenda and priorities. As a result, local law enforcement agencies were not ready for a large-scale attack. A different asset positioning would allow for an adequate response on behalf of organizations involved before the attacks occurred. Moreover, first response teams in the WTC had little to no information regarding what had happened. Subsequently, many lives were lost when the second airplane crashed, and the towers collapsed. The CIA policy on secrecy came from an opinion that other agencies would not be capable of working on issues of such magnitude. However, the 9/11 attacks’ impact proved that seemingly unimportant data might actually become extremely relevant for the overall picture.
All in all, the 2001 attack on New York City and Washington D.C. highlighted the imperfections of the national security system. While a large number of agencies and law enforcement departments worked to protect the U.S., their differences and unwillingness to communicate left a breach exploited by the terrorists. The CIA, which focused on foreign affairs, was aware that Al-Qaeda planned an attack but missed several details. The FBI and local law enforcement did not have enough information from foreign intelligence to connect their suspicions to a larger case. In the end, thousands of people fell victim to miscommunication and served as a valuable lesson that made governmental officials reconsider the entire global security infrastructure.
Camacho, A., & Glicksman, R. (2019). Reorganizing government: A functional and dimensional framework. NYU Press.
Pastorello, M, & Testa, M. (2017). Intelligence failures: Between theories and case studies. Sicurezza, Terrorismo e Società, 5, 49–67.