America - Andrew Stephen on stupid American intelligence

In the whole US intelligence shambles, only a single woman FBI agent emerges with any credit. Take a

I hate to say it - but, of course, you read it here first. What I called "internecine warfare" and finger-pointing about why 11 September happened has now reached fever pitch in Washington, though what I have heard being said here in private for months still remains essentially covert: one day the CIA privately briefs the Washington Post or the New York Times that it was all the fault of the FBI for not seeing the atrocities coming, and then the next day the FBI briefs the other way round. And this is the city, let us not forget, where political spin (and the term itself) was invented - so the public is left to assume that great investigative journalism is going on rather than these supine briefings.

But if it has any sense of probity at all, the joint congressional committee on intelligence that started meeting behind closed doors last Tuesday can reach only one conclusion: that the world of US intelligence is in a complete shambles. We now know for certain that both the CIA and the FBI - to say nothing of the ultra-secretive National Security Agency, the most important wing of US intelligence which intercepts more than 25,000 phone calls, e-mails and the like every hour - all had good intelligence that something pretty awful was going to happen to America last autumn. The NSA had even managed to lose contact with Osama Bin Laden's international mobile number (873 682 505 331) and had failed to notice two of the 11 September hijackers living openly, virtually next door to its HQ in Laurel, Maryland.

We can see how disastrous US military intelligence is, too. Not only did it allow Bin Laden and Mullah Omar to slip through its fingers, but it transported 384 supposedly deadly al-Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba; now it doesn't quite know what to do with them, because only one turns out to be a remotely serious catch (and the several Brits, I understand, are all equally harmless: young men from the Midlands for whom a holy war seemed better than Saturday nights out at the pub). Perhaps all this is not surprising, given that the US military failed to fill 3,000 intelligence posts last year. What's more, the numbers of NSA linguists able to speak Pashto and Dari could be counted on one hand with fingers still left over. (At least that was better than when US troops invaded Haiti, and the government could come up with precisely one speaker of Haitian Creole.)

Why? We can see several obvious arterial problems: the ingrained American fear of powerful big government that has led to fragmentation of the intelligence agencies, the legacy of secrecy and paranoia at the FBI of J Edgar Hoover, and so on. But the overriding reason, I think, is a more human one: that, in the macho world of Washington power, the men who run the CIA, FBI, NSA, National Imagery and Mapping Center, and so on, feel compelled to compete rather than co-operate.

Turf battles are what Washington thrives on, but the delayed aftermath to 11 September shows that, even when it comes to national security, winning petty little bureaucratic battles comes first; you don't let the other guys at Langley, say, get the credit if you're in the FBI.

If my theory is correct, it is no surprise that the one senior FBI agent to emerge from the chaos with any credit so far is a woman - Coleen Rowley, a lawyer at the FBI's Minneapolis office, who wrote an 11-page, whistle-blowing memo outlining how the FBI could have nailed the 11 September hijackers, had the men at the bureau in DC taken warnings of the importance of Zacarias Moussaoui - now charged as the "20th hijacker" - more seriously. Perhaps the US could take a leaf out of the book of the UK, which runs better intelligence services at home and abroad; MI5, after all, has just appointed its second woman to be director general.

In the meantime, do not be misled by how much the different agencies knew and did not know. In at least six of the 19 cases, US intelligence still cannot even be sure of the identities of the hijackers; it certainly has 19 names, but cannot be certain that these were not appropriated by al-Qaeda operatives on whom it has no intelligence. A hijacker aboard Flight 11, for example, was going by the name of Abdulaziz Alomari; he had taken the identity of a University of Colorado graduate whose passport was stolen in 1995. Six of the 19 were using social security numbers belonging to others.

And the identity of Nawaf Alhazmi, the hijacker on Flight 77 whom the FBI says the CIA knew all about but did not tell them - and who apparently was going to the same health clubs and shops as the NSA superspies - also remains an open question. That name was even listed in the Virginia phone book, but a New York driving licence that the hijacker held under the name was fake. Confusing indeed.

Put more women on the job, I say.