September 11, 2001 was most certainly the worst day in the history of U.S. intelligence.
There’s the horrifying video and carnage of the events in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and security agencies can only sit back and watch. Afterwards, the 9/11 Commission, one of the most publicized government committees in the history of the United States, placed a large portion of the blame squarely on these agencies' shoulders. The effect of that day is felt in almost every intelligence action taken since, both good and bad.
Every year since, the intelligence community is reminded of their greatest failure by memorial services, tributes, dedications, and memorials. Sometimes this is turned into motivation to drive their efforts, and can result in some outstanding work, such as that done to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Sometimes the effect of 9/11 on their work leads to only more controversy. For example, when it came to Iraq, the CIA and other agencies (including the State Department) were reluctant to say Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, which in turn led to war.
Why were the CIA and others more reluctant to question the intelligence on Iraq? There are many reasons: Not wanting to be the bearer of bad news and the fact that no one could confirm with certainty Hussein did not have WMDs are among these. But in my opinion one of the greatest reasons was that after 9/11, no one wanted to be the one whose inaccurate analysis led to further bloodshed on American soil. In 2002, weighing the option between being wrong about Iraq not having WMDs was a riskier proposal for them than being wrong about Iraq having WMDs.
Then there are other more covert activities. Extraordinary rendition of captured prisoners. Phone intercepts of U.S. civilians by the NSA. A controversial Predator drone bombing campaign in Pakistan run largely by the CIA. In a matter of only a few years, views of intelligence agencies had changed, from one of a few Cold War leftovers fighting to stay relevant to one of Big Brother-esque agencies with too much power.
Then came the reforms. In 2002 came the Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to integrate national security directives, and in 2005 came the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, intended to do the same thing for all the intelligence agencies. There were benefits, but along with new organizations came power politics, fights for funding, and arguments over what information to share with whom.
Working in intelligence is a pretty thankless job. Few people know what your work is, and your successes are almost always kept secret. Your greatest failures are almost always very public. The added pressure and low morale from all the controversy surrounding Langley and other intelligence agencies is one reason that since 9/11 there has been increased employee turnover.
Yet at the same time, the work continues. September 11th will come and go, and the majority of the American public will begin to focus on other issues, such as a stalling economy, a presidential primary, or the beginning of a new football season.
The long shadow of 9/11 will continue to cast its shadow over the work of those in intelligence, and while it was a great failure, it has become since a great motivator as well. “Never again” is just a cliché slogan to many of us, but the meaning of the phrase still rings true for those in intelligence, the military, national security, or law enforcement. The effect of 9/11 on policy is pretty straightforward and obvious, but even a decade later this event remains a seminal reason as to why many work in national security.
Let us not forget what happened on 9/11, but we should also take comfort that so many use the pain of that memory as motivation to work long hours for little pay in order to prevent this from ever happening again.
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