The real conspiracy over the September 11 attacks on the United States involves a determination by the authorities to cover up a report into the mismanagement, lack of analysis, bungling and infighting between the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. That much is clear from the small section of the report by the inspector of the CIA, John L. Helgerson that was declassified last night. His report was the first to recommend that top agency officials face a disciplinary review. The full report by the inspector general, totalling several hundred pages, remains classified. The executive summary that was released found neither “a single point of failure” nor a “silver bullet” that would have allowed the CIA to prevent the attacks. But the report did conclude that the agency’s resources devoted to counter-terrorism had been mismanaged, and that some had been redirected away from Al Qaeda toward other parts of the agency’s clandestine service. It cited “failures to implement and manage important processes, to follow through with operations, and to properly share and analyse critical data”.
Drawn up in June 2005, Helgerson accuses the CIA's top officials, including the then director, George Tenet, of failure to devise a strategic plan in advance of the attacks. The report castigates CIA officers who "did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner". The report reveals that information on the 19 hijackers was widely reviewed before 9/11 but was not followed up. "That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systematic breakdown. There was no coherent, functioning watch-listing programme," the summary says. As many as 60 people within the CIA read a cable referring to two of the hijackers before the event, yet the information was not shared with the parts of the organisation able to do anything about it. Helgerson even recommended an inquiry into whether disciplinary action should follow. This was ruled out by the CIA’s director at the time.
Far from being the all-powerful agency it is made out to be, the CIA has a history of being unable to see the wood for the trees. For example, it failed to detect the following historical events and processes: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; the invasion of Suez by Britain, France and Israel the same year; the overthrow of the Shah of Persia in 1979; the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR later that year and the Soviet reform movement led by Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Notoriously, it funded and sponsored Al Qaeda to help the US in Afghanistan and was then unable to spot that Osama bin Laden had redirected the jihad towards the United States itself.
The weakness and incompetence of the American state revealed by the report contrasts with those who claim that September 11 was itself a conspiracy by the authorities, which was then used as a justification for the “war on terror” and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There are, of course, many unanswered questions about the attacks but none point to an act of self-destruction by a desperate US government. In a more general sense, the conspiracy theorists imply that the state is always one step ahead of everyone else, creating history in order to control it. The real story is more prosaic. We are, after all, talking about a state that couldn’t even deliver bottled water to the residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and whose armies in Iraq are tired, dishevelled and all but defeated.
Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win