Washington After being surprised by the deadliest attack ever on the United States, the nation's $30 billion-a-year intelligence community is under increasing pressure to reduce its dependence on high-tech surveillance and electronic eavesdropping, improve its analysis and hire more spies, even if they're not the most pristine moral characters.
A number of intelligence officers complain that 25 years of political pressure, bureaucratic inertia, risk aversion, reliance on other nations and technophilia have crippled the ability of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to penetrate terrorist organizations and other "hard targets" such as Iraq and North Korea.
"Sept. 11 was the ultimate symptom, the final sign that the disease had run its course," said Larry Johnson, a CIA officer in the 1980s who was deputy director of the State Department's Office for Combating Terrorism in the early 1990s.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency would not respond to this or other complaints: "It would be pointless to respond to such criticisms. ... We have very important work to do, and we are pressing ahead."
In the last five years, the budget of the nation's Counterterrorism Center (CTC), based at CIA headquarters in suburban McLean, Va., has nearly tripled and its manpower has doubled, said Mansfield. A senior intelligence official who asked not to be named said 700 people, some of them called out of retirement, have been assigned to the CTC since Sept. 11.
Mansfield also said the CIA, which for years lacked officers fluent in Arabic, Farsi and other non-European languages, has "nearly tripled" its corps of Arabic speakers in the past five or six years. He declined to say how many Arabic speakers it now has.
In recent days, the agency has mounted a public relations campaign, disclosing past covert attempts to locate, capture or arrest terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. None of the operations ever bore fruit, however, and officials involved in planning them concede that the CIA never located bin Laden, never got a spy inside his al Qaida organization and relied heavily on Pakistan's intelligence service even though it knew some Pakistani intelligence officers were sympathetic to bin Laden.
The heart of the problem, said current and former intelligence officers assigned to counter-terrorism, is that the CIA has been timid, fearful that it will be crucified by Congress and the media as it has been in the past for recruiting unsavory agents and mounting risky operations.
Defenders of the agency acknowledge that it's hard to penetrate Islamic fundamentalist groups such as bin Laden's al Qaida network, but former officers say it's possible.
"It certainly could have been conceivable early on," said Gerecht. "We had a window of opportunity. From 1992 to 1996, al Qaida was very much in a growth stage, where it was recruiting people from all over. It would not be easy under any circumstances, but it would at least be possible."