WASHINGTON—The CIA, battered by harsh new questions of what it knew before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has struggled for the last eight months to recover from the staggering intelligence failure.
America's long-troubled spy service is ramping up at its fastest rate since the Vietnam War era. Money is pouring in--$1 billion so far, with more expected. So are bugged conversations, satellite photos and other raw intelligence about Al Qaeda cells and operations around the world.
Duke University Law School conference last month.
Among the CIA spies: an Afghan aide to Osama bin Laden who says he was paid nearly $50,000 to report on the Saudi dissident's terrorism organization, Al Qaeda, and recently was asked to pose as a prisoner and go as an informant to the U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The CIA's Counter-Terrorist Center, a hub in the war on terrorism, has nearly tripled in staff, to about 1,200. Mock street signs--including Bin Laden Way--hang from the ceiling to help newcomers negotiate the ever-expanding maze of map-lined cubicles and conference rooms filled with computers.
How well the CIA's secret war is going is far less clear, however.
Intercepted conversations and other intelligence reports suggest another major terrorist attack may be in the works. A senior intelligence official said Saturday that "threats, things of concern" have increased again in the last month.
"These things, the noise, the chatter, go in cycles," he said. "We've seen this several times since Sept. 11. We are in an up cycle at the moment."
But the official said the threats were not specific as to when, where or how an attack might take place. "There's stuff everywhere," he said. "It may indicate something is up, but we don't know what."
Another senior intelligence official warns that the CIA is at a crossroads. "If there's another terrorist act, and we're caught flat-footed again, we run the risk of being dismantled," he said. "We're on a high, but it's fragile."
Indeed, last week's disclosure that the CIA on Aug. 6 told President Bush about the possibility of an Al Qaeda hijacking attempt has fueled a furious debate about whether the U.S. intelligence apparatus failed to detect or avert the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Moreover, the intelligence community's latest classified scorecard of Al Qaeda's top 27 leaders shows more than half--including Bin Laden--are believed to still be alive. The agency recently got a DNA sample from a Bin Laden family member in the event a body is found.
So far, the list indicates, nine Al Qaeda leaders have been killed and four are in custody, including operations chief Abu Zubeida and Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, the alleged head of a terrorist training camp.
The four-page classified accounting also names about 65 lesser Al Qaeda and Taliban members believed to have survived the U.S.-led assault so far. Not all the names are known to be accurate, however, and photographs are missing for many.
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, says the CIA deserves an "A-plus for effort, but six or seven out of 10 for results" so far. "I'm frustrated we can't do better," Goss said.
The CIA still has too few skilled analysts and too few overseas operatives able to penetrate and eliminate terror cells and networks, he said. "We are undermanned and overwhelmed."
Spy planes, surveillance sensors and other high-tech hardware have provided "extraordinary" intelligence, Goss said, but most spy satellites were built to watch ships and tanks during the Cold War. "We have a lot of capability that's not designed to peek in a cave."
Others are more critical. A congressional aide griped that the CIA still doesn't coordinate enough with other government agencies: "Things don't get shared like they're supposed to get shared."
And a former senior CIA official who retains close ties to the intelligence community says the CIA remains in the dark about key issues.