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  • The Quest for Absolute Security: The Failed Relations among U.S. Intelligence Agencies
  • Jeffrey T. Richelson
Athan Theoharis , The Quest for Absolute Security: The Failed Relations among U.S. Intelligence Agencies. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. 309 pp.

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 served as a catalyst for congressional and academic studies of the failure of U.S. intelligence and security agencies to detect and disrupt the plot. Those studies have also been critiqued by a variety of authors and from a variety of perspectives. Athan Theoharis, whose résumé includes books on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), begins his new volume by challenging several key conclusions of two investigations: those by the congressional Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, and by the National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks upon the United States.

Theoharis notes that both groups complained that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and FBI failed "to focus" as well as share relevant information and failed to assess the cumulative import of the intelligence gathered about a "probable terrorist attack." The two bodies, the author reports, also cited "serious gaps" in the collection capabilities of the two organizations as well as the absence of a central analytic entity that could have ensured that intelligence was fully exploited. The underlying problem according to the Joint Inquiry and National Commission was differing "missions, legal authorities, and cultures."

What was needed, according to those two groups, was better coordination between the CIA and FBI, a more centralized bureaucracy (particularly a director of national intelligence), and (depending on the group) either a new domestic intelligence agency or an FBI with a more aggressive approach, one rooted in a domestic intelligence rather than a law enforcement mentality. The latter mentality, FBI critics charge, equates to a focus on apprehension after a crime rather than long-term surveillance, penetration, and prevention.

But, in laying the groundwork for what is to follow, Theoharis charges that the reports of the two groups "reflect a poor understanding of the long-term history of limited cooperation among the intelligence agencies and the FBI's long history of [End Page 153] counterintelligence failures." In addition, he writes, "the FBI's failure to anticipate Al Qaeda's surprise attack was not due to insufficient authority, a lack of aggressiveness, or a 'law enforcement' culture" (p. 5). Further, he argues that FBI officials had abandoned such a culture more than five decades ago when they began to conduct intelligence operations to detect espionage, sabotage, and subversion.

Over the next seven chapters and 209 pages Theoharis covers the creation of several U.S. intelligence agencies from 1882 through 1978—the Office of Naval Intelligence, Military Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency (NSA). Beyond noting their creation, Theoharis examines many of their battles, particularly those between the CIA and FBI, as well as their cooperative efforts.

A key element of the author's survey in the first seven chapters is his depiction of an aggressive intelligence establishment, but one that often failed, despite that aggressiveness, to detect threats to the United States—particularly from foreign enemies. The FBI was, at various times, willing to go beyond the law and engage in illegal eavesdropping and surreptitious entry operations. The CIA opened mail to and from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the NSA was receiving the cables of foreign governments from U.S. cable companies as well as intercepting the communications of anti– Vietnam War activists.

In chapter 3, Theoharis examines several cases of FBI counterespionage operations, "with two confirming that the failure to anticipate and prevent espionage was due neither to the lack of legal authority nor to a lack of cooperation among the U.S. intelligence agencies" (p. 60). He argues that the cases "underscore the difficulty of anticipating espionage" (p. 60) and that the FBI's failures occurred because FBI officials had an essentially political conception of potential security threats. The two confirming cases noted by Theoharis involved defections of German agents—examples of pure luck rather than FBI skill. He makes the same argument with regard to the FBI failures...


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pp. 153-155
Launched on MUSE
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