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Things were not much better at the CIA. In a devastating chronology, Bamford reports that even as late as 2000, the agency was stuck in an old cold war way of doing things--training its agents, recruiting spies overseas and keeping headquarters happy. One agent explains that CIA recruiting overseas was about as rigorous as going to an opening-night mixer at a Las Vegas convention: American agents overseas sometimes competed with one another to see who could collect the most business cards at official receptions in foreign capitals. Then they would return to their embassy to determine the night's winner. Each card, the agents told themselves, represented a potential spy for the U.S. In fact, the agent said, "none of these people had anything useful ... It was just numbers. It's all quantity."
With tradecraft like that, it is little wonder the CIA "never once even tried to infiltrate" al-Qaeda, according to Bamford. He says agents working at the CIA's vaunted Alec station, the shop inside the agency responsible for tracking and killing Osama bin Laden, seemed more interested in flying to Afghanistan and Paris to meet with various Afghan warlords who promised to provide details of bin Laden's whereabouts in exchange for bags full of cash. Bamford asserts that the CIA's Afghan assets never came through with very much on the Saudi terrorist, but the CIA kept them on the dole anyway.
About the only thing going well was the 50-year war between the CIA and the FBI. Alec station's chiefs were so turf conscious about which agency had "the lead" in the hunt for bin Laden that they routinely left their FBI counterparts in the dark about what they were learning from overseas--a habit that turned out to be a fatal error. Sloppy surveillance permitted two of the hijackers to elude the CIA as early as January 2000, but then the agency repeatedly failed to inform the FBI or half a dozen other government officers who could have assisted in the hunt. Indeed, at the CIA, keister covering was in full swing long before the attacks of 9/11. In January 2000 the head of Alec station told his bosses he still had the two men under surveillance when in fact he had lost them in Bangkok. That bureaucratic chore completed, Alec station then dropped its chase altogether. It would be more than a year before a conscientious FBI agent assigned to the CIA re-examined the evidence and realized how badly the agency had blundered. The two names were finally given to the State Department on Aug. 23, 2001.
But the intelligence community's shaky performance also made the agency vulnerable to another kind of attack: the one mounted by a group of hard-line neoconservatives who took over at the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office when Bush became President. Long suspicious of the CIA if not openly hostile to it, the neocons came into power asserting internally that the agency couldn't shoot straight and therefore its judgments couldn't be trusted.