Hollywood couldn't have done it better: Under cover of darkness, commandos swoop in and kill Osama Bin Laden, the world's No. 1 terrorist, at a Pakistani hideout pinpointed by the CIA.
"Pakistan is a difficult area of operation and it's doubly difficult because you don't know what's up with the local security services,'' says intelligence expert Richard Aldrich. "For the special ops people that killed him and the CIA that tracked him, it's a triumph.''
"Triumph" is a word rarely heard at the CIA, which at the very time it was trying to find bin Laden drew flak for failing to detect the 2009 Detroit plane bomb plot and the pro-democracy revolts now sweeping the Arab world.
Moreover, the intelligence work that finally led to bin Laden's death Sunday arguably would have been unnecessary but for CIA intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 hijackings. Along with other branches of government, America's top spy agency was slow to recognize the growing threat of bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Whether changes made since Sept. 11 bode well for more CIA successes is up for debate.
"We have not yet reached the holy land in terms of the intelligence community's transformation but we do have more people in the (CIA) that can talk to and understand the people we want to influence and gather information from in the Middle East and Central Asia,'' says former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after Sept. 11.
"I also believe there's a closer relationship between the intelligence community and the military, and this latest operation is a very good example.''
It's a relationship that could get even closer. The Senate will soon consider President Barack Obama's choices of Gen. David Petraeus as the new CIA director and current CIA chief Leon Panetta as defense secretary.
Created shortly after World War II, the CIA originally focused on America's main enemy then — the Soviet Union. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the agency helped arm anticommunist fighters, many of them Muslim extremists who turned against the West after the Soviets withdrew.
"That's the origin of the disaster (with al-Qaida),'' says Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst and now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. "We were just pouring arms in there and not looking at who they were going to, which were some of the worst of the fundamentalists.''
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a sharp decline in funding for the CIA and left it short of Arabic speakers and others able to assess new threats from the Middle East and Central Asia.
Moreover, "the leaderships of the intelligence agencies, which had grown up in a Cold War environment, in many ways continued to fight the Soviets even though they had thrown in the towel,'' Graham says.
In the 1990s, the CIA received clear information that bin Laden headed his own terrorist group and that it already had staged several attacks including the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Yet "while we know now that al-Qaida was formed in 1988, at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the intelligence community did not describe this organization, at least in documents we have seen, until 1999,'' according to the 9/11 Commission that investigated the hijackings.
Of the many intelligence failures before Sept. 11, few were more disastrous than that stemming from a 2000 meeting in Malaysia of top al-Qaida operatives. The CIA knew that two of those present had visas to enter the United States, but it lost track of the terrorists and waited 19 months before informing the FBI that they might be in the country.
The two were among the hijackers of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon.
Although then-CIA-director George Tenet tried in late 2000 to beef up the agency's al-Qaida tracking capabilities, no one — including Presidents Clinton and Bush — "fully understood just how many people al-Qaida might kill or how soon they might do it,'' the 9/11 Commission found.
The CIA partly redeemed itself after 9/11 by tracking bin Laden to Afghanistan's rugged Tora Bora region. But Gen. Tommy Franks refused to send in more troops, and bin Laden escaped — not to be found for nearly a decade.
As the Bush administration's focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the CIA came under fire for falsely reporting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As critics jokingly put it, the agency couldn't find a terrorist group that did exist but found weapons that did not exist.
America's intelligence services were revamped in 2004 with the creation of the Directorate of National Intelligence, intended to oversee the CIA and 15 other spy agencies. But the new organization is on its fourth director in just less than seven years, seen as evidence that the job lacks clout and that the CIA director still wields considerable power.
"The last thing you needed in the intelligence community was to lay on another bureaucratic layer of people,'' says Goodman, the former CIA analyst, echoing a common complaint.
One of the CIA's chief problems, Goodman adds, is that it "does an excellent job of collecting intelligence, but a very poor job of analyzing it.'' He says the nomination of Petraeus as CIA director is a "terrible move'' that could discourage independent, objective analysis.
The military, where Petraeus has spent his career, "is a chain of command, top down environment,'' Goodman says "That's not the way intelligence works. Intelligence is challenging your master, being willing to dissent. When intelligence analysts do their job well it's because they're contrarian enough to challenge conventional wisdom.''
Graham and others, though, say the combination of Petraeus and Panetta, the defense nominee, could work well.
"I think that what they've learned in their previous positions will be valuable in their new positions,'' Graham says.
The CIA's triumph in finding bin Laden was a bit tainted Wednesday by Pakistan's claim that as far back as 2009 it had "pointed out to U.S. intelligence'' the location where he eventually died.
Information that caused the CIA to focus on the huge, walled compound also might have originated in controversial interrogation techniques that have since been suspended.
The New York Times reported that a detainee who was waterboarded, shackled in stress positions and kept awake for hours provided a description of bin Laden's courier — key in helping the CIA locate the al-Qaida leader. But two other detainees subjected to similar treatment reportedly misled their interrogators.
"Aggressive interrogation techniques do work — that's not the issue,'' says Jennifer Sims, director of Intelligence Studies at Georgetown University's school of foreign service.
"The issue is whether we as a society want to stoop to that level. I believe torturing degrades the torturer and this can do irreparable harm to society when it becomes institutionalized.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]