In December of 2000, John Gannon signed his name to a document that is almost prophetic in its analysis of global security trends.
From the potential impacts of a U.S. economic downturn to the various drivers of what we now know as the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East, and the rise of extremist terrorist organizations in safe-havens like Afghanistan, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2015 study warns of almost every major international security issue faced by the United States during the last 10 years.
The one notable exception, of course, is the attack carried out by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001.
But Gannon, the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and former deputy director for Intelligence at the CIA, knows all too well that there is a difference between knowing an enemy wants to attack you and knowing how and when they plan to do so.
Gannon is reflective now, as president of BAE Systems’ Intelligence and Security business, but straightforward in what some might call his defense of the intelligence community’s analysis of the al-Qaeda threat.
“We were very familiar with Osama bin Laden,” said Gannon.
“In my inbox on a daily basis I was getting a lot of reporting on al-Qaeda. But the best judgment that I could put together consulting with the analysts who worked for me was that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack the United States but most likely U.S. interests abroad,” he said.
“The real question is what evidence do you have and what is the real-time threat behind it. I don’t think we ever had hard evidence about al-Qaeda’s actual operational plans.”
Our clandestine collection systems were collecting more information than we could exploit.”
Witness to Change
Gannon’s almost legendary career in intelligence spans 25 years, with all of that time in analysis. His CIA career began in 1977. After a year-long stint working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the Caribbean and eventually earning a Ph.D. in Latin American studies, the agency assigned Gannon to its Latin American desk. He would rise through the ranks of the CIA to head the agency’s European Analysis Division and in 1995 became the deputy director for Intelligence (DDI), responsible for the entire cadre of agency analysts and producing the President’s Daily Brief.
See Breaking Gov’s exclusive mini documentary on the birth and evolution of DHS as told by Gannon, Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of Homeland Security, and Roger Cressey, the deputy for counterterrorism on the National Security Council.
It was during his tenure as DDI during the 1990s that Gannon became aware of the technological challenges facing the CIA and the intelligence community overall – challenges that many would one day blame for the intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attacks and that the Department of Homeland Security was designed, in part, to fix.
In the 1990s, “we were already in an environment that caused us to recognize we were inundated with information,” said Gannon.
“Our clandestine collection systems were collecting more information than we could exploit.” With his analysts drowning in information, Gannon and the CIA embarked on a determined effort to develop new tools and technologies to help digest the data and “simplify processes that would enable [faster] identification of critical information and patterns of behavior.”
By the summer of 2001, the U.S. intelligence community was awash in technology designed to capture and scour information on a global scale, identify critical pieces of data, and analyze trends for the production of what is known as ‘actionable intelligence’. But sharing information across agency boundaries was not yet a major priority, Gannon recalled.
“The issue of information sharing was always one of dynamic tension within the intelligence community,” said Gannon. “CIA and NSA [National Security Agency] were always the most protective of their sources and their information,” he said. But it was the relationship between law enforcement and the intelligence community where information sharing became problematic.
According to Gannon, “there was always a natural sensitivity on the part of the FBI that we not go after their sources to be used in threat assessments that would in fact endanger the process of investigation that would bring people to court.” And this remains an issue today, Gannon said. “In some respects, the fundamentals – the concern about the FBI and its sources and the intelligence community having different standards for evidence continues to be a challenge.”
The Birth of DHS
Despite his years of experience as America’s top intelligence analyst, Gannon had no idea what lay in store for America when he left the CIA in June 2001. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 that would lead to the creation of the Office of Homeland Security in the White House would also lead to Gannon’s return to government and the beginning of the homeland security phase of his intelligence career.
Gannon led the DHS Transition Planning team that created the Department’s Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate. He would subsequently go on to become the first staff director of the then newly-created House Permanent Select Committee on Homeland Security. What he saw from this – the political – side of the homeland security and intelligence equation was not encouraging.
He describes the legislation that created the DHS – the Homeland Security Act of 2002 – as “extremely ambitious” for what “any department would be able to do.” It was very easy to criticize DHS in the early days and continues to be so today, he said. But successive White House administrations and the Congress bear a large part of the responsibility for failing to properly support the new department in its planning and budget priorities, said Gannon.
“I’m actually a fan of the department,” said Gannon. “It’s very easy to be critical about failures that were not really failures of the department itself, but failures of the broader political system and the Congress, who were unable to focus on what they wanted from this department on a year-to-year basis.”
In fact, according to Gannon the Congress “has never been able to tackle the authorization process,” by which budgeting priorities are set for the DHS and other agencies.
Since its creation in 2003, there has been no shortage of critics and calls for the dissolution of the Department of Homeland Security, including a recent editorial in Breaking Defense by professors at the Naval War College, who called DHS a “colossal, inefficient boondoggle.” But after a discussion with Gannon, one gets the sense that the critics fall short on their understanding of the fundamental mission of the department and why it was created.
The homeland security mission “is a huge set of challenges,” said Gannon. “I think the fundamental goal of the legislation [creating the department] was to bring federal resources to support state and local governments in their new mission to defend us against terrorism,” he said. If the department didn’t exist, you would have to invent it now, Gannon said.
“When I look back, I think the leaders of DHS have justified that fundamental need.”