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Blind, Deaf and Ignorant: 5 Recipes for US Intelligence Failure

It was so much easier when it was just the Soviet Union, a clear enemy, even a fun game. So with the 9/11 disaster, America’s spy agencies were made to understand that there was a new single enemy in town—Osama bin Laden. The only way to advance your career as a spy was to focus on bin Laden, or at least on al-Qaeda. Countless intelligence failures later, we have Libya.

Post-9/11 intelligence failures have been grave, and lessons, if learned, have not been implemented with any noticeable degree of effect. There have been a few hits, but more misses. Among those failures we have the 2009 “underwear” bombing attempt, thwarted only thanks to passengers on board the plane; the Arab Spring, which had gone viral on the internet before the Agencies figured it out; the loss of a handful of Hezbollah informants in Beirut due to an almost comical flaw in procedure; the Ford Hood shooting; and most recently, Libya, where despite the warnings there was no anticipation of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and inadequate protection.

US intelligence failures are bipartisan and each successive administration owns these failures. On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, heads should be rolling.

Why is US intelligence failing?

Behind the Globalization Curve

Al-Qaeda is more of an idea, an ideology, than a concrete group. From Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, to Pakistan, Libya and most recently Syria (just for starters), it is a globalized ideology. Furthermore, the lines between terrorist groups and criminal networks is rapidly blurring and becoming borderless. The Agencies cannot keep up because they cannot adapt, still struggling with structural and organizational issues in the post-Cold War period.

The US cannot even globalize internally, with information-sharing the latest buzz phrase defining what everyone knows is a key problem that will not be resolved as long as the Agencies are at war with each over turf and funding. Information becomes precious not for reasons of national security but for reasons of career enhancement and departmental positioning.

It was the lack of information-sharing that was highlighted in the aftermath of the attempted bombing of an Amsterdam-Detroit flight on Christmas Day 2009. The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, managed to board the passenger place despite the fact that he was on one of many blacklists raising suspicions of his connections to a terrorist group. A Senate Intelligence Committee report pointed to 14 intelligence failures in this case. While the bomber was on the U. database of suspected terrorists, along with some 550,000 other names, he was never placed on the No Fly List or the Selectee List, which would have subjected him to additional security screening at airports, nor was his US visa revoked. His name was misspelled and the State Department thus concluded that he did not have a US visa. The CIA also failed to disseminate key reports to the appropriate people until after the attempted attack, when it was too late to share information.

Whither Human Intelligence: The Artlessness of Asset Development

The rocket attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that took out the US envoy to Libya and three other American diplomats was a disastrous failure of human intelligence, which has been dangerously sidelined in favor of high-tech surveillance solutions--the response to a lack of qualified human resources particularly in the CIA.

RELATED: Can Syria's Rebels Overthrow Assad? An Interview with Jellyfish Operations

This attack was highly organized and had nothing to do with riots and protests connected to an anti-Islamic film of dubious origins. The attack was not anticipated (or it was anticipated at some point in the intelligence chain but ignored higher up) despite a clear warning 24 hours before in a 42-minute video message from al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri. In no uncertain terms, al-Zawahiri pledged to revenge the death-by-drone of his second in command, al-Libi. And Libya was the obvious venue for revenge, as it was from here that al-Libi hailed and here that he was turned from an enemy terrorist into a US friend in the fight against Gaddafi. When the job was done, it was here that the US again cut him off as a terrorist. Connecting these dots required the bare minimum of human intelligence and risk analysis.

Human intelligence has suffered the most since the end of the Cold War, and the idea of “infiltration” has become the purview of electronics. Regardless of what one might think, so-called infiltration of terrorist groups or radical Islamic outfits is not impossible or even overly challenging. At its best, human intelligence is subtle and natural, not cloak and dagger. It requires casual observation and establishing relationships with unremarkable people who are close to and have access to these groups, in villages, towns and cities. It requires a very localized perspective.

Inadequate Intelligence Analysis

Along with human intelligence comes analysis, which is also inadequate. There is an ongoing debate about the proper distance between the Intelligence Community and policymakers. The bulk of intelligence recaps events that have already happened and is woefully shortsighted and finding itself in an illogical competition with US news agencies.

The Arab Spring is a case in point. While the CIA had vaguely warned policymakers that the Middle East could potentially experience some unrest (which is always a potential), they were caught by surprise when the Arab Spring unfolded. The Agencies had nothing to offer policymakers by way of how the Arab Spring might affect US policy and security. One of the first disastrous responses to the Arab Spring was to send high-profile diplomat Frank Wisner Jr. to Cairo without bothering to any homework on Wisner’s personal agenda. As it turned out, Wisner was on the payroll of the Mubarak regime and took US policy in his own hands, declaring support for the regime on behalf of Washington. Washington of course recalled him immediately, but it was too late to undo the damage.

There are a number of reasons why intelligence analysis is inadequate, but a key reason (recruitment aside) is that intelligence-gathering and intelligence-analysis are erroneously considered very separate things, and analysts live in fear of raising any alarms before it is clear that there is a dire situation: In other words, when it’s already too late. The bottom line is that it is too risky in terms of career for analysts to go out on a limb with policymakers.

Recruiting the Least Competent

The Intelligence Community’s recruitment policies are counter-productive to say the least. Anyone with any in-depth foreign country experience that might have included the key aspect of asset development—hobnobbing with the locals—is immediately excluded as a security liability. It is extremely different for non-native American citizens to pass security clearance. There is also a lack of recruitment intuition, namely that the Agencies consider those who come through their doors, rather than actively seeking the people they really need. Good analysis requires a certain mindset, and those who possess are the least likely to actively seek employment with the Agencies. In the end it is the Agencies own subconscious admission of its inability to conduct counter-intelligence and due diligence on a level that would allow a better recruitment policy to be less of a security threat.

The Intelligence Community’s answer to that, for now, is the private contractor, who is unfettered (except at its highest levels) by security clearance requirements. Private contractors are free to have foreign experience and to develop assets among local communities in key hotspots, and they are better at due diligence and counterintelligence. They also often attract a higher quality recruit, and the higher salaries help.

This is not, however, the ultimate answer to the Intelligence Community’s shortcomings. There are too many unknowns in the private contractor world; too many easy opportunities to engineer conflict and tensions in the name of creating more business. But the IC can definitely learn from the private contractor in this “transitional phase”. 

Unfinished Reform

Intelligence has been in a state of suspended reform since 1947. The most sweeping reforms came in 2004, with the creation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which was to oversee the entire Intelligence Community, and usher in structure in place of inter-agency competition and promote information-sharing. It has succeeded in none of this. Rather, new front lines in the turf war have been drawn, between the DNI and the CIA, which is not wont to give up its former prestige, and between the DNI and the agencies under the control of the Department of Defense (DoD).  The DNI lacks the power the position promised, and is certainly not the White House’s go-to man for intelligence. Indeed, one would be surprised if the average American can even name the DNI (google it).

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

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  • Philip Andrews on September 25 2012 said:
    What a very interesting and informative piece on the US IC! Thank you Jen Alic.

    Robert Baer has said much the same thing in his books and interviews. His uniqueness was in his European background (I think his mother was German-speaking and he lived in Europe for a while.)He is comfortable with other languages and cultures and can understand them from 'within', instinctively. He was appartently also a first class field operative.

    These are presumably the same qualities that caused duifferences between him and his employers and caused him to leave the Agency. He was the last of the humint era, before they went electronic and stupid.

    It is sometimes said that the US Intelligence Community is the easiest in the world to penetrate and to deceive. This is because they tend to be hugely xenophobic while at the same time being extremely naive and gullible. A somewhat fatal combination in the field of intellugenve.

    It is said they are riddled with informers in the pay of Russian and Chinese Intelligenmce. In fact it is said that the head of US HS is or was the former Head of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. So effectively the FSB has its fingers all over Washington and the US IC.

    Turf wars tend to equal ego conflicts. They're like corporations more interested in 'profit' of status, reputation, control and self aggrandisement than in cooperating to serve. But then this is the great American Dream. No wonder their Russian and Chinese opponents can run rings around them!

    the US IC cannot handle Russian/Chinese/Iranian dissimulation. They can't read between the lines, can't work out who to trust to any dgree, can't see anyone elses perspective as valid and so understand where an opponent is coming from. Furthermore the US IC doesn't play chess at all, while for its opponents geopolitical chess is a way of life. There is too much 'morality' in US policy offset from time to time by outburst of anger and destructive tendacies. The firebase mentaloity from the Old West cavalry fort system.

    This is why they lost in Iraq and Afghan while the Russians won in Georgia, and may win again...cutting off the oil from Baku. They say the Russian army in the Georgian war was finely directed by the FSB, like a rapier. 2 weeks of war accomplished more for the Russians in terms of geopolitrical standing than did 10 years of war for the West.

    This is probably the best example of the contrast in the effectivenrss of intelligencve work by both sides. The Russians/Soviets probably haven't had a major intelloigence failure in 3 generations (the 'failure' of Barbarossa is arguable; Stalin won half of Europe in 1945 but at huge cost; they may be working even now to get the rest of Europe into the Eurasian homeland. However Soviet counterintelligence left the Germans blind, deaf and dumb while Soviet intelligence knew more about Germany than the Nazis did)). The West arguably hasn't had a single significant intrlligence success since at least 1979, perhaps earlier.

    I anticipate being contradicted on much of this...
  • Tony on October 06 2012 said:
    Big government is nothing BUT turf battles.

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