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Manipulating the U.S. Intelligence Community Shouldn’t Be This Easy

The US government shut down all US embassies in the Middle East for the first weekend in August and notified all US persons traveling abroad that they face extra danger of being set upon by terrorists. Because, says the official announcement, US Intelligence detected “increased chatter” among suspected terrorists that contained “specific threats.” The closings and warnings are dreadful policy. The intelligence on the basis of which the policy was made suffers from a lack of quality control – counterintelligence in the language of the trade – so serious as to expose US policy makers to being manipulated by foreign enemies.

The US intelligence community’s aversion to quality control is congenital. From its very inception in the 1940s, US intelligence has dealt with the imbalance between the many certainties demanded of it and the paucity of the facts it can supply by not asking too many questions about its sources’ reliability, passing on what it gets and calling it good. Neither with regard to technical sources such as communications intercepts any more than for human sources is there any independent evaluation about “operational security” – namely for devaluing or discarding sources the existence of which is known to the targets of the collection.

For example, in the wake of the Aldrich Ames espionage case, CIA’s Inspector General found that senior officers continued to pass to US Presidents reports coming from Soviet/Russian sources even after they had become convinced that those sources had come under hostile control. This attitude results not only in bad policy but also in getting people killed. On December 30 2009 seven CIA officers were blown to bits in Afghanistan by a source on whom they had relied for a year and a half for targeting drone strikes.

On the technical side, while on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I witnessed NSA’s (deplorably) successful effort to continue to use a communications intelligence satellite after its existence and function had been revealed by a combination of a British spy and a New York Times article.

The embassy shutdowns and the traveler warnings resulted from intercepts of terrorist communications devices – phones and computer links that the terrorists surely knew are being monitored. That knowledge long predates the recent publicity – revelation is the wrong term – about NSA’s reach into the electronic spectrum.

The shutdown and warnings, then, proceed from the assumption either that the terrorists “chatter” amongst themselves blissfully ignorant of what anyone who cares to look knows about NSA’s reach, or that they willfully warn us. That assumption flies in the face of experience. The terrorists who have bitten us have not chattered, while those who chatter do not bite. The terrorists who brought mortars and grenade launchers to destroy US facilities in Benghazi and kill our people did not chatter. The US government is up against serious people. Unfortunately, it gives proof of unseriousness.

The US government’s assertion that the “threats” emanating from this “chatter” were somehow “specific” belies itself because it is contrary to common sense. Any specificity would focus attention on specific people and places rather than eliciting meaningless general measures and warnings. That attention’s effectiveness would depend on secret preparations for counter strokes, not on public displays of fear.

This leads reasonable persons to conclude that some enemies of the United States, well knowing that NSA is listening, decided to give it an earful, with a few names and places thrown in by way of example, but not enough to remove the impression they sought to give of general mayhem. And so they ‘chattered.” They had sound reason to believe that US intelligence executives would trigger equally incompetent policy makers, fearful of being blamed for an attack on their watch preceded by such “chatter.”

The lesson to be taken from all this is that the NSA’s well-known (because of the nature of modern technology) capacity to intrude and manipulate electronic communications – but only those that are not thoughtfully guarded – combined with lack of quality control, leaves it at the mercy of any of its targets that wishes to feed it disinformation and then to watch the US government’s self-discrediting reactions.

Alas, the lesson as well is that we who neither want to nor can hide our communications, nor play games, are helpless if and when senior US officials’ incompetent (or worse) designation of enemies, combined with US intelligence’s lack of quality control, ends up making us the objects of bureaucrats’ games.

Reader Discussion

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on August 05, 2013 at 09:51:41 am

Excellent piece. During my 34 years with the State Department, I was bothered by how inept we were in analyzing and using intel. We were very good at vacuuming up huge amounts but did not know how to use it. As a Charge and DCM, I remember getting very vague "threat assessments" that were essentially useless. Rarely did we have something very specific and acitonable.

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Image of The Diplomad
The Diplomad
on August 05, 2013 at 10:04:00 am

The sad fact is that we don't know whether we can trust the NSA and CIA when both are currently involved in "scandals." This is a very timely closing of embassies -- we cannot be sure that it's intended purpose is to show the value of these organizations. Regrettably, our government does little to secure our borders. In typical government efficiency, they worry more about terrorists after they have arrived safely in America than they do about keeping them out. But, then again, that approach gives them a better justification for spying on all Americans.

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Image of JoyO
JoyO
on August 05, 2013 at 10:06:06 am

what is to prevent the bad guys from doing this sort of chatter every month from now on ... at some point we'll have to reopen our facilities and this current focus on fake chatter will in no way ensure we can stop future attacks ... if we had actual specific information then we would be running ops or drone strikes against those operations not shutting down embassies ...
This appears to be a modern form of "made you flinch" which almost ensures the likelyhood that when the real blow comes we will take it on the chin ...

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Image of JeffC
JeffC
on August 05, 2013 at 10:32:19 am

The United States is the proverbial drunk looking for his keys underneath the lamppost. In this case, the lamppost is the staggeringly expensive SIGINT surveillance empire. Like most government programs, its primary mission is to justify its own funding stream. NSA is currently having to do a lot of justifying, given its documented lies to Congress; suddenly and conveniently, this vague but comprehensive warning appears. 'See how we are protecting you!'

I for one am skeptical of the reports of 'chatter'. If 'those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk', then 'chatter' is a distraction from more concrete threats. The Tsarnaev brothers were not impeded in their preparations despite known travel to Chechnya and specific warnings about them from the Russian government. We were told the keys are in the dark, over there, and we kept looking where it was easier to look. A surveillance regime that only works if we can expect terrorists to do their planning over Facebook is not worth billions of our tax money.

And if 'chatter' is not bogus in this weekend's particular instance, then the fact we have publicly broadcast our discovery of it, and our countermeasures, is the surest way to shut down SIGINT as an effective intelligence tool in the future. In the end, the only thing that the weekend embassy shutdown accomplishes is to protect NSA's funding while obviating its purpose.

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Image of craig
craig
on August 05, 2013 at 10:41:57 am

Because everyone knows terrorists only attack on Sundays.

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Image of Constitution First
Constitution First
on August 05, 2013 at 10:50:43 am

My 13 year old son pointed out that "If you know what your enemy is going to attack, and you know when they will do it... That is the set up for the prefect ambush." If a 13 year old boy can see this, why can't our State Department, Military, CIA, White House, NSA or anyone else see this.

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Image of Ryan
Ryan
on August 05, 2013 at 11:07:38 am

I just got my warning email from the consulate here in Perth. When they have nothing better to send them about they warn us about bush fires. Like, dude, I can smell them. And see them. And hear the fire trucks. At least the TSA puts on a good show at American airports. The State Department needs to hire some real scriptwriters.

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Image of Lorenz Gude
Lorenz Gude
on August 05, 2013 at 11:29:46 am

It's just telling our enemies that we can't defend our embassies. They must be laughing their turbans off.

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Image of RebeccaH
RebeccaH
on August 05, 2013 at 11:47:07 am

The problem with chatter is that all operations will have some chatter. Those involved must communicate. However, anyone with any brains would assume that communications are being monitored and would institute measures to confuse the listeners. Chatter is extremely easy to fake and many counter-intelligence operations have relied on this. Operation Fortitude used radio chatter and other measures to give the impression there was a major force poised to land at the Pas-de-Calais under the command of Patton.

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Image of A_Lurker
A_Lurker
on August 05, 2013 at 11:51:06 am

Nobody does "dumb" like the US government.

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Image of Mkelley
Mkelley
on August 05, 2013 at 12:20:33 pm

One good way for the bad guys to test their own security is to provide such "chatter" and then watch to see the result. We just proved, if nothing else, what we can hear. What we didn't hear gives them evidence that that link is still secure. The Chechen brothers also proved that we are inept even when warned.

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Image of Mike_K
Mike_K
on August 05, 2013 at 12:31:00 pm

This warning is simply the US Bureaucracy protecting its ability to spy on Americans. Watch the buffoon politicians enable this nonsense by clucking how much we NEED this sort of buffoonery. It is all so depressing. The Country Class is being sold down the river by the bureaucracy and our politicians are enabling it.

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Image of PierrePinkFlamingo
PierrePinkFlamingo
on August 05, 2013 at 12:41:39 pm

I doubt if this has anything to do with "chatter" other than the chatter about taking a cold, hard look at what we get in return for the freedom-shrinking ability to snoop and the billions of dollars granted to the NSA, CIA, and FBI.

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Image of Homple
Homple
on August 05, 2013 at 12:50:41 pm

[...] MORE [...]

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Image of Manipulating the U.S. Intelligence Community Shouldn’t Be This Easy « THE BLACK KETTLE
Manipulating the U.S. Intelligence Community Shouldn’t Be This Easy « THE BLACK KETTLE
on August 05, 2013 at 14:11:24 pm

It's truly sad when one's leaders appear to be inept AND craven...

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Image of setnaffa
setnaffa
on August 05, 2013 at 17:33:42 pm

Write about the NSA taking down our generals by listening in on their personal experiences.

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Image of Robin Hunter
Robin Hunter
on August 05, 2013 at 21:14:28 pm

The way the NSA's vigorous online defenders have gotten around the Tsarnaev's counterexample to the necessity of the indiscriminate NSA dragnet is to insist

A) The Russians somehow held back some crucial bit of information from the FBI or failed to arrest the Tsarnaevs, who were already American citizens, themselves. One wonders how the Western human rights community would've reacted to the preemptive detention of two U.S. citizens who had yet to commit a crime (we think) in Dagestan. This is the tack taken by @CatFitz aka Catherine Fitzpatrick and others on this question.

B) even if indiscriminate SIGINT (and believe me, I strongly support a DISCRIMINATING SIGINT capability) works, the notion that the bad guys were not aware of the U.S. government's ability to listen to their cellphones until the New York Times revealed it a few years ago is laughable. I had an 'ex'-CIA man tell me and another group of students after 9/11 how much the Agency 'loved cellphones' because they were so easy to tap. Of course at that time 'ex' men spoke freely and the attitude was whatever it took, so I don't recall anybody asking if the cellphone users CIA was targeting ever included Americans on U.S. soil. We just presumed they were talking about the men in caves.

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Image of Nobody
Nobody
on August 05, 2013 at 23:22:19 pm

[...] Angelo Codevilla argues that the embassy closures are the result of our enemies manipulating U.S. intelligence agencies: [...]

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Image of Links for 8-5-2013 | Karl Heubaum
Links for 8-5-2013 | Karl Heubaum
on August 06, 2013 at 07:07:42 am

The UN drones should keep the girls safe from those religious fanatics.....

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Image of DG
DG
on August 06, 2013 at 07:58:30 am

Yes, of course, this is a clumsy and transparent propaganda ruse by the "intelligence" community. But the question that needs to be raised and has not, with the exception of a very few voices, is why has the Saudi Royal family's funding of the 911 hijackers been swept under the rug by these estimable services? Could it be that the Bush family's (among many others) financial interests come before our national security?

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Image of Thingumbob (@Thingumbobesq)
Thingumbob (@Thingumbobesq)
on August 06, 2013 at 09:45:47 am

[...] concerns are echoed here by Angelo Codevilla, former Senate intel committee staffer and professor emeritus of international [...]

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Image of Is the US government being played for fools by al-Qaeda? | Command the Raven
Is the US government being played for fools by al-Qaeda? | Command the Raven
on August 06, 2013 at 09:46:16 am

[...] concerns are echoed here by Angelo Codevilla, former Senate intel committee staffer and professor emeritus of international [...]

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Image of Jesus Lives! » Blog Archive » Is the US government being played for fools by al-Qaeda?
Jesus Lives! » Blog Archive » Is the US government being played for fools by al-Qaeda?
on August 06, 2013 at 11:21:44 am

[...] invested in the idea of government incompetence/malfeasance in handling this threat, read Angelo Codevilla’s piece from Sunday instead. Quote: “The terrorists who have bitten us have not chattered, while [...]

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Image of U.S. intel official: Controversial NSA programs played no role in detecting initial Al Qaeda terror tip « Hot Air
U.S. intel official: Controversial NSA programs played no role in detecting initial Al Qaeda terror tip « Hot Air
on August 06, 2013 at 11:25:29 am

It's become rather obvious that our, former, 'intelligence' operatives have been overun by democrat bureaucrats, as no regular citizen could be this inept.

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Image of forrest
forrest
on August 06, 2013 at 13:31:34 pm

The government wasn't "fooled" officials admitted to the New York Times they wanted to distract the public from NSA spying scandal.

http://news.firedoglake.com/2013/08/06/government-officials-hoping-terror-threat-distracts-attention-from-nsa-spying-scandal/

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Image of DSWright
DSWright
on August 06, 2013 at 14:22:12 pm

This article makes a good point that this chatter could be just a false flag operation by the enemy, to see how high they can make us jump, and disrupt our embassies. If course if the chatter was real, and we did not take precautions, the administration would have answered for that too. Perhaps the better response would have been to keep the embassies in place, but secretly heighten their alert level, and have rescue forces, and air assets, on standy alert just in case any were attacked. That way, we might have had a chance to get attacked, but drive it off with losses to the enemy, a far better outcome, since it would deter future attacks.

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Image of richard40
richard40
on August 06, 2013 at 14:48:43 pm

I remember Bill Clinton's new FBI director - Louis Freeh- saying back in 1993 his number one top priority would be to bring more women (and diversity) into the FBI. You would have thought it would have been to bring the smartest and best investigative people available. The scourge of political correctness, affirmative action, and promotions based upon race, sexual orientation, etc has hopelessly impaired all branches of the government including the CIA and State Department. What a shame.

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Image of Mike
Mike
on August 06, 2013 at 15:54:44 pm

I am glad to see skepticism prevailing rather than panic at least among the comments here.

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Image of dunce
dunce
on August 07, 2013 at 20:12:00 pm

[...] Read more. [...]

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Image of Manipulating
Manipulating
on August 07, 2013 at 23:41:00 pm

[...] The intelligence information that prompted the U.S. to shut down 22 embassies and consulates originated from an intercepted al Qaeda conference call. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that al Qaeda’s leaders are dumb enough to believe they could hold such a call without there being a significant chance of its being intercepted. Or the whole thing could have been a (successful) attempt to manipulate U.S. intelligence agencies. [...]

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Image of Links for 8-7-2013 | Karl Heubaum
Links for 8-7-2013 | Karl Heubaum
on August 21, 2013 at 15:44:19 pm

[...] have not won a war since 1945. Their civilian leadership has prevented them doing so in each and every case where that same leadership has thrown Americans [...]

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Image of Theological Geography | The Fall
Theological Geography | The Fall
on January 05, 2014 at 21:09:52 pm

[…]  Manipulating the U.S. Intelligence Community Shouldn’t Be This Easy […]

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Image of Theological Geography | Angelo M. Codevilla
Theological Geography | Angelo M. Codevilla

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.