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.