Monday, October 19, 2009

The State of US Intelligence?

A book review and a report have appeared recently in the US which reflect much on the current state of US Intelligence after eights years of George W. Bush/Dick Cheney's handwork. The trends that have led us to this point of course predate both, or rather date back to the years when Bush was attempting to crawl back up on his barstool. Cheney's influence of course goes back to the end of the Cold War and the restructuring of US intelligence which started in the early 1990s.

William Pfaff's recent article pointed me to Dr. Marc Segeman's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of this month. The last four pages of the document constitute his conclusions and pretty much lay out the rational limits of what our policy concerning Afghanistan "should" be. "Should" defined in terms of national interest supported by rational policy which is connected to available means. There are no "private" or hidden interests involved here, simply the interests of the United States as a state protecting the welfare/interests of the political community it supposedly represents - the American people.

The other document is a book review on a new book about the NSA. The book's strongest part is WWII and the early Cold War period, as in the version as to what really did MacArthur in, but James Bamford's article brings us much more up to date. The NSA, Bamford tells us, has been the key winner in the intelligence shake up that happened after the various intelligence "failures" which followed Bush's moving into the White House. There are obvious reasons for this, one of which I will come to shortly.

But first I think it necessary to point out something that may not be so obvious about these two seemingly very different texts. They both indicate the status of US Intelligence after eight years of Bush and now one of Obama. Dr. Segeman's testimony before the Senate Committee is going to have little influence on what US policy in Afghanistan is, or am I wrong? This is because the Senate some time ago abandoned their constitutional function in regards to foreign policy, and will follow and sign off on what ever the president decides. I also suspect that decision will be based on domestic political considerations (as in various powerful political/economic interests that see war as profitable, or necessary to send "the right message"): or as we say in strategic theory "objective politics" will trump "subjective policy". The American people don't really enter into the calculation.

So how does this link with the seemingly unlimited expansion of the NSA?

In one word: POWER. That is what intelligence is post-George W. Bush. The NeoCons see the US as the lone SuperPower, able to wage war relentlessly since our power is infinite. We simply act out our phantasies in the real world and let "the wogs" sort out the mess, which is what being an American President is all about in a NeoCon world. "Intelligence" is meant to allow the NeoCon leader the "freedom" to do what he has already decided upon. Intelligence based on real world threat assessments is the last thing these "leaders" wish to hear . . . So the good Dr's careful analysis is for naught. At the same time, for a political elite which has given up on democracy, the ability to turn this massive Cold War relic on the very same people it was originally meant to protect must seem a no brainer.

How Obama decides on the Afghan question will take care of any doubts as to where he stands in relation to Bush's policies, but the continued expansion of the NSA is already the handwriting on the wall.

Sadly, the republic canary in the mine died some time ago.

Update 1: War on Terror II


  1. No argument about the shift in power from the CIA to the NSA, or more specifically, from HUMINT to SIGINT. Perhaps the book goes into this shift more, or perhaps not, but there are some seemingly obvious reasons for this shift.

    1. Technology and communications systems are changing the world we live in

    2. communications technology is, and always has been, the great equalizer on the battlefield (conventional or nonconventional, political or diplomatic).

    3. It is sexy. It is data. There is a perception of reliability in data, it isn't some fuzzy report handed down from one fallible human to another (what is funny and ironic is that a lot of SIGINT is nothing more than humans communicating, yet, we see it as fact because someone says it on the phone or in an email).

    But the article (and I suspect the book) fails to recognize the significant, game changing impact that Iraq had on this shift in power. Ironic, a counterinsurgency, a fight that is traditionally won by good HUMINT, resulted directly in the rise of the NSA. Please forgive me in advance for the war stories...

    Two weeks before the invasion of Iraq, I was finalizing my unit's battle plans for Baghdad. An SF Battalion tasked to establish HUMINT operations in the big city in anticipation of a prolonged fight. My HUMINT warrant came back from the highest command in the theater where he learned there was no HUMINT plan for Baghdad. None.

    Fast forward 6 months. Now a fledgling insurgency is brewing, and we knew it. Again, read the books, HUMINT is king in COIN. And the General officer selected to lead the US forces intelligence effort, had zero understanding of HUMINT. She allowed Abu Ghurab and a total failure to setup anything that resembled HUMINT operations (for which she was promoted and given the job of training all US Army MI). She was a SIGINTer, and she established a very impressive SIGINT capability. One that would later be credited with allowing for tactical success after tactical success throughout the counterinsurgency.

    In a world where success in measured in 1 year tours of metrics (such as killed, captured, triggers, reports), SIGINT became King. In a 1 year tour, there is not enough time to wait for HUMINT to take root and work, you don't have that kind of time, that would take 6 months or more! You need results, and you need them now. And SIGINT was that quick fix, it produced spectacular, easy, low risk tactical (perishable) intelligence. And it was based on facts. Data does not lie. Not like those smelly HUMINT sources who are only motivated by money.

    Should we go into how the military intelligence community that led this war was led by engineering majors and not those fuzzy, liberal arts majors? Nope, we can save that one for later.

  2. bg-

    Nice comment. Agree on the force multiplying role of Sigint. History has plenty of examples: the Germans against the Russians in 1914 (at the operational level), the Afrika Korps against the British 8th Army (at the tactical level), and of course the US against Japan in WWII (at the strategic level).

    The turning point for US Humint imo was right after the First Gulf War when Dick Cheney, seduced by all the techno gadgitry he had seen used against Iraq, decided to gut Humint. By 1990 the Army especially had a very capable Humint capability, but it was mostly directed at Eastern Europe and included a large number of officers in civilian positions (like myself). Fresh from the sands of Iraq, the Army wanted to get "lean, mean and green" and shucked most of us off like old clothes. Sigint meant big budgets (due to those CRAYS and other fancy stuff) whereas Humint meant people, and the Army was expected to get smaller . . . so another no brainer which was also influenced by the low regard "people in the know" had for Clan Humint operating in the former East Block (the KGB & Co had run rings around them).

    So, although adding a bit of background history, I agree with everything you've written except one thing. The 2003 Iraq war didn't influence setting the NSA loose on the American public, since Bush's illegal activities in regards to FISA pre-dated the Iraq war. We still only have a very limited idea of the various programs involved . . . but then what can powerlessness say to power?

  3. True, the NSA domestic work was not likely influenced by Iraq 2003, that is a different line of operation all together. As someone who is quite familiar with the current process, I will say that today (and I won't speak for 2000-2007), today the NSA SIGINT and FBI HUMINT are working very well together. The FBI really are a class act and be assured that nothing happens domestically with the NSA without the FBI's role. I am sure someone will throw out historical examples of the FBI playing big brother too, but my experience with them has been nothing but professionalism and respect towards the rights of Americans.

    So my point is we should give NSA whatever capabilities they ask for, but for domestic cases, continue to keep the controls we currently have in place through the FISA courts and equally importantly the interagency partnerships.

    Is there potential for abuse of those capabilities? Yes, of course. But is there oversight? Yes, of course. Is there potential for those capabilities to significantly support our national interests? Of course. Should we trust our government implicitly? Of course not. That would be un-American. Trust but verify, right?

  4. bg-

    "Is there potential for abuse of those capabilities? Yes, of course. But is there oversight? Yes, of course. Is there potential for those capabilities to significantly support our national interests? Of course. Should we trust our government implicitly? Of course not. That would be un-American. Trust but verify, right?"

    This could come out of a civics textbook, and in theory I would agree this is the way things SHOULD work, but it unfortunately ignores the reality of the last eight years.

    There was an illegal domestic survaillance program in place, the extent of which we still do not know. Only a limited number of DOJ officials were even aware of it during the first two years of its existance and there was intense resistance by DOJ officials once the program(s) came up for renewal. Some senior Bush DOJ officials threatened to resign over this very issue.

    There is no doubt as to the illegality of Bush's radicalism here, but in this, as in his policy of torture, he has never been held accountable, which I find "un-American".

    Bamford tells us that the new Congressional legislation/whitewash has essentially legalized the former lawbreaking, but NSA today even exceeds the limits of the new legislation . . .

    For a clear overview I would take a look at this by Glenn Greenwald . . .


    Any comment on Dr. Sageman's analysis of Afghanistan . . . ?

  5. Am I just being a PollyAnna, or did you just make my point to some degree? Yes, for 8 years, the checks and balances failed. But, what is 8 years in terms of the big picture? That is why we limit our Presidential terms (as we should with congress, but I digress). It can take 24 years to fix what damage can be done in 8, but it can and will be fixed (in most cases, FDC's commentary on Truman's decision to support Israel being a glaring exception).

    The system does and did work. Those who did this were voted out, and the new regime is putting in place regulations, laws and reinvigorating an attitude of compliance with these rules to protect the rights of the citizens.

    So why won't we prosecute those who already did it, well, that is a really good question. That is the past and it is legal and political stuff that I don't understand. As for the present and future, there are rumors at NSA that Congress is just waiting for a sacrificial lamb to roast for any violation. Trust me when I say, I've felt that burn. I am pretty deep in this fight.

  6. I owe you comments on the links you posted, but I do eventually have to work to day, MTF

  7. Okay, well reading about AFG is kind of like working. After all, I have a government job, I get paid either way.

    Very interesting article by Sageman. Well written and it makes a lot of sense. I agree that the COIN in AFG really should not be the priority. I agree that we should abandon the COIN strategy all together in AFG, and leave behind a much smaller, CT force. I've heard some trying to use Colombia as a model for AFG. Not a great comparison for many reasons, but, like Colombia, I think we can have a small CT force in AFG lead by SOF, CIA, DEA, and all the other three letter agencies, and we can have success in the CT fight.

    I know what Stan the Man is trying to do, he is trying to do his job. I fully respect him, he is very good at what he does. But I think in this case, the President needs to say no, not give into the pressure, and reverse his own position and move towards a withdrawal plan from AFG leaving behind a small, but very capable CT force.

  8. I'm going back in time here...back to 1990, when the tech world opened up, and all the oooh-aaah gadgets were being made or researched.
    (wow...I just realized how long ago that was...damn!)
    Certain gov bodies wanted certain capabilities to look at certain countries who had a certain particular political outlook that we didn't wholly agree with, and to complicate things more, weren't all to keen on anything else like...uh, well, low techie stuff.
    Then there was 1991, Baghdad involuntarily hosts the International Airshow with bombing demonstrations provided by some cool looking aircraft, and a wee bit of muscle flexing by a fledgeling hyperpower who decided, "sure, why not!"
    And voila...Iraq not only became the demostration ground for international cooperation on a grand spanking scale, but another realm...we demonstrated to that certain body that for all their efforts, they still didn't have sh*t on us technically.

    And boy howdy was it a glorious day to be an engineer in America (no, I'm not an engineer, I was a courier) the hubris loaded in them...oy!

    Anyway, thats where it started, wasn't techie and sexy, and BG, I hate to say it, but it's only going to get worse.

    You see...robotic's has become the new sex toy...I mean, new war toy for the Generals.
    Think about it...instead of a million dollar pilot flying a thirty million dollar plane, you now have a 20k enlisted pool boy flying a three million dollar drone taking out ten million dollar tanks with a 100k missile.

    Welcome to the only gets worse.

  9. "Cheney's influence of course goes back to the end of the Cold War"

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but Cheney goes back before the founding of Team B.

    "Trust but verify"

    There is no way to verify, so there can be no trust. We didn't see institutions stand up and stop (at least for the most part) what we have to assume was systemic abuse. It can be done again, you just have to find another Bybee or Yoo. And they're a dime a dozen.

    Given the obvious complexity of these systems, there's just no way any fewer than a couple dozen folks are required to understand them end-to-end. That makes an architected back door easy.

    One does not have to think like Dick to imagine a digital Team B, with their own access, their own rules/agendas, and no oversight. And not requiring any more funding than a fraction of what has gone "missing" in the last decade or so.

  10. bg-

    "Am I just being a PollyAnna, or did you just make my point to some degree?"

    Don't think so, rather we are arguing quite different things in regards to current NSA oversight and actions. You are saying the checks and balances are in place again and I am saying they haven't been for a long time . . . that the executive doesn't really have any check at all.

    My argument is essentially that today US intelligence is about the exercise of power by our political/economic elite, not about defense per say, or intelligence collection, or threat assessment assisting in the formulation of rational national policy, or the rule of law. It is this drive for unlimited power which connects both the stories I linked to, in fact what explains the (assumed) lack of action in regards to Sageman's analysis and the unrestricted action in regards to NSA expansion.

    In the latter case I think Gleen Greenwald put it best . . .

    "Every time new revelations of illegal government spying arise, the same exact pattern repeats itself: (1) euphemisms are invented to obscure its illegality "overcollection"; "circumvented legal guidelines"; "overstepped its authority"; "improperly obtained"); (2) assurances are issued that it was all strictly unintentional and caused by innocent procedural errors that are now being fixed; (3) the very same members of Congress who abdicate their oversight responsibilities and endlessly endorse expanded surveillance powers in the face of warnings of inevitable abuses (Jay Rockefeller, Dianne Feinstein, "Kit" Bond, Jane Harman) righteously announce how "troubled" they are and vow to hold hearings and take steps to end the abuses, none of which ever materialize; (4) nobody is ever held accountable in any way and no new oversight mechanisms are implemented; (5) Congress endorses new, expanded domestic surveillance powers; and then: (6) new revelations of illegal government spying emerge and the process repeats itself, beginning with step (1)."

  11. srv-

    Nice comment. So Cheney's influence dating back to Bush senior's tenure as CIA Chief? Please expand on this . . .

    The "digital Team B" would be of course private intelligence contractors with full access, total cover, and no accountability at all except to their reporting seniors . . . that is those holding their paychecks . . .

  12. sheer-

    "you now have a 20k enlisted pool boy flying a three million dollar drone taking out ten million dollar tanks with a 100k missile."

    Well, not really tanks, but rather "terrorist threats to America" which might be neither terrorists nor threats to America . . . which brings up the "virtual" nature that this technology provides, which is very much the semblance of ultimate power . . . Such power fantasies (acted out by those "pool boys" who are actually powerless) and the seeming ability to "play God" must be the worst type of narcotic . . .

  13. Narcotic indeed...

    Techonolgy has come to the point where we can kill one person, or a thousand persons a world away.
    We can hear one conversation, or a million conversations.
    We can delve one electroic emission, or a hundred million electronic emissions.
    We have advance technologically to such a degree that we're one dumb-shit decision away from Skynet.
    And the sad things is...very few have any clue that we're so unfreakingbelievably close to that moment.

    Perception is the new reality, and anyone "suspected" of being a terrorist, suspected, no proof, just suspicion is guilty as charged without the benefit of the poor sap saying, "what the? All I said was I'm going out for a smoke and all y'all can kiss my ass."

    So, a nation ruled by fear is governed by it's fear, it's decisions made in fear, it's response is out of fear, the results is to create fear, which has the benefit for our psychosis of fear of retribution for our retribution, which prompts the pre-emption argument, which makes everyone go, "ah-huh, because we all know that they'll never stop till they kill us all, so lets kill them first!" We have a wonderful loop, and like all loops it never ends.
    So our psychosis is a result of our fear, and our fear knows no bounds, so neither will our technology.
    The U.S. is the greatest threat to the stability and peace of the world because we're so damnably afraid of a little man of little significance living in a little cave laughing his ass off.
    How pathetic is that?

  14. To all,
    This is a wonderful read and tribute to thinking people on this site.
    All the points are well taken and I'd like to opine that the sig/humint question is well documented as early as the Berlin/Cuban Crisis. But whatever your take both bottleneck in the analysis phase and dissemination. Regardless of the collection value it's worthless/meaningless unless properly evaluated and gotten down to the user level ,whatever that may be. It could be Platoon/Co as at Wanat or Oval Ofc. Sigint is winning b/c it's easy and quantifiable whereas humint is anything but.
    Intel is not intel if it merely is preaching to the choir. I'm not suggesting that anybody here said otherwise.
    Yes intel is power and has been used as such by most administrations. But what is power? Is it COIN/Warfare/endless wars and destruction for seemingly b/s reasons or is it real as pointed out by this entry and respondents. The point that i'd add is that power is NOT the weakest dollar we've ever seen/endless foreclosures/unemployment w/o relief/ hungry Americans going to sleep at nite nor is it anything that i see in my basic non-government life. I do not live in fantasyland of DOD or the govt anymore , but am out here in middle America and things are not based on power but rather on want and personal desperation.
    The intel/govt types just don't get it. Today's news is that jobs are needed for Taliban members to come on over , but yet Americans are lacking. WTF? Am I a crazy man to object to this-I DON'T CARE WHAT SIGINT OR HUMINT TELLS US. We are dying for want in the Homeland? Looking at this fact is the key issue and all else is merely intellectual masturbation.
    This is not an attack on anybody in MILPUB as this is a place that is refreshingly lucid. I just wanted to add my take.

  15. Great post and comment thread.

    "The turning point for US Humint imo was right after the First Gulf War when Dick Cheney, seduced by all the techno gadgitry he had seen used against Iraq, decided to gut Humint."

    May I further recommend that the disillusionment over HUMINT was reinforced by the surprise over the speed and totality of the collapse of the Soviet bloc? It occurred nearly contemporarily (if that's a word) with Gulf War 1 and together they reinforced the belief that HUMINT was obsolete.

  16. Nice thread. My compliments to Seydlitz and to those who've made some very astute comments.

    Some observations. I agree with comments regarding power and resource shift to SIGINT, i.e., NSA. It happened years ago. Curiously, in our government, it's easier to get maybe a billion bucks for a neat new satellite than it is to get, say, $100K for a major Humint endeavor. Why is this? Well, Humint is actually the sexiest of the "ints" (we don't see movies about guys hunched down wearing earphones for 12 hours a day, after all), but, as noted, it's really difficult to quantify. I rate my source "4"; somebody with more horsepower and who may not like Humint anyway, says, "2." I lose. Reality is we can never fully trust any human source. Even if my guy comes up with what looks like seriously good stuff, what's to say it's not all part of a deception operation? It's happened.

    Humint is also high risk. Failed Sigint and Imint operations rarely make the papers; we've all seen failed Humint stuff there. In fact, we're seeing one now, what with the dude just arrested in Maryland. That shit's kind of embarrassing for some politicians, although Russians and others never seem to care.

    Those charged with defending Humint budgets and operations usually don't understand it and don't believe in it. This is especially true in the military. Got a chuckle out of bg's description of a certain general. All I'll say is she might be the last person I'd choose to defend my work; also was not surprised to see all of the press she got about her work in Iraq. The Army apparently doesn't read the papers.

    Oh, and Huminters often don't give good brief. Even if the spook himself is personally impressive, what he's essentially selling is, "trust me." He says, "no, you can never actually meet the source, but we think he's cool"; the Siginter and the Iminter say, "we've got a SCIF full of neat intercepts, photos, schematics and other neat shit that proves we've got everything covered." Decison-maker: "Gee, the spook can't guarantee his source, whose name I can't even pronounce, and who could really screw things up anyway, whereas these technical dudes seem to know their shit and all they want is money."

    Only problem is that Sigint should be expected to yield very little with hard terrorist targets, particularly those who aren't located in Af-Pak or Iraq. The advent of PGP saw to that. Maybe they'll get lucky with traffic analysis, but it's doubtful that anybody's going to read the mail of the guys planning the next 9/11. Even with all of the questionable domestic surveillance activities. I like tactical Sigint—it's often more valuable than tactical Humint—but once one elevates one's sights, Sigint successes will become increasingly hard to find. Magic and Ultra were long ago.

    Trust NSA? Trust the FBI? Trust the government? No, thank you. We've still never gotten an adequate explanation as to why NSA, a foreign intelligence agency, is even operating in the U.S. Combine that with an agency culture unfamiliar with domestic laws and fundamental constitutional rights, a techocratic vacuum-cleaner approach to operations and a desire to please the executive, and you've got an explosive mixture. What's truly sad is that there are too many ways to neutralize even the most sophisticated surveillance techniques. Tradecraft, for one.

    We need to think long and hard about what we get from the some $50 billion spent on intelligence activities each year. Fifty billion dollars. This is where Ranger is coming from. A number like this is why I am having a harder time each year defending what's going on in the name of "national security." It now seems as both the military and the intelligence community have become so divorced from the daily realities facing their fellow Americans that they might as well live on another planet.

    New motto: "The U.S. Government, violating your rights since 1945 in the name of protecting you."

  17. The unwillingness to prosecute past violations of law brings to mind an old piece of wisdom:

    A standard that is not enforced ceases to be a standard, but rather evolves into a new, lower standard or no standard at all.

    Thus, are we establishing a "new" standard which holds that no law will be binding if violations were encouraged by the Executive Branch? Yet our Constitution places the primary responsibility for Enforcement, Investigation, Indictment and Prosecution with the Executive. Unfortunately, The People, Congress and many of the courts have simply allowed this perversion of the Constitution to take place. Thus, it would appear that the "Will of the People" is to be a nation without standards.

    Sheer wrote:
    The U.S. is the greatest threat to the stability and peace of the world because we're so damnably afraid of a little man of little significance living in a little cave laughing his ass off.
    How pathetic is that?

    Elegantly and succinctly stated. Two sentences capture the essence of it all.


  18. I would like to thank all those who commented. I was a bit hesitant to post this since my own background/experience in US Intel is narrow and very much continues to be seen from a strategic Humint perspective. For this reason I found Publius's and bg's comments to be particularly informative. At the same time I received confirmation that my "intel instincts" (for lack of a better word) are fairly intune with those with other - and in some cases more extensive and wider - backgrounds/experiences.

    That said I would like to add a couple of points. First, I understand the dilemma that serving officers have in dealing with this topic. Arguing that the checks and balances are in place avoids having to deal with the grave consequences of accepting the contrary. At the same time I think it the duty of those of us knowledgeable of the system and currently outside it to make our views known.

    Secondly, as Jim has asked, what do I mean by "Power"? My definition following Weber sees power as part of social relations. Power is the probability of someone being able to impose their will on others even with resistance. Given that the definition describes a ubiquitous phenomenon, so why use it? To get to what is in essence a very basic human trait, the drive of one individual to dominate others, or the drive of a group to dominate. All social relationships share this quality which also explains the existance of conflict and wars, that is they are both part of basic human relations.

    Most exercises of power by leaders are done within the concept of "authority" which means we obey simply because it is seen socially as "the right thing to do". Legality (the rule of law), tradition or following a charismatic leader are all different types of authority which in turn provide "legitimacy" to both those giving and following the orders, that is as a mask for power, the velvet glove over the steel fist so to speak.

    Dr. Segeman's analysis falls on deaf ears, since his view does not address the actual US interests behind the continuance of the Afghan war, or simply the abandonment of public policy for state support of private interest. The recent resignation of Matt Hoh is yet another indicator of this . . .

    What we have seen in the case of the expansion of the NSA is an abondonment of authority, as in illegality, betrayal of traditional values, lack of charisma, and a resort to what is basically naked coercion masked by a propaganda machine based on projecting a delusions-based and contradictory take on reality.

    In other words what has happened to US Intel since 2000 reflects the radically changed political climate in this country, along with indicating the actual power structures and interests that operate behind an increasingly crumbling state facade.

    As most have stated, the problem concerns basic US domestic political questions concerning what has been allowed to happen since 2000.

  19. Publius,
    Thanks for the supporting fire.
    We have the best intel community that money can buy but our adversaries are not worth the expenditure. The balls they have living in mud huts and not even caring that they don't have their own intel community.
    They just don't get the beauty of democracy-- it's the best thing that money can buy.
    jim at

  20. Worth a read . . .

    I have a Soviet paratroop WO's camo jacket in my militaria collection. Circa 1988 with all the badges and medals, even the accompanying documentation in the breast pocket. Purchased in Berlin after the collapse of the USSR . . . makes ya wonder . . .