Guest Post by Doug Patteson: A primer on US Intelligence Vocabulary

A primer on US intelligence vocabulary for the press

In the wake of all the Snowden reporting, stories about the White House naming of the Kabul Chief of Station and other recent articles, many of us active or former intelligence folks have become increasingly annoyed by sloppy reporting and vocabulary by the press. So herewith follows a simple primer on the vocabulary of the intelligence world.

Let’s start with what makes most CIA officers furious – when the press refers to us as “spies”, “operatives” or “agents”. While those titles sound sexy, at the CIA, we don’t have spies, we have Operations Officers, sometimes referred to as Case Officers, Intelligence Officers or Core Collectors, whose job is to clandestinely spot, assess, develop, recruit and handle individuals with access to foreign intelligence. They are not spies themselves, although popular culture would like to portray otherwise.

The individuals that Case Officers recruit would more accurately be referred to as spies, although most intelligence professionals would not use that terminology. We would refer to them as assets, agents, or sources far more readily. They are, in a sense, employed by an intelligence agency, although indirectly.

Their motivations though may vary widely, and some may not accept compensation for what they do. In either case, Ed Snowden was not a spy, nor trained as a spy, as he claimed. Well, at least not by the US government. It’s possible he received some training from a foreign service if he was recruited by one.

But time will tell.

The Intelligence Community is comprised of 17 separate organizations, each operating under their own directive but subordinate to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Member organizations include the Program Managers: CIA, DIA, FBI, NRO, NSA and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; the Departmental intelligence functions of : DOE, DHS, State, Treasury and DEA, and the Uniformed Services intelligence functions of the USCG, USN, USAF, USMC, and US Army.

The INTs (HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, OSINT) are shorthand notation for the multiple intelligence disciplines. These four are the major ones, though there are others. HUMINT is the collection of intelligence through human means. SIGINT is the collection of intelligence through primarily electronic means. IMINT is the collection of intelligence through the analysis of imagery. OSINT is the collection of intelligence through analysis of Open Source information.

Station and Chief of Station – A Station is a base of operations for intelligence collection, typically overseas and geographically focused, although there have been instances of station having subject matter focus. The head of Station is known as the Chief of Station, or COS. The COS is responsible for all intelligence activity oversight taking place in the area of his/her geographic responsibility. He or she reports to both Langley and the Ambassador.

Covert vs. Overt – Pretty simple distinction really. Covert means, under cover, protected as secret, not public knowledge. While overt means the opposite, known publicly etc. Most members of the intelligence community are overt employees. They can say where they work (they may choose not to though, there is rarely a requirement that they do so). Far fewer are those whose roles are actually covert. For those who are covert, protection of that status is vital to their ability to do their job. The recent identification of multiple station chiefs illustrated this. By publicly declaring their affiliation with the Agency, their safety was jeopardized, as was their ability to function. Additionally, and rather sadly, such an outing of their cover also jeopardizes the many people they have relationships with, often relationships that have no intelligence value but are merely friendships or acquaintances.

Declared – A declared officer is an officer who is typically in a covert role, but whose identity is declared to host nation government officials. Officers involved in training host nation officials for example, would be declared to those officials.

Burned or blown – when an Agent, Operation or Officer’s identity or purpose is compromised or inappropriately identified publicly. See above reference to recent public outings of station chiefs in South Asia.

Tradecraft encompasses the techniques used in modern espionage. It includes the range of skills and technical tools needed to engage in intelligence work clandestinely. Cover is the perceived action, occupation or purpose of an agent, Case Officer or intelligence program. It provides an explanation to any observer of the agent, Officer or program and must fit logically with and be supported by the background of same. Bona fides are the proof of an officer or agent’s identity. Frankly, anyone claiming to be a current or former member of the Intelligence community should also have to provide their bona fides to support their claim.

Pocket Litter is collateral paperwork designed to support a normal cover story. Open your wallet or purse. Those items tell a story about who you are. Likewise similar items are needed to help support a cover story.

A Covert Action is a program designed to influence or affect the affairs of a foreign nation or nations. Such program required detailed planning and funding, and must individually be approved by the US government.

Black operation – a clandestine activity or operation that is not attributable or identifiable to the organization performing it. Public perception would have you believe these take place all the time. The reality is sadly less exciting. These are difficult, expensive and rare operations that require very high levels of approvals and oversight within the government. They just don’t happen that often.

Dead Drops are used as static locations for passing of intel or materiel. They allow the agent and his/her handler to securely exchange items without being seen together. A Dangle is a potential highly attractive asset “dangled” in front of an intelligence service as a recruitment prospect.

A Double Agent Is a recruited agent or asset who actually continues to work clandestinely for their own or another intelligence service, with your recruitment if them having been their goal for the purpose of feeding false information or gathering intelligence.

Sleeper Agents are trained assets deployed by a foreign intelligence service who wait until being activated at a specific time or place. See Anna Chapman and the rest of the recently arrested Russian intelligence agents.

Walk Ins are volunteers for recruitment. Often these can be extremely productive relationships, although, there is a high degree of fear that a walk in might be a dangle or double agent.

Doug Patteson is a former Case Office within the National Clandestine Service. He served for a decade on multiple tours overseas against a wide range of targets. Since leaving, he has spent the last several years helping multinational business with finance and strategy.

Female interruptors on Iraq

Originally posted on fp interrupted:

OK, time to interrupt the Men-Talk-War fest. We’ve compiled a working list of female interruptors who should be on your radar for a wider, fuller conversation on Iraq:

  • Emma SkySenior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, where she lectures on Iraq and Middle East Politics
  • Meghan O’SullivanFormer deputy national security advisor on Iraq and Afghanistan, International Affairs professor at Harvard University
  • Kimberly Kagan: Military historian, founder and president of the Institute of War
  • Elizabeth Ferris: Co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement
  • Sarah Birke: Syria specialist and Middle East correspondent for the Economist
  • Manal Omar: Associate VP for MENA Programs at the U.S. Institute for Peace
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter: Former director of policy planning in the US State Department, President and CEO of the New America Foundation
  • Kathleen Hicks: Director of the International Security Program at CSIS
  • Julianne Smith: Director of the Strategy and Statecraft…

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On Free Lunches, and Free Markets

Remember that  hackneyed  Economics, Friedmanite, maxim  that goes :’there’s no such thing as a free lunch’?
How could you not?
It’s cited ad nauseam in virtually all media – not least by those who have had nothing but free lunches /gratis dinners all their lives.

You know  of whom I speak: the kind who bail out banks  –  and then cut food -stamps,  in the name of  austerity.

Well, the times have turned the tables on that little junket of political  casuistry:
For now, today, there is a new, far more indisputable, mantra afoot, inspired by the more news-worthy exploits  of  Wall Street.
Here it is: and note it well, for the Media may not post it on prime-time.

There is No Such Thing as a Free Market.

 Thus do we live – and learn (leastways, some of us).
R. Kanth, Copyright ©February 2014

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Is al Qaeda as it stands today a threat to the US? 60 Words And A War Without End

I keep hearing the question over and over on whether al Qaeda, as it stands today, is a threat to the United States. Analysts disagree on whether AQ is fragmented or still under some control from al Qaeda central.  One thing is true, it’s different than it was on 9/11.  As Gregory Johnson so aptly pointed out in this article, “The only thing that has remained the same is that one sentence: 60 words and a war without end.” By the ’60 words’ he is referring to the Authorization to Use Military Force, which gives the President the ability to retaliate against whoever orchestrated the attacks on 9/11.  The article is absolutely worth reading, and I am hopeful we can see more long-form journalism and less regurgitated content.

 

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On target – Profile in Mountains and Minds magazine

A breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden can be traced back to a woman who grew up in small-town Montana and attended Montana State University.

As a targeting officer for the CIA, Nada Glass Bakos was in charge of the team that searched for the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What Bakos’ team discovered in that process has been widely recognized as a critical turning point in the decade-long search for bin Laden.

Before Bakos joined the CIA in 2000, a team of CIA analysts—many of them women—uncovered bin Laden’s financing of terrorism in the early 1990s. Later, they connected scraps of intelligence to discover a secret terrorist organization, al-Qaida. The group wrote dozens of warnings about al-Qaida and bin Laden, although those warnings mostly fell on deaf ears before 9/11.

Now, after years of keeping her participation in the events secret, Bakos, 44, is sharing her story. Articulate and self-assured, she was prominently featured in Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden, an HBO documentary, as well as other forums, including a segment about the documentary on the Late Show with David Letterman. Many have also speculated that the protagonist Maya in the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatizes the hunt, is modeled after Bakos—a claim she is among the first to dismiss—although, she does allow that the character is most likely a blend of women she knew and worked with in the CIA.

Bakos insists there’s no real secret to her success. She says her background and experiences simply matched the CIA’s needs at the time she was hired, and she worked hard. But if her path to hunting terrorists seems unlikely—one lifelong friend recalled that she was always riding a horse in the small Montana community where she grew up—there are also glimpses of how her upbringing contributed to her success.

Read the rest here

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Manhunt Wins an Emmy

Manhunt Wins an Emmy

The Director, Producers and film crew of Manhunt won Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special!

Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special

Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, HBO

Sheila Nevins, Executive Producer

Nancy Abraham, Senior Producer

John Battsek, Produced By

Julie Goldman, Produced By

Greg Barker, Produced By

Data-Privacy

Your Data Will Be Collected

Privacy has take on a whole new meaning in the age of the internet.  Yet, the creeping erosion of our privacy appears to have taken us all by surprise.  We need a privacy governance framework, and soon.  

The article How We Killed Privacy — in 4 Easy Steps adeptly points out how the erosion isn’t just about government, but everything we touch, read and then share:

Four distinct factors have interacted to kill electronic privacy: a legal framework that has remained largely static since the 1970s, significant changes in our use of rapidly evolving technology, commercial providers’ increasingly intrusive tracking of our every online habit, and a growth in non-state threats that has made governments the world over obsess about uncovering these dangers. Only by understanding the interaction between these factors can we begin the necessary discussion about what privacy means in the 21st century — and how to forge a new social compact to address the issue.

If the rules that govern official behavior are weak, the rules that govern commercial behavior are non-existent at a time when everyone is generating (and unwittingly sharing) massive amounts of digital dust…and there is probably too much money at stake to ever see Congress (which does not understand the issues) craft legislation that makes affords Americans any reasonable degree of protection. As the authors pointed out in How We Killed Privacy:

There are advantages to treating personal data as a commodity. Companies can provide remarkable services at no cost to the user. Google, Facebook, and similar companies could certainly command subscription fees if they chose that route, but the fact is that the companies make more money by getting to know their users — understanding their interests, their aspirations, their likes and dislikes — than they would by charging users twenty or thirty dollars a year.

The intelligence community is facing a new paradigm of information sharing vs information collection. You can blame it on this generation or that technology, but the fact exists that we are being conditioned to over-share. Classified information is not immune to this new way of thinking or how it’s dispensed. Information sharing might be our new way of connecting in lieu of the physical community we once had when we were less transient.

But another immediate matter is not getting the attention it deserves under the guise of government domestic surveillance. The NSA is an information collector that disseminates the intelligence to various Agencies according to classification and the legal framework governing privacy. In other words, the ‘action arm’ varies and how that information is used is the crux of the issue. Charlie Simpson’s tumblr post highlighted:

The FBI’s current relationship with the NSA (and the role of their “warrants” in this process) has not be fully explored. There are many reasons to support elements of our post-9/11 surveillance regime. But the abuses revealed over the last few weeks are the kinds of things that previously yielded the Church Commission.”

The counterterrorism mission necessarily blurred the line between foreign and domestic collection and operations. The challenge is that the policies that seem to be governing the blurred lines –particularly in terms of inter agency cooperation between a foreign intelligence-focused SIGINT shop and a domestic law enforcement agency–seem to be immature to the point of non-existent.

The crux of the issue is how the information is acted upon. The problem is that the strictures are not clear and they vary from organization to mission. How each Agency uses the information that is given to them by the NSA depends on their mandate. Of recent particular concern — domestic surveillance and how such information will be used against/for/with Americans. Majority of the collected domestic intelligence is for domestic law enforcement e.g. FBI, DHS, Customs, DEA, etc. In the aftermath of 2001, more robust collection seemed distasteful, but necessary. In the context of the current allegations (in terms of scope, scale, and absence of meaningful oversight), it is an abysmal failure to not have a clear direction and communication to what is collected and how it’s used. The weak governance structure is to blame.

Our privacy is being violated the second we connect to the internet. The NYTimes ran a story called, A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain, wherein the CEO explains how they collect and use private data scraped from the internet. In essence, they are building a profile of each individual at the most intimate level and mapping that information for marketing and sales. This is unsettling for a variety of reasons not least of which that their data could be compromised at some point and individual profiles exploited. On top of the fact that it’s uncomfortable knowing someone is building your profile based on searches like ‘toenail fungus’.

Governments around the world have been acting like data brokers sharing classified intelligence in exchange for more intelligence or achieving foreign policy objectives for over a century, at least. It’s time to establish a broader governance framework for how your data is used in both the private and government sector. Because let’s face it, your data is being collected.

 

 

HuffPost Live: Good Leaks vs Bad Leaks

Despite media and government elites vilifying Edward Snowden’s actions, national security leaks are printed in newspapers every day. The selective outrage raises the question: When everyone powerful hates you…are you doing something right? Watch the clip here 

 

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Interview at Mountain Film Festival Telluride

PSMag: The Changing War on Terror

Is the United States safe enough? That is the fundamental question being asked by the public, policymakers, and members of the Obama Administration after the Boston bombing. What shape is al Qaeda in now and how does it affect those of us living in the United States?

While working at the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Counterterrorism Center as an analyst and targeting officer I focused on a loose network in Iraq that eventually grew into the al Qaeda we recognize. From my perspective, we are almost witnessing—today—the reverse engineering of al Qaeda back into its initial state in the 1990s, when U.S. officials observed the organization as a collection of independent groups with a central financier, Osama bin Laden. The current-day exception: al Qaeda has spread a central message through propaganda and a few high-profile attacks that are inspiring regional affiliates, lone-wolf individuals, and small groups that don’t necessarily wage jihad for the same reasons that bin Laden did.

ut where does that leave the American public in terms of risk of terrorist activity? The large al Qaeda franchises are bound by geographic constraints and interests and are less likely to pull off a high-profile attack similar to 9/11 than they were a decade ago. And the lone-wolf adherents of al Qaeda’s ideology are unlikely to have the training, financing, and capability to execute anything on a large scale. But is their inability to do significant damage enough to make us feel secure here at home? We have to ask what it is we are trying to protect ourselves from. Is it the dissemination of an ideology to lone-wolf actors who are not part of al Qaeda? Is it the terrorist acts themselves, acts that can be carried out by anyone of any affiliation? Is it both?

Read more at Pacific Standard magazine

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Late Show: CIA Analyst Nada Bakos with David Letterman – April 29, 2013

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HuffPost Live on Manhunt and CIA

Link to video on HuffPost Live

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Time: A Former CIA Analyst on the New Osama bin Laden Documentary, Manhunt

By 

Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot — both on TV and at the movies — about the process by which the CIAlocated and killed Osama bin Laden. But much that has been presented was speculative or contrived, as was the case with the Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty.

Now, with the May 1 HBO premiere of the documentary Manhunt, audiences will have a chance to take a closer look at the true story of the analysts and case officers who made it happen. (Or, rather, as much of the true story as they’re allowed to share.)

Read More at Time.com…

 

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ForeignPolicy.com: Humility Now!

by Nada Bakos

In a Washington Post column published yesterday, “What the Iraq war taught me about Syria,” Jackson Diehl takes on the criticism of hawks like himself who have been pilloried for supporting intervention in Syria even though the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which they supported, turned out so poorly. But, he writes, Syria is not Iraq, so President Obama and others are being too cautious if they assume the United States cannot help the rebels without stepping into a 10-year-long quagmire. “The problem here,” he writes, “is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.”

It would be a plausible argument if Diehl had not clearly missed many of the most basic lessons of the Iraq War. For example, he writes that “in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States.” It is certainly true that Syria is a humanitarian disaster on a regional scale, and that the lack of a clear strategy by the United States for the past two years has limited our ability to shape the nature and trajectory of the conflict today. But the phrase “in the absence of U.S. intervention” suggests a degree of American agency that Iraq showed we simply don’t possess. Read More here http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/02/humility_now.

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Wired.com: I Tried to Make the Intelligence Behind the Iraq War Less Bogus

Ten years ago this week, the U.S. invaded Iraq, citing intelligence that turned out to be bogus. I had to work on some of it — and I also had to work on keeping the really, really terrible versions of it out of our analysis.

Specifically, I was a CIA analyst working in the Counterterrorism Center in the overburdened days after 9/11. As analysts, we spend most of our time identifying burgeoning issues based on communications intercepts, reports from CIA case officers, imagery from satellites, accounts from other governments, and piecing together a story.

What we don’t do routinely is tie one catastrophe to another. But that was exactly what I was asked to do in November 2002, shortly after Congress voted to authorize war with Iraq. That war was predicated on Saddam Hussein’s (ultimately nonexistent) stockpiles of deadly weapons, but lurking in the background was the assertion that he’d pass them on to al-Qaida. At the CIA’s Iraq Branch in the Counterterrorism Center, we didn’t think Saddam had any substantial ties to al-Qaida. But soon we found ourselves fielding questions from determined Bush administration officials about whether Saddam was tied to 9/11.

That’s how my team ended up in a windowless room with my branch chief, “Karen,” who was pretending to be Dick Cheney or his chief of staff, Scooter Libby.

That month, Vice President Cheney scheduled a meeting with our Branch to discuss our assessment of Iraq’s relationship with al-Qaida and 9/11. It was his second visit to the Branch; there always seemed to be more questions. The Branch Chief called us together for a practice session in a bland conference room a few days before their arrival. At this so-called “murderboard” session, we weren’t stripping down our analysis to find data we’d missed. We were practicing how to defend our perspective when questioned by the Vice President of the United States.

The Branch Chief would get the ball rolling with questions designed to lead us down a rabbit hole. Karen had briefed Libby, so she was skilled at impersonating both the Vice President and Libby — that is, she was being relentless and insistent — to anticipate the questions they would ask. We had a bottom line: Fear of Islamic extremism growing in Iraq would limit Saddam’s willingness to work with bin Laden. Fake-Cheney would rejoinder: Would ideological differences really hinder their cooperation? Anticipating the response, she’d come back with: What if bin Laden convinced Saddam that acting against the United States was in both of their best interests; you have told us we don’t know exactly how much communication has taken place between the regime and al-Qaida; and you have already found information that specified safe havens, contact and training?

We needed to poke holes in our analysis, to be sure we were right. If not, we could rest assured Cheney would. Already, Cheney’s Pentagon ally, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, had put together an alternative analysis faulting our own and asserting instead that “multiple areas of cooperation” existed between al-Qaida and Saddam. The ongoing questions and briefings became a labyrinth.

How far down a rabbit hole should we go in answering questions? Will it be misconstrued as an actual answer based on a made-up scenario? It was an unorthodox practice. But we were unused to a senior political figure being willing to dig down into the details of our analysis.

In the abstract, challenging CIA’s analysis is a good thing: agency analysts get stuff wrong, as evidenced by Saddam’s non-WMD. But in this case, it was problematic. The nature of intelligence analysis is to gather as much information as possible to assist a policymaker in making difficult choices. If a policymaker has a preference for what the intelligence product should say, that pollutes the objectivity of the intelligence — and diminishes its value.

On Sunday, March 16, 2003, I watched Cheney on “Meet The Press” contradict our assessment publicly. “We know that he [Saddam] has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups,” Cheney said, “including the al-Qaeda organization.” I was basically watching Cheney field-test arguments that we would have to anticipate — and rebut — at CIA. Except instead of asking us questions behind closed doors, Cheney was asserting to the public as fact something that we found to be anything but. I found myself yelling at the TV like I was contesting a ref’s blown call in a football game.

The agency’s intelligence collection on Iraq’s relationship with al-Qaida was thin — Iraq’s connections to terrorist organizations were so minute it wasn’t a priority for us — so it was difficult to even construct a chart showing connections, as if we were mapping the Barksdale crew on The Wire. Saddam has a history of supporting small, anti-Israel terrorist groups; in early 2002, due to the war in Afghanistan, the terrorist leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq on his own, with no direction or control by al-Qaida or Saddam; there were reports of varying reliability saying Iraq had discussions with al-Qaida about establishing a safe haven, dating from the early 1990s. The Zarqawi stuff would prove to be relevant, after the U.S. invasion. The rest of it didn’t add up to much. We concluded that, at most, the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida was like two independent groups trying to exploit each other.

None of that stopped the invasion. Nor did the invasion stop the troll-y back-and-forth with the White House on Saddam and terrorism. When I volunteered to deploy to Iraq, my boss’ boss wouldn’t spare me for four days’ worth of weapons training. ( “I would rather have you come back in a body bag than spend that much time out of the office,” he told me.) They were so frantic to respond to White House questions that supporting the actual war effort took a back seat.

As it turned out, the questions wouldn’t stop once the invasion occurred. In June 2003, the Defense Department started to report that troops discovered caches of Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) documents allegedly proving Saddam was tight with al-Qaida.

The documents claimed to directly link Mohammed Atta, one of the main 9/11 hijackers, with the Baghdad training camp of Abu Nidal, the infamous Palestinian terrorist. It was a hand-written note, supposedly by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS). If the documents were real, it was damning evidence that Iraq worked with al-Qaida long before the 9/11 attacks; if not, someone embarked on a very sophisticated strategy to play the U.S. government, our team or both.

And if this was truly a smoking gun, our team would be blamed — rightly — for getting it wrong. There was a sense of urgency at the CIA to evaluate these documents and provide an answer.

We got to work. We worked with the Secret Service to test the ink. If we could determine how old the ink itself was, we would have a time frame for when the documents were prepared. While in Iraq, I asked every high-level Iraqi government detainee I could about the details of the document. They either had grave doubts, or flatly said the document was bogus. They were adamant the names and roles outlined in the documents didn’t match the structure of the IIS. Having studied the Iraqi intelligence apparatus extensively before the war, everything they said lined up with the structure we understood to be true. The FBI had put together a timeline of Atta’s 2001 travels around the world, culling together airline records, ATM withdrawals and hotel receipts. Much like the infamous “Prague meeting” — another ultimately-bogus thread weaving al-Qaida together with Saddam — the FBI material indicated Atta was in the U.S. when the IIS document indicated he was meeting with Abu Nidal in Iraq.

Our Branch Chief, Karen, walked into Cheney’s office with everything we’d uncovered about the Abu Nidal link in June 2003. It seemed airtight. The Secret Service had determined that the paper was made after the date printed on the page. The timeframes didn’t match. The ink was inconsistent with the ink manufactured in the early 1990s purported timeframe of the documents. The chain of command indicated in the documents contradicted the description of the Iraqi intelligence bureaucracy provided by our detainees, even down to incorrect titles. These were forgeries.

I wasn’t there, but I heard the vice president was gracious and thanked her.

I actually quit the CIA for 3 days in 2004. I was exhausted answering historical questions trying to justify the invasion while at the same time trying to define Iraqi al-Qaida leader Zarqawi’s growing role as a real threat. I couldn’t take it. People were dying and we were still talking about evidence of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. After a few phone calls with leadership in the Counterterrorism Center, I went back after 3 days and switched roles to the operations side — the National Clandestine Service — heading up the targeting operations team looking for Zarqawi. Instead of writing about him, I wanted to find him, I felt like the U.S. accidentally gave him a platform that helped him grow into a major terrorist. I moved onto another assignment a few months before he was killed in 2006.

After leaving the CIA, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this sorry absurd role in intelligence history, and my bit role in it. No intelligence analyst should have to deal with policymakers delving into intelligence work. It sounds bureaucratic and boring, but the distinction matters: CIA doesn’t have a policy agenda, it seeks to inform those agendas. Politicians and appointees have ideas for shaping the world. Mingling the two is a recipe for self-delusion and, as we saw in Iraq, failure.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/03/iraq-intelligence/

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For or Against Drones: Why They Are a Red Herring

The discourse of US public opinion on terrorism changed on a single day. The ‘war on terror’ was defined by a war– not only on an identifiable group–but a war on an ideology. The main challenge for the future of US national security is conceptual: we have yet to move beyond the thinking that was formulated pre 9/11 in a meaningful way.

What we are talking about here is risk. How willing are we, as Americans, to tolerate the possibility of another terrorist attack. No amount of money, weapons or intelligence will create a perfect solution to protect the United States from all risk.  How much are we willing to pay out of the national treasury to reduce the odds of an attack? How much of our rights and liberties are we willing to sacrifice? A straight-line extrapolation of our pre-9/11 thinking is not viable…and worse, it doesn’t really work. What does a national security strategy look like that starts with a blank sheet of paper? That is really the question.

The US is certainly exercising great liberties with counterterrorism strategies, or so it seems, in countries where al Qaeda affiliates are based. It is unclear to the public, at least, what arrangements are being made with countries containing those groups. But it is more complex than that: some of these states are complicit, yes, but others don’t even control their territorial boundaries.

A drone is a tool—a developing technology that is here to stay. What are the alternatives? Deploying forces? Enabling law enforcement? Better intelligence to support forces? These are all still tactics–we need to incorporate tactics into a bigger strategy. Drones will eventually be replaced by yet another technology platform, instead of policing specific technology platforms; we need to establish an overarching foundation on how we conduct counter-terrorism operations.

One can argue that drones may be our best of a bad set of options until we figure out how to address the larger issue of why this ideology continues to galvanize support. Its simplistic in nature to just say, “they hate the US and western powers”, because they are also killing Muslims. Terrorism has been around for millennia and likely isn’t going away any time soon.

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Besides Torture, What Else Did ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Get Wrong?

(NYTimes) In the controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty’s” stance on torture, earlier questions have been pushed aside. But in Pacific Standard magazine, Nada Bakos, a former C.I.A. operative, investigates the accuracy of the Kathryn Bigelow film on other counts.

First, Ms. Bakos, a former targeting officer, just like Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, in “Zero Dark Thirty,” notes that were it not for the assignment to write about it, she might not have seen the film. “People who work in intelligence don’t generally see movies about it,” she writes. “You can enjoy them only once you’ve been out of the game for a while, and then only if you don’t take it too seriously. I watch ‘Homeland.’ It’s fun, because it’s a fantasy.”

“Zero Dark Thirty,” on the other hand, is not fantasy, but, Ms. Bakos says, “it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences.” She knew women like Maya, but objected to her portrayal as a lone gun, a Clint Eastwood-like cowboy.

“More often than not, effective intelligence — including the effort to find Osama bin Laden — is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort,” she writes. Yes, of course, it’s just a movie, but Ms. Bakos worries that the film gives the wrong perception of her field and her colleagues, including that they were unemotional or callous.

“Instead of treating the movie as a depiction of reality, I hope we treat it as a point of departure,” she writes. “We should be asking questions like, ‘What should our expectation be of our national security apparatus, especially in terms of how it conducts itself in a time of war?’ Or, ‘How might we re-imagine or rebuild our counterterrorism strategy so that it better balances individual rights and reasonable precautions moving forward?’”

“The reality of the profession,” she adds, “is long hours of menial work that don’t often fit into standard narratives. You make the best choices you can, about very serious matters, with imperfect information. You live with those choices for the rest of your life.”

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How True is Zero Dark Thirty?

(PSMag.com) When Pacific Standard called me to ask if I would write about Zero Dark Thirty, I still had not decided whether I wanted to see it. I was leaning toward no. People who work in intelligence don’t generally see movies about it. You can enjoy them only once you’ve been out of the game for a while, and then only if you don’t take it too seriously. I watch Homeland. It’s fun, because it’s a fantasy.

Zero Dark Thirty occupied an odd space. It’s not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief. I get that Hollywood needs to sell tickets, but it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and later, a targeting officer in the clandestine service.

The movie’s ‘Maya’ appears to be an amalgamation of women I knew and worked with, some of whom go back further in the story than I do. Gina BennettJennifer Matthews, and Barbara Sude were part of the initial group working in the Counterterrorism Center as targeters and analysts before 9/11. After the attacks, I and other officers transferred from other departments. Many were just joining the agency, like Maya at the movie’s beginning.

I could relate to Maya as a mid-level officer, being asked to “backbench” at a briefing—you’re briefing the guy who has to brief the guy—while she knows it’s her analysis that brought everyone together in the room. Supervisors sell this as “top cover” for the lower-level officer, and there is some truth to that. It’s easier for established officers to take a hit over a bad decision than for a new officer, whose career could end on an early miscall. When I became a supervisor, I did the same thing, and dodged my share of clipboards.

But for all the similarities between my career and fictional Maya’s, the movie’s version of how counter-terrorism works didn’t resonate with me. And not just the parts involving torture that has become such a major point of contention around the film. The whole story the film tells, both in terms of the time scale and the type of human effort it depicts, is likely to create some important misconceptions for the public about how our national security system really works.

I get that this is a Hollywood movie. Hollywood will gravitate to a film that is digestible and, ultimately, profitable. And depicting the reality of national security is challenging: much of the information is secret, and a lot of it is just not dramatic. Reading hundreds of reports and crafting papers is just not that exciting. People applaud the team that’s on the court when the buzzer goes off.

But I was surprised at what I saw. We’ve got the go-it-alone gunslinger, Maya, whose past is murky and future is vague. She’s Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” re-imagined as a twenty-something woman. She gathers up a posse, heads out, and kills the bad guy. Then she leaves. Because she’s not actually Clint Eastwood, she cries a little. You expect to see someone chasing the C-130 shouting, “Shane, come back!”

In reality, cowboys don’t work as targeters. (But they do ride with a large posse that helps with more than the gunfights. This 10-year hunt involved hundreds of people with several people at the core.) More often than not, effective intelligence—including the effort to find Osama bin Laden—is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort.

Saying otherwise misrepresents not only how the hunt for bin Laden worked, but how the whole system works.

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Gina Bennett, a veteran CIA analyst, wrote the first strategic warning about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden while at the State Department in 1993. Telling the whole story would be a looooong movie.

After 9/11, the actual process involved reconciling vast bodies of information. You’re talking about thousands upon thousands of megabytes to collate, analyze, parse, analyze again, and define gaps.

“It’s not connecting dots, it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Cindy Storer, an ex-CIA analyst, one of the group that goes back before 9/11. I talked to her by phone when the movie came out.

“Pieces fall from the sky and add to the pile the analyst already has,” she said. “There is no picture, no edge pieces. And not all of the pieces fit in the puzzle.”

So even if Maya existed, and was committed and had the right instincts, one person is just not able to assimilate enough of the information to crack the case.

The movie deals with this by showing Maya chasing a digestible amount of data, just one lead: a suspicious courier, whose nom de guerre she must match to his real name. Two data points. She cracks the case that way, and off go the helicopters.

The actual hunt for bin Laden turned on thousands of data points. According to a press article, a CIA analyst referred to publicly as “Rebecca” wrote a paper called Inroads, describing four pillars to finding bin Laden: his courier network; his family members; communications; and bin Laden’s outreach to media. “Couriers were tangential to all of the other information we were following, we had been focusing on the courier network for a long time, it was not new,” said the former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA, Marty Martin.

That sounds like bickering on a technical point. But the movie’s version isn’t just a difference in scale, or some paring back from thousands of plot points for the sake of streamlining a script. Focusing on one lead, and one analyst, has the effect of turning the hunt for bin Laden, and our understanding of national security, into a Sherlock Holmes story.

The stark misconception that really stood out was the lack of humanity in the portrayal of one character, who appears based on the late Jennifer Matthews, a CIA officer killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan. The irreverence of the character and almost flippant attitude toward analysis was anathema to who Jennifer was. Jennifer was smart, intense, observant and persistent.

And yes there were men involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The movie also alludes to arguments over priorities for CTC—that there were, over time, things more important than finding bin Laden—but presents them as distractions for Maya. Bureaucratic roadblocks, not reasoned prioritizing of threats. Those who joined the ranks of the CIA, the intelligence community, and the military were intensely passionate about helping making sure that our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, and our neighbors would not be the victims of an attack on U.S. soil again. “Besides the hunt, there were threats, and leads on other individuals,” Martin said. The movie is about one thing, the hunt for bin Laden. In reality, there was more going on.

In the film, none of the agency characters were empathetic or exhibited much human emotion at all. They were emotionally callous, cold, unwavering at the sight of brutal beatings and nonplussed by intense situations. Or they quickly became like that.

The group of intelligence officers I worked with was not a homogenous whole. We were diverse in heritage, schooling, religious and political beliefs, a typical cross-section of the American public. We were not emotionally callous. Once, in the course of my duties, I had to watch the tape of a beheading. The inhumanity of man always leaves a mark on those forced to witness it.

The torture scenes depicted in the movie were horrific and very difficult to watch.

Instead of treating the movie as a depiction of reality, I hope we treat it as a point of departure. We should be asking questions like, “What should our expectation be of our national security apparatus, especially in terms of how it conducts itself in a time of war?” Or, “How might we re-imagine or rebuild our counter-terrorism strategy so that it better balances individual rights and reasonable precautions moving forward?”

The filmmakers say, instead, they had more modest goals. They just wanted to depict the effort to locate bin Laden, and portray some of the professionals who did it.

The reality of the profession is long hours of menial work that don’t often fit into standard narratives. You make the best choices you can, about very serious matters, with imperfect information. You live with those choices for the rest of your life.

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Terrorist group fills power vacuum among Syria rebels

(CNN) — In the midst of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s government stands Jabhat al-Nusra, recently designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

A new report by the Quilliam Foundation in London says the organization is the most effective arm of the Syrian insurgency and now fields about 5,000 fighters against the Assad regime.

Practically speaking, the terrorist designation means little that is new for the immediate struggle in Syria. Shortly after al-Nusra claimed credit for one of its early suicide bombings in January 2012, the Obama administration made known al-Nusra’s connection to al Qaeda in Iraq, a group with which I was intimately familiar in my capacity as an analyst and targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency.

The administration’s position was reinforced when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper one month later testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “…we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”

Al-Nusra is filling a power vacuum through charitable efforts to galvanize local support and generating influence among Syrians. In light of al-Nusra’s influence in Syria, the real question is not so much about the scope and scale of al-Nusra currently, but rather how should the United States respond to its rise, particularly after al-Assad’s eventual exit?  ……continued on CNN.com

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GT2030: Influence of Nonstate Actors

There is a spate of recent articles lamenting over the lack of influence the US appears to have in the realm of Foreign Policy and the US is facing the reality that military action does not lead to preeminent power over another country.  The authors of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends observed that, “A growing number of diverse and dissimilar state, subnational and nonstate actors will play important governance roles in an increasingly multipolar world.” The governance gaps and the role that nonstate actors might play in the face of local, regional, or national power vacuums gives US foreign policy an opportunity to influence and strengthen our position in regions the US finds challenging: sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Middle East and North Africa.

Whether it is al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Africa, there are countless organizations looking to take advantage of weak central, regional, or local governments…or weaken them in ways that allow the violent non-state actors some degree of local control.  Al-Qaida in Iraq took advantage of the power vacuum after the dissolution of the Iraqi Army following the US invasion in 2003.  As a nonstate actor al-Qaida recognized they could influence a simmering tension between Sunnis and Shiites after the fall of Saddam. In short, Iraq became a failed state by virtue of US policy; as longtime Middle East watcher Anthony Cordesman said during an interview with PBS, de-Baathification “…created an almost hopeless problem, because it removed the secular core from the government of Iraq, and it crippled it economically.”

This quest for power is not limited to ideologically-driven organizations: the ongoing struggle for power between drug cartels and the government of Mexico and recent violence in the favelas of Brazil are emblematic of the same problem.

By supporting the right NGOs, and businesses the US can develop influence in areas otherwise unreachable by central government influence.  Take, for example, the systematic method of building a counter-insurgency strategy around political, economic, and social programs using the military.  Based on the rising influence of nonstate actors, a possible approach to counter insurgency would utilize nonstate actors who can identify the governance gaps and insurgent groups could exploit.  This type of soft power currently resonates in the work of Joseph Nye and Robert DuBois who both advocate for smart power-the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy.

The question for policy-making bodies such as the Department of State and the National Security Council should be “How might we engage (to support or parry) these nascent and rising nonstate actors as they become more influential so that we can pursue our foreign policy objectives regardless of who controls a country?”  For example, Muhammad Yunus identified the basic rights of society–food, shelter, health, education–and recognized governments are unable to reach everyone so why not empower the individual to help themselves? Yunus developed Grameen Bank to provide a financial service in the form of microcredit to the 2/3 of the worlds population that doesn’t have access to financial services.

In order for US Foreign Policy to assist nonstate actors, a significant shift is required from being a seed generator with US-imposed ideals to that of a convener that cultivates partnerships which align with local cultures to provide tangible support at a micro level.  The nonstate actors are largely influential because they are part of the informal networks that humans have always fallen back on.  We expect locals to replace – usually wholesale – whatever existing networks and power structures that exist with a  secular democracy.  Saddam’s  Baath party was not only a political party, but also an extended network through which resources flowed.  It’s about understanding how a jeffersonian democracy can work within and maybe help shape an existing complex dynamic network in ways that suit our national interests.  Nonstate actors and their networks succeed in targeting weak regimes because they can offer solutions people care about in these places.

Carnegie Endowment’s study on ‘Revitalizing Democracy Assistance’ pointed out one of USAID’s biggest failings is that as an organization it ‘habitually seeks to exert substantial control over defining what the projects will do and how they will do it.’ The US as a coordinating body is to likely to have greater influence by increasing local ownership.

US imposed solutions, such as those applied in Iraq, are destined to fail and possible leave the US with less influence than before.  Rather the US support to nonstate actors must be regionally and culturally aligned with US Foreign Policy and their abilities.  The US also must understand why they are influential to avoid pitfalls of supporting a group that will later turn out to oppose to a US strategy in the long-run or become an adversary.  For example, arming the Syrian rebels to take down President Assad’s regime would prevent a US military engagement, but at the same time the US runs the risk of inadvertently supplying arms to al-Qaida as the newly designated terrorist organization Jabbhat al-Nusra expands it’s influence among the rebels.

The big challenge for the US government is can we act less like a hegemon imposing solutions and picking winners, to thinking of ourselves as part of a complex network that can ultimately provide for better futures than the alternatives?  Ultimately, this is a better part of global governance work, and both more sustainable and ultimately effective than kinetic-dominated strategies.  Successfully navigating the the rise of nonstate actors requires a significant shift in our collective thinking and what success looks like there, and investing in soft power over the long term.

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Spyocrats on ForeignPolicy.com

(Foreign Policy) The firestorm surrounding the story that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told on Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi has drawn wildly different reactions around Washington. Bad data? Innocent mistake? Political deception? From the president’s staunch defense of Rice to John McCain’s repeated attacks, different people see different things. But, as a former CIA analyst, I’ve taken a separate lesson from the episode: The office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), created to facilitate interagency analysis and operations, has become a serious bureaucratic obstacle.

For a long time, the CIA ruled the intelligence cycle of collection, aggregation, analysis, and dissemination. But in 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the United States unify the intelligence community. Thus, the DNI was born. Today, according to its website, the DNI “serves as the head of the Intelligence Community, overseeing and directing the implementation of the National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security.” But, however noble and sensible the intent, the DNI has done very little to remedy the coordination issues — and Benghazi is a perfect example.

On September 16, Rice went on Meet the Press and stated, “Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the [Innocence of Muslims] video.” Rice has since publicly stated that there was an error in the intelligence she was given — there was not a protest at the facility in Benghazi. But the initial set of talking points from the CIA is said to have indicated that the attackers had links to al Qaeda. So why did she not mention that? A U.S. intelligence official has said, “The information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators.” So was Rice just being prudent? It’s possible, though her performance was clumsy at best.

I have no access to classified information from the CIA or DNI on Benghazi, but here’s what might have happened. On the eve of the attack, the analysts at the CIA are reading reports from regional embassies, watching news reports, and poring over cables from assets as the ridiculous anti-Islam YouTube video sparks protests across the region. As the attack in Benghazi ensues, they scramble to assess the situation and draft products for the various consumers — the most sensitive pieces go to select people at the White House, Pentagon, Office of the DNI, and National Security Council. If time allows, an alternative product is scrubbed of the most sensitive information for release across various parts of the U.S. government. In other words, the CIA may (or may not) have disseminated two different sets of talking points: one highly classified to protect sources and methods, and a second for broader dissemination.

Although the CIA’s role has changed in recent years, informing and warning the senior ranks of the U.S. government on tactical issues is supposed to be its purview, because over the course of decades, the agency has established processes to create, coordinate, and disseminate the right intelligence to the right audience. This is not to say that the CIA has always been correct in its assessments — the very nature of analysis, particularly on breaking events, all but guarantees some degree of error — but it has an established way of producing analytic products.

Alas, one of the responsibilities of the DNI is to “ensure the most accurate analysis of intelligence is derived from all sources to support national security needs” (my emphasis), and the intelligence community, for better or worse, is not a public affairs dynamo: it is made up of 16 agencies. It’s likely that the DNI passed the document to other intel agencies, which all added views from their own analysts, and created another set of talking points to be disseminated. These talking points could easily have emphasized the role of the video in Benghazi — not all analysts from differing agencies have access to the same information. In the case of the DNI, collective intelligence analysis can be just as flawed as independent analysis: a consensus view can reveal differences of opinion within the intelligence community, but it also can result in the loss of nuance or, worse, become a convenient excuse for adopting a safe position.

So a policymaker could end up receiving many different sets of talking points, not all of which necessarily say the same thing. See how confusing this could be to someone in Rice’s position? An amalgamation of analysis might be more tempered or more diluted than the analyses that contributed to it.

As a former CIA analyst and news consumer, I think we are looking at three distinct problems:

First, interagency coordination on breaking events is very difficult, if not impossible. The DNI, with its acquisition of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), has a remarkable ability to coerce intra-agency collaboration on cross-cutting strategic issues. The NIC serves as a bridge between the intelligence and policy communities, employing senior subject matter experts from academia, government, and the private sector. Rightly so, the National Intelligence Estimates are the definitive position of the intelligence community. The extensive, careful interagency coordination that goes into producing an NIE takes months and cannot be replicated at a tactical level in a fast-moving situation like Benghazi.

Second, intelligence analysis of specific events rarely lends itself to a good sound bite suitable for the 24-hour news cycle. If, for instance, Amb. Rice had repeated the caveat, “The information is still being refined, we don’t know exactly who the perpetrators are or why they attacked, but here is what we have so far” over and over, it probably would have been accurate. But it also would have been wildly unsatisfactory (or frustrating) to both political leaders and the American public. There are always varying degrees of certainty when it comes to intelligence analysis as new information arrives and is weighed against historical information.

Third, the CIA’s cultural inclination to stay out of the media fray is part of its genetic code and it cannot — will not — be the public interface. The CIA’s primary mission is to collect, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the president and senior U.S. policymakers in making national security decisions. Unlike the Israel Defense Forces, which has both a Twitter and a Pinterest account — although the NIC just started a Twitter account (@ODNI_NIC), which is a promising step in the right direction — the CIA is likely to remain frustratingly silent about its work, both good and bad. Intelligence will always be filtered through policymakers. I experienced this firsthand in the run-up to the Iraq war, watching various policymakers on Meet the Press answer questions based on a piece I had written earlier in the week. I cheered every time Tim Russert asked a pointed question, forcing them to be more specific and accurate — because the CIA will not go on record to correct a statement by a policymaker on a talk show.

In light of this, what should the DNI’s role be in the intelligence community, if not disseminating a coordinated intelligence product? The CEO of a company is typically the one planning strategy, interfacing with board members, stockholders, and consumers. A CEO doesn’t typically write the chief financial officer’s year-end summary or the marketing director’s strategy — instead, he views both products from 25,000 feet to ensure the company is on steady footing. The DNI should have a similar role: rather than replicating work, it should focus on reviewing the source material from the various agencies and collaborating to ensure all of the information has been reviewed. In the case of the Benghazi talking points, the intelligence community all had a role in editing the talking points once passed from the CIA. Other points of view make sense, but in the immediate aftermath of something like Benghazi, the arrival of new (and possibly conflicting information) is likely to confuse, not improve, the product. It is best to leave the dissemination, in the immediate aftermath, in the hands of the agency that owns the source of the information and is in the business of disseminating intel products — in this case the CIA.

The political churn around Benghazi masks the real issue: how best to strike a balance between informing U.S. policymakers in a timely manner and continuing to foster coordination (if not cooperation) between the members of the intelligence community. The DNI has a purpose, but it does not serve taxpayers to have another bureaucracy replicating work being done by those it oversees. Instead, it would be worthwhile — especially for those hard-working, well-qualified DNI employees — to reassess the office’s mission.

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My interview with Women Under Siege – How one (female) CIA operative would fix our wars

Following combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has experienced firsthand the challenge of rebuilding a nation’s economic and societal pillars of security.  Without an international effort to stem sexualized violence as a weapon used by some during a conflict, the reconstruction phase is likely to be both more costly and time-consuming; effectively impeding the healing of the societal wounds and rifts that are essential to longer-term stability.

During a talk that I recently had with Gina Bennett, a CIA analyst and author of National Security Mom: Why ‘Going Soft’ Will Make America Strong, noted that “Sexualized violence against women instills constant fear, and manipulates decisions women will make for the family in the context of society. Their sense of security is defined by never wanting to experience such violence again.”  Through fear, women remove themselves from becoming an integral part of their nation’s security.

Here is my interview with Women Under Siege…

Nada Bakos isn’t allowed to share most of what she learned in the CIA. But after nearly 10 years of working with classified intelligence, she can point squarely to one unfortunate lesson: Rape is used globally as a tool of war, and the United States tends to ignore it.

During her tenure at the agency, Bakos worked first as an analyst, then as an operative, focusing on “illicit networks” and counterterrorism. Though her role centered on Iraq, she was also privy to intel from Afghanistan. She says that the data she assessed gave her direct insight into what was happening abroad, and her reports to higher-ups helped shape foreign policy. Moreover, the information she was exposed to made her realize that the U.S. wasn’t taking preventative measures against gender-based violence in its own conflicts.  Read More..

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Attack in Libya Represents Subtle But Meaningful Shift in Threat to American Interests

HuffPost – The recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi likely represents a subtle but meaningful shift in the extremist threat to American interests: the catastrophic attacks on American soil at the start of this century are likely to be much less common than the attacks abroad that we witnessed in the 1990s. A consequence of this shift should be a reconsideration of not just our counter-terrorism strategy, but a re-examination of the risk response calculus that we, as a country, are willing to accept in the course of our pursuit, promotion, and protection of interests abroad.

Ansar al-Sharia, the lead suspect for the attack on the U.S. Consulate, might share a similar ideology with al Qaeda (i.e., establishing Sharia law), but it differs from al Qaeda in that it –

– like many other small, loosely formed militias that can be found in other areas of the world — doesn’t appear to be focused on achieving a strategic objective outside of the areas they inhabit or want to inhabit. Instead, they are effectively looking to fill a vacuum left by an absent or ineffective government, outside of al Qaeda’s immediate reach, or trying to carve out a space that they can lay claim to (like the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the early 1990s).

In the case of al Qaeda, we were confronted with a large, well-funded, strategic, and periodically effective network that sought to challenge and confront the United States and its allies on several fronts, not the least of which was a battle for hearts and minds throughout the Muslim world. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia, as they are currently understood, are not operating on the same level. Yes, the international press and online fora such as YouTube allow even small groups a degree of notoriety and fame, but — regardless of public perception — the real risk assessment revolves around the motivations, ambitions, and capabilities of the group.

That said, watching for the evolution and alignment of these small, like-minded groups is important, but it is a problem that we, as a nation, understand. It was from relatively small-scale attacks against “soft” diplomatic targets in Iraq that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi first made a name for himself and his loosely knitted network in jihadist circles. After joining al Qaeda in 2004, Zarqawi leveraged funding, personnel and the brand to galvanize support for his operations. Still, Zarqawi remained focused on engaging U.S. forces inside of Iraq, which at times did not align with al Qaeda’s central leadership strategy of executing attacks on U.S. soil. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been rumored to have a possible role in the Benghazi attack. Even if AQIM played a role in the attack, the intelligence collection challenge remains in targeting small, loosely affiliated groups that act as the executioners with localized agendas.

The Haqqani network in Pakistan — which has links to al Qaeda and the Taliban — is another example of an organization whose members live among the community, operate businesses and focus on a localized agenda. According the Combating Terrorism Center’s report, the Haqqani network functions autonomously, shares the same ideology as al Qaeda, while concentrating on maintaining local control of territory. In fact, the Haqqani network shares a connection with a wide-range of actors in order to enhance their tactical operations.

The question for the United States is: how much of our resources, both money and personnel, do we devote to this problem? There is an assumed amount of risk encompassed in diplomatic and intelligence work. Not every militia or loosely affiliated network is a threat to the U.S. national interests and they certainly are not on par with the threat that al Qaeda represented during the last decade. If it’s a local threat, the host government should have more responsibility for and influence over the issue than the U.S. We are not and cannot be the world’s police force. There are legitimate questions around what types of support and how much support we provide to host governments, but that should be determined by a cold calculation of the potential of the threat.

A meaningful variable in the risk assessment is how much can we expect from local governments, especially those fresh from the throes of the Arab Spring? Nascent governments that have not yet achieved a degree of equilibrium or established functioning institutions are likely going to struggle to understand — let alone support and police — their own population. For example, the United States struggles to find fugitives on it’s own ‘Most Wanted’ list despite having large and often connected human- and computer- law enforcement networks; how can we expect these new governments to have everything wired from the beginning? Libyans are likely to feel some degree of shame and are likely to fear retaliation from the United States, possibly causing them to look for plausible explanations — e.g., deflect blame by exclaiming there were warnings of deteriorating security, blaming foreigners for the attack — rather than simply explaining that the security situation in Libya, let alone Benghazi, has been in varying degrees of disarray for the past year.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to embrace a new calculus for assessing and responding to these loosely affiliated networks and militias, and watch to make sure that they do not coalesce into a successor to the threat posed by al Qaeda at its zenith. The tactics used in Benghazi resemble those used by al Qaeda, but, smaller in scope and scale, and mainly threaten our to our interests and assets overseas. Our diplomatic presence in other countries has always served us well when it’s open and engaging, but, like any other deployment of U.S. national power, incurs a certain degree of necessary risk. Withdrawing from the world is every bit as implausible as treating every militia as if it is al Qaeda.

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‘Terrorism Analysts’, Do They Really Exist?

Last week Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Trombly went through the academic exercise of trying to define what a ‘terrorism expert’ is or isn’t. Greenwald took the stance as titled in his article, ‘The sham “terrorism expert” industry’ that the expertise, false in nature, is built on financing the big machine that makes money off of scare tactics. Essentially terrorism, as defined by Greenwald, does not exist, it’s largely the effect of miscalculated US foreign policy. Regardless of the chain of events that lead to such atrocities, the acts of terrorism and their victims unfortunately cannot be mistaken. Casting blanket blame on those who try to make sense of despicable acts perpetrated by various groups disparages the hard and serious work of people trying to define a very complex issue with ideological, political, economic, sociological, and military facets. Most people who work in the field of counterterrorism are not responsible for the entire fiscal budget built around protecting the United States from terrorism. However, I do agree with Greenwald in that the threat of terrorist activity is all too often used as a convenient bogeyman used to justify unjustifiable things. As a country, we have over-reacted to the threat of terrorism and continue to fund a massive industry to protect us from that amorphous threat. Greenwald writes:

Many of the benefits from keeping Terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers, and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability. In sum, the private and public entities that shape government policy and drive political discourse profit far too much in numerous ways to allow rational considerations of the Terror threat.

At some point the United States will have to understand that, just like the rest of the world, we can be vulnerable to the acts of individuals and groups that adhere to extremist ideologies even inside the United States. We can’t build a bubble that will protect us from everything; and those that would promise us such a bubble are incapable of delivering it, particularly when each promise comes at the expense of the rights and liberties on which the United States was founded. This is a refrain that security experts like Bruce Schneier often make, but often gets drown out by the very bureaucracies and industries that stand to profit from the impossible promise of absolute security.

That being said, part and parcel of this ‘terrorism expert’ industry. Greenwald expresses his concern over this group by writing:

But there’s a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear. It’s the sham industry Walt refers to, with appropriate scare quotes, as “terrorism experts,” who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.

Based on my experience as a counter-terrorism analyst and the Chief Targeting Officer hunting Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi at the CIA, I think that Daniel Trombly, who authored a rebuttal (‘What’s Glenn Greenwald’s Problem?’) to Greenwald, makes an excellent point worth acknowledging and considering:

…terrorism is a problematic subject of inquiry, but it is still a subject of inquiry (many so-called terrorism experts in fact identify themselves as, say, political scientists or historians that specialize in terrorism, rather than disciples of “terrorism studies” per se), and those who study it extensively may offer insights others do not grasp.

Terrorism is both a strategy and a tactic. Serious practitioners who are described as “terrorism experts” tend to see themselves as much in the same way that an economist might think of him or herself. Someone who understands general market forces and economic principles in one domain would be hard pressed to assert the same degree of expertise in another: an expert in Chinese macro-economic policy likely would be loath to speak authoritatively on market forces affecting soybean production in Argentina’s agricultural sector.

Significantly, true expertise in domains such as terrorism requires “time on target” (the amount of time needed to be conversational with the issue and the information that informs the collective understanding of the issue; it is worth noting that people such as Malcom Gladwell assert that this comes at about the 10,000 hour mark…or about five years of full-time work) and, in the case of “hard targets” such as terrorism, access to some information that simply does not exist in open sources. This is not to say that good analysis cannot happen using open sources, but rather that the scope and depth of that analysis is likely to be limited to one degree or another. Classified intelligence provides an insight into these underground groups, including all illicit networks, that open source and academic information does not contain.

Despite my experience, I would not define myself as a ‘terrorism expert’. The skills that I developed as an analyst and targeter are extensible to other domains: lately I have become interested in helping stem the flow of human trafficking in the US. I don’t have the subject matter expertise of groups like Shared Hope or the FAIR Girls effort, but I know enough about weighing data, developing and following leads, framing out networks and depicting the relationships between nodes, and telling compelling narratives that I think I can make a small but useful contribution to the ongoing fight.

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My Time as a Targeting Officer at the CIA

 

The Central Intelligence Agency is, by the very nature of its mission, an opaque and intentionally misunderstood organization. To an outsider, of which I am now one, the Agency’s silence is both perplexing and infuriating. As a former officer, I can tell you that its by design, and CIA employees labor silently, and often thanklessly, largely on behalf of the President of the United States and his senior staff. As a result of it, few will ever know the critical role that women, especially, have played in America’s CIA-led response to the attacks in 2001. There are 87 stars on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters, each representing an officer who has fallen in the line of duty. To see the Memorial Wall is a sobering event; to see a new star being carved into the Wall is both moving and painful. Some of these stars represent women who have sacrificed their life for a mission equally alongside men doing the same jobs.

My career began as an analyst in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September and later transitioned to the National Clandestine Service, where the spies work. As an analyst, I had the rare opportunity to work with some unbelievably smart and perceptive people, men and women who can discern pertinent pieces of information in volumes of data and make sense of them in a clear and concise manner, working at speeds and under pressures that few others likely experience. Given the realities of intelligence collection, analysis is (and likely will continue to be) far more an art than a science. As my career transitioned from an analyst to a Targeting Officer following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, my career path was full of unanticipated and unimaginable possibilities.

The women I met along the way were exactly as Peter Bergen described in his new book, Manhunt, “They seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships“.  There were a handful of us in the Targeting position at the time, there was no formal training, but there was a methodology inherent in our work that we shared amongst ourselves. In my experience, the leadership of women in Targeting roles cultivated patience, attention to detail and a willingness to wait for a pay off. The pace is grueling and can take a toll mentally and physically. The tidbits of information aren’t the highly classified results, it’s the analysis and the work that goes into translating the meaning of that disparate information.

As a manager in the Targeting organization, our action arm was quite often the Special Forces teams and the CIA’s targeting teams were set up to meet their unique requirements for ‘high value, actionable’ intelligence. Our targeting work focused on compiling “intelligence” collected holistically to create “targeting packages” against specific individuals and organizations vs whack-a-mole targeting. That is in no way meant to degrade the military personnel that were charged with carrying it out, but it was a strategy destined for failure.  Unlike previous wars, traditional tactical battlefield intelligence wasn’t always actionable, intel had to be rooted out from multiple sources and pieced together. In fact, without understanding the over-arching picture of Zarqawi’s group, traditional military targeting would fall short by misunderstanding the role of an individual within the group.

One thread of intelligence can be miles long before it becomes clear whether or not it can be useful for the big picture. When I read about claims of responsibility for tracking any terrorist, I cringe. I know from my own experience, it took years of analysis, human intelligence, technical collection, and working with foreign intelligence services to paint the picture of Zarqawi and his inner circle.  Rarely does intelligence come to light after one conversation, one piece of technical collection or one interrogation.  Crumbs are dropped throughout the intelligence collection process and Targeting Officers, who understand the modus operandi of the group, piece them together.

Having been out of the game for three years, I still wake up every morning a news junkie, looking for little nuggets of information that might be a precursor to something bigger. During my tenure, I watched ‘Meet the Press’ religiously every Sunday, perception was reality before the Iraq war for the public and Administration. I would sit in front of the TV and yell at guests when they were spinning the intelligence to their flavor and applauding Tim Russert when he caught them. It was my version of sports. The myriad of hours intensely focused on one issue makes for a slightly manic lifestyle. When I wasn’t physically in the office, I was checking the news, waiting for my cell phone to ring asking me to come in because Zarqawi’s group had yet again set off another car bomb. It’s hard to not take your work home when you feel responsible for him still not being caught and killing innocent people. It takes a long time to step back from that level of intensity even after leaving the Agency. I miss my job at the Agency, regardless of the factors that made me leave. My identity has been shaped by this job, not because I can say I worked at the CIA, but because I understand the fragility and strength of our National Security process.

Invading Iran and Ignoring Reality

Iran and nuclear are the new buzzwords, in fact, according to Google Trends, this month alone they have been googled as often as ‘Kardashian’. It’s a serious issue, the Obama Administration is facing a defiant, isolated regime that has proved to be dangerous, including ridiculous schemes like taunting the US with toy drones. So we now have a glut of articles espousing why or why we should not attack Iran. There is a disturbing trend in a few of the arguments–they are devoid of historical precedence created by invading Iraq. In fact, it’s like it never happened. For example, The Case for Regime Change in Iran by Jamie Fly and Gary Schmitt is a response to Matthew Kroenig’s article, Time to Attack Iran, that also supports striking Iran, but in a get-in, get-out strategy. Fly and Schmitt argue that the best approach is military action with a full strategy of destabilizing or taking out the Regime. I am not picking on these particular authors per se, but these are recent examples of strategies that do not use the lessons learned from Iraq. And it’s not 2002.

Having been privy to the pre-war planning in the run-up to the Iraq war, I can say first-hand that destabilizing a regime is not as simple as shock and awe. Unfortunately, we are not experts at nation building or regime change, that shouldn’t be a surprise to these authors. So this simplistic statement defies logic:

    If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan 
    an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the 
    regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.

Ask anyone that works in an Intelligence organization if they are confident regime change in Iraq has led to an end of the pursuit of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ by Iraq, forever. The fact remains that the US government did not plan for the reconstruction period and devise a strategy for nation building. Next, Fly and Schmitt do not mention nation building after the regime falls, but instead predict a welcoming crowd of happy Iranians:

    It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the 
    regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely 
    that the population would see the regime’s inability to forestall the attacks as 
    evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into 
    needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would 
    stoke even more anger at the current regime.

I think we have been down this road before, predicting we would be embraced with warm hugs and cookies. The logic of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ does not hold up. On the contrary, the authors are advocating a full-on strike, including the urban neighborhoods, and they expect that the Iranian people would be ‘ok’ with it. It’s far more likely the Iranian nationalism would evolve into hatred toward the US after killing many innocent civilians.

And here is a question that answers itself:

    Whether a limited military strike or regime destabilization operation, Iran’s leaders  
    would almost certainly believe they would have to respond forcefully to such a 
    challenge to maintain their credibility in the region, employing missiles, proxies, 
    and their own terrorist operatives…… Given the likely fallout from even a limited 
    military strike, the question the United States should ask itself is, Why not take 
    the next step? After all, Iran’s nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness — 
    the revolutionary fundamentalist regime in Tehran.

Now the whole point is regime change and not stopping the threat of Nuclear weapons? I would ask the authors, have you been reading or watching TV for the last 9 years? We aren’t in the business of regime change, we suck at it. Will it be necessary to stop Iran if we have intelligence that indicates they have nuclear weapons and are a threat to the United States? Of course, but to completely ignore the phase after the military strikes of nation building is, at best, naive. It’s like having a conversation about scuba diving, but not acknowledging that you need an oxygen tank. This discussion needs to evolve and mature in order for Political leaders to understand, we get it, we don’t want to make the same mistake again.  Invading Iraq will look like making cupcakes compared to dealing with Hizballah and Iranian organizations around the world.  We had best get our ducks in a row before we wax poetic about yet another military strike.

Early Warning of The LAX Shooting?

Early warning intelligence looks a lot like this DHS report from 2009; Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization. That early warning analysis could be directly related to the LAX shooting, among others. The problem is, as with other early warning analysis, it wasn’t given the proper public discussion and government action because it was perceived as controversial. It got swept under the rug because no one wanted to acknowledge the dark side of extreme/fringe right politics in the US. There was a fair amount of outcry against the report by some Conservatives. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity interpreted it as targeting conservatives too broadly, referring to everyone who holds conservative beliefs.

The report doesn’t disparage those who hold conservative beliefs or those who are Republican, so why the discontent? Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Rightwing extremism falls within that definition and should be taken seriously, as the national security threat it is to the safety and well-being of the public.

The question is, does this result in another round of Ruby Ridge or Waco-like events –which tend to fuel and legitimize the movement. In the DHS report, they address the parallel in ‘Revisiting the 1990s’:

“Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage. During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors.”

We have the information and forewarning to develop a strategy and not be caught on our heels by rightwing extremist armed gunmen. Just because they look like us, talk like us and reside in the US, doesn’t make them any less of a threat than Islamic extremists. When the CIA wrote warning analysis for both Administrations on al-Qaeda, the USG didn’t respond by building a strategy or action plan. If we are aware of the problem, let’s find a solution.

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Public Safety And The Fear Fortress

The Granite Mountain Hotshots, specialized firefighters in Arizona, were battling the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30th when the  confluence of a thunderstorm and dangerous winds were headed their way.  Procedures are typically in place to handle this type of situation, there were attempts to communicate with the Hotshots to move their location.  Issues with communications seems to have played a role when all 19 firefighters were killed.  Apparently this wasn’t a new issue, according to an NY Times story, Forest Service employees across the West repeatedly complained about problems with communications, in some cases pleading that malfunctions be fixed before something terrible happened.

For some time I have been concerned the United States government and private sector have diverted resources and attention away from preparing for a response to a man-made or natural disaster that will assuredly come, like wildfires.  Instead, we seem all too vigilantly focused on the unknown, a possible terrorist attack.

Terrorism is frightening, we don’t know where, when or if an attack might happen, we just know that there are those willing to harm citizens of the United States.  The psychological damage from a terrorist attack is significant and can’t be understated.  The psychology of the fear of terrorism has been analyzed, published and talked about extensively.  While we are building layers of security around anything that might be vulnerable to an attack, we do not acknowledge how much of a role our fear plays in building our fortress vs the reality of actually being involved in a terrorist attack.

Somehow, we have become immune or complacent in our reaction to everyday disasters that plague us–whether man-made or by nature.  For instance, homicides are the second most common cause of death among children, are we circling layers of protection around our kids?  I haven’t noticed the same intensity of reaction.  These deaths slowly creep upon us statistically throughout the year, and we are fairly certain it won’t be our children that succumb to such a tragedy.

Jibum Chung from the Brooking Institute argues that we have eroded our civil protection—which protects us from natural and manmade disasters and other public safety issues—for civil defense against terrorism.

The cost of that shift in priorities was on full display when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, easily destroying the weak levee system and submerging much of New Orleans under water. Federal and local governments’ mitigation, response and recovery to the Hurricane Katrina were mostly inadequate – resulting in the most severe disaster damage in U.S. history at that time. Due to budget cuts, the Army Corps of Engineers had been unable to strengthen the levee system protecting New Orleans. After the flooding and other damage occurred, the governments’ disaster situation awareness was poor. Communication among authorities and between authorities and civilians was broken. Assistance from the federal government was delayed and insufficient, and people died while awaiting rescue or other assistance. Critics also charged that too many government officials were not familiar with the “National Response Plan” which was implemented in December 2004 after 9/11 terrorist attack. Planning and training for large natural disasters were insufficient after the implementation of the plan. In short, too great a focus on counter-terrorism undermined capacities for natural disaster mitigation, response, and recovery in the post-9/11 United States

 How can we create a balance between our civil defense and civil protection? There is no perfect scenario where the US government national security complex can predict and disrupt every single terrorist attack.  Which means our strength lies in how our emergency management professionals can respond in the aftermath of an attack.  We can put to good use the technological advances that we have achieved over the past 10 years for civil protection in a reasoned, thoughtful way to protect public safety and interests.