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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

About the Author

Comments

  1. says

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

  2. JoyO says

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

  3. JeffC says

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

  4. craig says

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

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

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

    • Nobody says

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

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

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

  5. Ryan says

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

  6. Lorenz Gude says

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

  7. RebeccaH says

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

  8. A_Lurker says

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

  9. says

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

  10. PierrePinkFlamingo says

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

  11. Homple says

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

  12. says

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

  13. forrest says

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

  14. richard40 says

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

  15. Mike says

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

Trackbacks

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>