Where Are The Spies? – Three Recent Intel Failures


December 20, 2019.  Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announces that the City of Baltimore is resurrecting a spy plane program to monitor its citizens.  The pilot program, a follow-on to a previous similar effort, will use up to three separate aircraft flying at different altitudes and a variety of “high-tech” sensors to monitor Baltimore residents and help deter violent crime.

December 6, 2019.  A Saudi aviator in training pulls out a handgun in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola and opens fire, killing three and injuring eight before a deputy fatally shoots him.  Mohammed Saeed Al-Shamrani is a member of the Saudi military and has been in the United States training for over two years.  Al-Shamrani is one of 852 Saudi nationals in the United States for training at the time of the shooting.

September 14, 2019.   Drones and missiles launched from southern Iran strike the Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Saudi air defenses do not intercept the attacking drones and missiles, because they are all oriented to the south to protect against Houthi attacks from Yemen.  Oil prices worldwide soar 20% in the aftermath of the attacks.

What do these three, seemingly disparate, events have in common?  They are all failures in intelligence and, more specifically, they are all failures in human intelligence.

Baltimore has a population of 602,000 people. Within the city many people live in areas that are relatively crime free.  Violence, and the drug trade that fuels that violence is concentrated in compact areas in western and eastern Baltimore.  The total population in these portions of the city does not exceed 300,000 people.

And yet, the Baltimore City Police Department, supported by state and federal agencies such as the FBI and ATF, is so blind as to what is happening within neighborhoods that don’t take thirty minutes to drive across that it must resort to spy planes in a desperate bid to regain the initiative?

Pensacola Naval Air Station trains vast numbers of foreign students and has done so for decades.  Most of those students are of no real counterintelligence concern.  Some, however, like Al-Shamrani, come from nations where there have been for many years significant concerns about extremism in general and about extremists infiltrating the military in particular.

And still somehow Al-Shamrani radicalized, either in place in the United States or prior to his arrival, planned his attack and carried it out, on a U.S. military base, and no one provided any warning of what was about to happen.  On our soil, on a facility completely under our control, we were blind.

The Iranian decision to launch a major attack on Saudi oil facilities was not one that was made at a junior level by some battlefield commander.  Given the implications, including the possibility that such an attack would trigger a U.S. response in kind, this attack of necessity was approved at the highest levels and, almost certainly, after some careful deliberation.  The decision, once made, then had to be communicated down through a chain of command to firing units, which had been armed and positioned to carry out the attack.

And, yet, there was no forewarning.  Leaving aside, for the purposes of this article, what that says about our signals intelligence and imagery capabilities, consider what that means about our human intelligence collection apparatus.  We had no one anywhere inside the Iranian government or its military who could provide us with the necessary intelligence to prepare for or deter this attack.

Why?  How is any of this possible?  How is it that our vast intelligence and law enforcement communities cannot perform the functions for which they were designed?

It is not because of the quality of our personnel.  I have served with, worked alongside and trained virtually every component of this garguantuan apparatus.  It is filled with dedicated, often hard-nosed professionals who live to take the fight to the enemy and protect their fellow citizens.  They are the best we have.

It is not because of a lack of resources.  We have an intelligence and law enforcement edifice of almost unimaginable size.  We spend ungodly sums of money.  We have training facilities that boggle the mind in size and complexity.

It is because we have forgotten what really matters and what makes human intelligence operations successful.  It is because we are obsessed with process, wiring diagrams and layers of bureaucracy.  It is because at the senior levels of our key organizations we have individuals who have made their careers climbing the corporate ladder, laughing at the boss’s jokes and, all too often, playing politics.

We have infinite funding for new technology of dubious value.  We have all the time and the world for sensitivity training and lectures on how to ensure we are “kinder” and “gentler.”  We have, at the most senior levels, very little interest it seems in doing the hard, dirty, dangerous work of recruiting sources and collecting intelligence.

Baltimore does not need spy planes.  It needs human sources inside the drug gangs tearing the city apart.

Pensacola does not now need to ban foreign students or hire a corporation to design a multi-million dollar insider-threat algorithm.  It needs counterintelligence professionals recruiting sources and monitoring the foreigners on base.

CIA does not need a new department, more money or new technology to tell us what we need to know about Iranian intentions.  It needs to get back to basics, make the tough recruitments and put sources inside the mad regime in Tehran.

Every day, as the fallout from the false Russian collusion narrative intensifies, we see more and more evidence of senior officials in our intelligence and law enforcement communities playing politics and angling for greater power and influence.  We have, apparently, an almost infinite supply of bureaucrats, lap dogs and yes men.

Where are the men and women at the top who are focused on doing their jobs?  Where are the men and women dedicated to the mission?  Where are the spies?