Russell Travers, the former acting Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was removed from his position in March of this year. Predictably enough he is now out in the press claiming that he was fired for his candor in opposing cuts to the size of the massive Intelligence Community (IC) bureaucracy. Just as predictably, the usual suspects in the press are championing him as a “terrorism fighter” and lauding him as a “veteran intelligence officer with decades of experience.”
I have no wish to denigrate Mr. Travers. He was a U.S. Army officer. He has served his nation honorably ever since in various civilian capacities. I have no doubt he could have made a lot more money and experienced a lot less grief had he taken his skills into private industry and gone to work there.
That said, though, this attempt to portray Mr. Travers as some sort of counterterrorism expert with real-world front line experience is more of the same that we have seen many times before. Every bureaucrat whose job or fiefdom is threatened is trotted out in front of the nation as if they were a deep-cover operative of some sort – crusty from deployments downrange and steeped in the wisdom gained from source meets in back alleys and helicopter insertions into the Hindu Kush. They are nothing of the kind. They are individuals who have made their livings behind desks in Washington, D.C .changing office designations on wiring diagrams and endlessly refining their PowerPoint presentations.
Mr. Travers was for a few years a junior intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. In that capacity, he provided support to the Army Logistics Center. He then spent seven years as a Soviet military analyst at The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). That stint ended in 1989. Ever since he has moved upward in the gargantuan stateside intelligence bureaucracy holding jobs with titles like “Deputy Director for Policy Support,” “Deputy Director for Information Sharing and Knowledge Development” and “Senior Advisor for Information Access and Security Policy.” Every single one of these jobs was based in the Washington, D.C. area.
Mr. Travers is a bureaucrat. He has never recruited or met a source. He has never run operations directed at terrorist networks or taken down a “safehouse.” Originally an analyst, he last plied that trade thirty years ago when the threat was Russian troops coming through the Fulda Gap. Put simply, Mr. Travers has absolutely no idea how terrorist networks operate or what it takes to penetrate them, stay alive, and bring home the critical intelligence that saves American lives.
That lack of understanding shows in the criticism Mr. Travers directs at the Trump administration cuts to the D.C.-based bureaucracy. As reported by Politico, his focus is on maintaining personnel strength, protecting NCTC against cuts in funding, protecting IT programs to ensure the tens of thousands of people in D.C.’s IC behemoth can talk to each other, etc.
All of this, because, in Mr. Travers’ view the only thing keeping us from experiencing another 9/11 is this vast army of men and women parked in front of their flat-screen computer monitors throughout D.C., Northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland.
Here’s the reality.
We were blindsided on 9/11 because the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have a single source inside Al Qaida worth running. That wasn’t because we could not have recruited such sources. I recruited at least one at a senior level whom I was then forced to almost immediately terminate and send packing. We were more concerned about possible diplomatic issues with this terrorist’s home country than the intelligence he could have provided and the lives he could have saved.
We didn’t have the sources because we weren’t allowed to do what was necessary to recruit them. The difficult, dangerous work of recruiting terrorist sources was not for men who had made their bones playing a gentleman’s game with the KGB. The risks involved were judged too high, and there was no political pressure from the White House to change that.
In the wake of 9/11, as we buried almost three thousand Americans, saying all that out loud and then taking the necessary action seemed too hard. That would have meant the end of the careers of a host of senior officers. That would have meant accountability – not just at CIA but throughout Washington.
So, the great myth was generated. We didn’t need more ops. We didn’t need more sources. We needed more “coordination,” more “sharing,” less “stovepiping,” etc.
And, of course, more money and more people.
We built giant new agencies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was born and underneath it a host of other new creations, The National Counterterrorism Center, The National Counterproliferation Center, and so forth.
None of these new offices collected intelligence. None of them produced meaningful intelligence that could not already be produced by existing agencies like CIA, DIA, DEA, and the FBI. They did, however, generate process, consume resources, and constantly seek, as all bureaucracies do, to grow and expand their turf.
We have escaped a repetition of 9/11 so far because the day after the Twin Towers fell we finally started to play offense. We put men and women on the ground in places we had refused to send them, and we gave them the authority to begin to do what was necessary. Terrorist operatives who would have walked around with impunity prior to 9/11 were now being hunted and taken out of the fight.
We are a long way from perfecting our counterterrorism operations. Under President Bush in particular we brought conventional military forces into the fight in a way that was quite frankly often counterproductive. We still need to streamline human intelligence operations and make them even more nimble and responsive. That said, it is these operations, downrange, which have stopped countless attacks in the last twenty years and will continue to do so into the future.
President Trump is on exactly the right track. Hopefully, his cuts into the IC behemoth have just begun. Endless layers of paper pushers in D.C. aren’t the answer to our national security concerns. Bureaucrats and PowerPoint presentations don’t catch terrorists.