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Learn From Experience Or Pay The Price – US Intelligence Needs Experience And Professionalism – Not Politicians And Bureaucrats

An excellently prepared report on the breakdown of U.S. covert communication systems was published on November 2, 2018 by Yahoo News.*  One of the several security issues not commented on by the authors, Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin, was the fact that so many former intelligence personnel divulged this classified information to them without clearance to do so.  The public exposure by these individuals to journalists of the intel communication penetration indicates clearly the broader issue of the generational change in maintaining the security of highly sensitive material.  Aligned with this serious shortfall is the inability of recent American intelligence agencies to learn from past experience – in fact, an outright refusal to attempt to learn/accept past experience as key to contemporary operations.

To begin with, the recent generation of intelligence leadership has been guided, and ultimately controlled, by non-operational, field-experienced ranking officers with little or no war (or operational field) tested background.  Administrative and analytical experience alone does not provide the accumulation of knowledge and skill required to oversee intelligence operations.  Obviously, the tendency in recent past administrations to value domestic political connections has diminished the intellectual as well as operational know-how of top leadership.  This type of past direction has tended to be enthralled with “new” systems and techniques.  Putting it crudely, but accurately, “amateurs” in the guise of professionals were advanced where “down and dirty” field-experienced operators were not administratively and/or “politically” trusted at the top, decision-making level.  When true operational veterans were given upper-level assignments after years of field activity, they were repeatedly overseen by others who basically were “place keepers” and self-protective careerists.

The foregoing may appear to have little pertinence to the extraordinary electronic/cyber technology that insidiously has taken over the world of communications.  Yet that is exactly what so fascinated the appropriate departments and leaders in covert intelligence.  What also happened – or didn’t happen – was the usual in-depth testing of possible counter methods and technology under field conditions before instituting a historical change in covert contact with agents and the case officers “handling” them. Because this time-tested method of introduction of new intelligence technology and methods were not properly followed, the internet-based covert communications system, reported on by Yahoo, was totally compromised by the Iranians who may have passed on their findings to China, Russia and other governments world-wide.

It is now reckoned, according to press reports, that approximately 24 Chinese in-country agents were executed following extensive interrogation after they were uncovered by China’s counter-intelligence teams operating with the methodology pioneered by the Iranians.  This all occurred during the Obama Administration, though to be fair the entire compromise of the American system had occurred years earlier.

The part of this debacle not discussed, however, is the number of American staff and contract personnel under various covers who were placed in danger when their foreign agents were rolled up in Iran and elsewhere.  To have suffered these losses borders on the criminal.  This fact has never been pursued by CIA’s Office of Inspector General, because that office consistently has protected the politically-connected intelligence leadership.  This has been a serious and endemic problem within the U.S. intelligence system.  Those Americans who serve courageously in the shadows don’t ask for much, but at least they deserve not to be endangered and sometimes destroyed by incompetence by those serving far away from the merciless world of covert operations.

The human cost in “blown” (compromised) operations is something the people safely ensconced in Langley appear to have been unable to relate to their everyday employment.  This may appear to be understandable in contemporary operations, but reality in the field is far harsher.  Case officers working with and supporting agents (indigenous and American) are not disassociated from these “assets.”  Communication devices, whether by electronic or human contact, act as a bond between the information gatherer/provider and the officer “running” the operation.  When that bridge is broken it is as tangible as if it had been an ambush in ground combat.

In effect, intelligence operations are combat.  Experienced field personnel feel the losses as any soldier would.  This is an aspect of the job of an intelligence officer operating under cover, whether official or unofficial, that appears to be totally unrecognized or misunderstood by many in leadership positions.  People are captured – some foreigners, some Americans.  Some die.  All try their best to do their jobs.  They deserve to be protected and not sacrificed by incompetence and disregard.  Will this monumental commo failure change anything? The answer is hard but simple.  Only if the leadership at all levels is chosen and commanded with the dedication, imagination and courage with which modern American intelligence originally was created.  It’s a business judged on its balance of efficiency and security.  To not follow this simple equation is to court failure and disaster.

*Link to Yahoo News article: