United States Of Common Sense

Where Are the Spies?

Why haven't we fixed human intelligence?

The news is full of details of previously undisclosed National Security Agency (NSA) programs intended to monitor cellular and internet-based communications within the United States. Considerable angst has been expressed by politicians, on both sides of the aisle, regarding the scope of the eavesdropping. I share the concerns. We have a Fourth Amendment for a reason. Simply trusting the government to always act in good faith is not an option. Our Founding Fathers understood that all too well from personal experience.

I have another concern as well.

All of these programs are justified in terms of national security. All of them are characterized as essential. We are told that without programs of this type we would go "blind", that our citizens would be put at risk, that we would leave ourselves open to future attacks on the scale of 9/11. The choice, we are told, is clear. Either accept this invasion of privacy or accept the resulting loss of life.


Why are we so dependent on signals intelligence obtained by the NSA to tell us what terrorist networks are plotting?

Why do we need signals intelligence to identify individuals in our midst who wish us harm?

Where are the spies? Where is our human intelligence?
On 9/11, nearly three thousand Americans were killed by nineteen hijackers, who seized four American passenger aircraft in flight almost simultaneously. That plot had been years in the making. Some of the hijackers had been here for extended periods of time before the attacks took place.

We knew effectively nothing about the plot before it was put into action. What scraps of information we did have we failed to connect, but the real problem lay in the paucity of intelligence we had collected. The press seized afterward on the failure to "connect the dots" and come to the right conclusion. They missed the real point. Why had we collected so few dots in the first place?

9/11 was first and foremost a failure on the part of American human intelligence. That means, above all else, it was attributable to the failure of the CIA to do its job. An organization created in 1947 for the express purpose of ensuring another Pearl Harbor never occurred had allowed the unthinkable, another successful surprise attack on US soil.

The truth was that the CIA, engaged for long decades in a Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, had calcified into a structure ill suited to deal with the new dragons of terrorism, WMD proliferation and narcotics smuggling. Its senior leadership was risk averse and more focused on personal advancement than achieving results. Its methods of operation were finely tuned for the "gentleman's game" of espionage in Western Europe but completely incompatible with the way operations needed to be run in the back alleys of South Asia or the Middle East. An organization once noted for creativity and audacity was teetering on the edge of becoming just another federal bureaucracy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we had a choice, we could openly acknowledge these deficiencies and undertake real reforms to transform CIA or we could blame the catastrophe on external factors like a lack of funding and of manpower. We chose the latter. In classic Washington fashion, we threw money at the problem.

More money and more people were welcome. Bill Clinton had certainly done his best to starve CIA of resources. They did nothing, however, to address the underlying, systemic and cultural issues than needed correcting. Neither did the decision to put CIA back in the business of undertaking lethal action against terrorists across the planet. Killing a target is not the same as recruiting a source within the targeted network.

In fact, the obsession with lethal action, which has become near total under the Obama Administration, not only has not fixed the human intelligence problem, but has likely made it worse. At least under the Bush Administration, when our collection of human intelligence from recruited sources remained weak as well, we had the opportunity periodically to gather intelligence from captured terrorist operatives. Even that chance has been lost now. This Administration, terrified of the human rights concerns that accompany the taking of prisoners, prefers to take none.

It has been 12 years since 9/11. No real reform of the structure of CIA, or any other American entity focused on the collection of human intelligence has occurred in that time period. We have, effectively, the exact same collection apparatus in place now as we did then, and we pay the price for it. When the politicians in Washington scream about the necessity for massive data mining operations, it is for this reason. We simply do not have the human sources we need within the terrorist organizations that are determined to harm us.

From the beginning of his first term in office, President Obama has chosen to ignore the issue entirely. His first appointment as DCIA was Leon Panetta, a longtime Washington insider and bureaucrat. His charter was clear. He was to make no waves and keep CIA out of the news.

General Petraeus arrived with a similar mandate. He was an outsider with no real understanding of the business of human intelligence, and he was not expected to gain any. He was there to maintain the status quo.

The appointment of John Brennan signals nothing different. He grew up in CIA but as an analyst not an operator. He has never recruited sources. He has never run operations. He will handle the political interactions between the CIA and other federal entities. The business of running operations will remain in the hands of the same senior managers who have been in place for years.

Same as it ever was.
What is required is intervention from outside with the support of both the President and the Congress. Standards of leadership have to be significantly increased. Training needs to be toughened. An organization that has grown accustomed to living off of relationships with other intelligence services or simply classifying tough targets as "intelligence gaps" and not collecting against them has to relearn the ability to operate successfully in even the most difficult of "denied areas". Risk aversion has to be banished. Audacity and imagination have to be cultivated.

Only then, when the CIA has regained much of what it has lost over the decades since its creation, will it be in a position to provide the human intelligence we need on terrorist threats. Only then will it no longer be necessary for us to ask, "Where are the spies?"

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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