Ryan Lizza writes: On March 12, 2013, James R. Clapper appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss the threats facing America. Clapper, who is seventy-two, is a retired Air Force general and Barack Obama’s director of National Intelligence, in charge of overseeing the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and fourteen other U.S. spy agencies. Clapper is bald, with a gray goatee and rimless spectacles, and his affect is intimidatingly bureaucratic. The fifteen-member Intelligence Committee was created in the nineteen-seventies, after a series of investigations revealed that the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. had, for years, been illegally spying on Americans. The panel’s mission is to conduct “vigilant legislative oversight” of the intelligence community, but more often it treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols. As the senators took turns at the microphone, greeting Clapper with anodyne statements and inquiries, he obligingly led them on a tour of the dangers posed by homegrown extremists, far-flung terrorist groups, and emerging nuclear powers.
“This hearing is really a unique opportunity to inform the American public to the extent we can about the threats we face as a nation, and worldwide,” Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said at one point. She asked committee members to “refrain from asking questions here that have classified answers.” Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, asked about the lessons of the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, asked about the dangers of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Toward the end of the hearing, Feinstein turned to Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, also a Democrat, who had a final question. The two senators have been friends. Feinstein held a baby shower for Wyden and his wife, Nancy Bass, before the birth of twins, in 2007. But, since then, their increasingly divergent views on intelligence policy have strained the relationship. “This is an issue where we just have a difference of opinion,” Wyden told me. Feinstein often uses the committee to bolster the tools that spy agencies say they need to protect the country, and Wyden has been increasingly concerned about privacy rights. For almost a decade, he has been trying to force intelligence officials like Clapper to be more forthcoming about spy programs that gather information about Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
Wyden had an uneasy kind of vindication in June, three months after Clapper’s appearance, when Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the N.S.A., leaked pages and pages of classified N.S.A. documents. They showed that, for the past twelve years, the agency has been running programs that secretly collect detailed information about the phone and Internet usage of Americans. The programs have been plagued by compliance issues, and the legal arguments justifying the surveillance regime have been kept from view. Wyden has long been aware of the programs and of the agency’s appalling compliance record, and has tried everything short of disclosing classified information to warn the public. At the March panel, he looked down at Clapper as if he were about to eat a long-delayed meal. [Continue reading...]
The Center for Public Integrity: Most intelligence-related spending by the U.S. government is subject to independent scrutiny and monitoring by a small number of people — primarily, the 40 lawmakers assigned to the House and Senate intelligence committees, plus the roughly 100-member staffs of those two committees.
The lawmakers are meant to provide a key check on waste, fraud, abuse, and potential illegalities, since intelligence-related spending and activities are ordinarily well outside the public’s view.
According to a new report, however, every single one of those lawmakers has received campaign funds from twenty of the largest contractors providing intelligence services to the Defense Department, which accounted for a signficant portion of the nation’s overall $75.4 billion intelligence budget in 2012.
The total, election-related benefits for current intelligence committee members, including ex-officio members, provided by companies in the industry they directly oversee amount to at least $3.7 million from the companies’ PACs and employees since 2005, according to the report released Dec. 9 by Maplight.org, a nonpartisan group that investigates campaign finance issues.
When Ian Flemming created the fictional SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a terrorist organisation aimed at world domination, he chose a familiar icon — the octopus — long favored by those who want to evoke images of evil. Its tentacles represent strength, stealth, ugliness, vast reach, and ruthlessness.
For the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which chose a world-grasping octopus and the slogan “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach” to adorn its latest spy satellite that launched from California on Thursday, the octopus represents “a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature.”
That’s an accurate description of an octopus as a creature but not of an octopus as a symbol.
While the mission of NROL-39 is classified, it is believed to be a remnant of the Future Imagery Architecture, a program which was described in the New York Times in 2007 as “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.”
In a recent interview with the BBC, Glenn Greenwald said:
The goal of the United States government and the UK government, its closest surveillance ally, is to eliminate all privacy globally, by which I mean, to make every form of electronic communication by and between all human beings, collected, stored, analyzed, and monitored by the U.S. and its four English-speaking Five Eyes partners in the surveillance world.
One can view NROL-39 and its choice of symbols as yet another example of this relentless drive towards global domination in surveillance that Greenwald describes, or, one can apply a bit of analysis in a more fruitful, realistic but perhaps less hyperbolic direction.
As news reports appeared showing the NRO’s poor choice of imagery, I expect that inside the Pentagon and across the intelligence community, there was no shortage of individuals who smacked their own foreheads as they wondered: who could be so clueless? U.S. intelligence already has a massive image problem. It just got worse.
As a defense establishment agency, I’m sure the NRO does not have an artist-in-residence who is given a free hand to design and deploy a spy satellite logo of their choice. On the contrary, like any other government bureaucracy, the NRO no doubt has a careful review process through which draft designs are viewed and approved or rejected. So it’s very unlikely that when NROL-39 blasted into orbit, the global dominating octopus on its side lacked any of the sign-offs in the stages of authorization required by the agency. In other words, government officials across multiple ranks of seniority saw the logo and said: “Looks good to me.”
What the octopus logo reveals says much less about the ability of the intelligence agencies to control the world than it says about the competence and judgement of the people in charge.
The NRO is run by Betty J. Sapp and she isn’t a rocket scientist — business management is supposedly her expertise.
When those aspects of an intelligence agency’s work that are on public display evince this level of cluelessness, there’s no reason to imagine that under a cloak of secrecy it operations are more efficient.
We probably have less reason to be worried about our freedoms being curtailed than we have reason to be angry about the vast waste of resources all incurred in the name of national security.
Bruce Schneier writes: The public/private surveillance partnership between the NSA and corporate data collectors is starting to fray. The reason is sunlight. The publicity resulting from the Snowden documents has made companies think twice before allowing the NSA access to their users’ and customers’ data.
Pre-Snowden, there was no downside to cooperating with the NSA. If the NSA asked you for copies of all your Internet traffic, or to put backdoors into your security software, you could assume that your cooperation would forever remain secret. To be fair, not every corporation cooperated willingly. Some fought in court. But it seems that a lot of them, telcos and backbone providers especially, were happy to give the NSA unfettered access to everything. Post-Snowden, this is changing. Now that many companies’ cooperation has become public, they’re facing a PR backlash from customers and users who are upset that their data is flowing to the NSA. And this is costing those companies business.
How much is unclear. In July, right after the PRISM revelations, the Cloud Security Alliance reported that US cloud companies could lose $35 billion over the next three years, mostly due to losses of foreign sales. Surely that number has increased as outrage over NSA spying continues to build in Europe and elsewhere. There is no similar report for software sales, although I have attended private meetings where several large US software companies complained about the loss of foreign sales. On the hardware side, IBM is losing business in China. The US telecom companies are also suffering: AT&T is losing business worldwide.
This is the new reality. The rules of secrecy are different, and companies have to assume that their responses to NSA data demands will become public. This means there is now a significant cost to cooperating, and a corresponding benefit to fighting. [Continue reading...]
Rep. Alan Grayson writes: In the 1970s, Congressman Otis Pike of New York chaired a special congressional committee to investigate abuses by the American so-called “intelligence community” – the spies. After the investigation, Pike commented:
It took this investigation to convince me that I had always been told lies, to make me realize that I was tired of being told lies.
I’m tired of the spies telling lies, too.
Pike’s investigation initiated one of the first congressional oversight debates for the vast and hidden collective of espionage agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA). Before the Pike Commission, Congress was kept in the dark about them – a tactic designed to thwart congressional deterrence of the sometimes illegal and often shocking activities carried out by the “intelligence community”. Today, we are seeing a repeat of this professional voyeurism by our nation’s spies, on an unprecedented and pervasive scale.
Recently, the US House of Representatives voted on an amendment – offered by Representatives Justin Amash and John Conyers – that would have curbed the NSA’s omnipresent and inescapable tactics. Despite furious lobbying by the intelligence industrial complex and its allies, and four hours of frantic and overwrought briefings by the NSA’s General Keith Alexander, 205 of 422 Representatives voted for the amendment.
Though the amendment barely failed, the vote signaled a clear message to the NSA: we do not trust you. [Continue reading...]
Having intelligence community leaders like Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as front-line defenders for the NSA turned out to be an ineffective strategy when both were exposed as liars. So, the NSA must now communicate indirectly, relying on journalists who are willing to function as mouthpieces for the agency.
Following the latest revelations about eavesdropping on the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, the Associated Press’s intelligence writer, Kimberly Dozier, offers explanations on how and why the NSA spies on U.S. allies. It’s unlikely that the answers she offers are a summation of her own deep knowledge of the way the NSA works. Much more likely, this is simply the summation of an NSA background briefing. Read this as a paraphrase of the NSA speaking for itself.
First off comes this claim: that “intercepting foreign diplomats’ or leaders’ communications, like the alleged eavesdropping on Merkel, as well as on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon” is spying that the NSA “is authorized to do”. The intended takeaway from that statement is: we didn’t break U.S. law. The question which this statement fudges, however, is whether the NSA was directed to carry out such surveillance.
Then we come to the basic question:
Q: Why bug the phone of an ally?
A: Even a close ally like Merkel doesn’t share everything with the Americans, but decisions she makes can have a major impact on U.S. foreign, defense and economic policy overseas. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party just won an election, and she is in the process of wooing other German political parties to form a coalition government. The party she chooses could pull her political policies in a different direction, in terms of counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., for instance, or perhaps the new coalition might chill Merkel’s support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Say what?! The NSA needs to bug Merkel’s phone so that the U.S. can receive advance notice of the political makeup of the coalition she is forming? It can’t simply rely on conventional diplomatic and political channels of communication? That’s ridiculous — unless it’s meant to imply that the U.S. wants to covertly exercise some influence on the outcome of that political process.
I don’t actually believe that’s the implication because I don’t think anyone in Washington or at the NSA is crazy enough to imagine that the U.S. could successfully interfere in the domestic politics of its allies in this way.
There is a much simpler answer to this question and it’s offered by a career American official with long experience in Europe who spoke to the New York Times. Why bug the phone of an ally? Because you can.
The report notes: “Administration officials say the National Security Agency, in its push to build a global data-gathering network that can reach into any country, has rarely weighed the long-term political costs of some of its operations.”
By all appearances, the NSA is now in cry-baby mode and instead of acknowledging that it is suffering the effects of self-inflicted wounds, it wants to cast itself as victim. The Washington Post provides emotional support:
U.S. officials are alerting some foreign intelligence services that documents detailing their secret cooperation with the United States have been obtained by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, according to government officials.
Snowden, U.S. officials said, took tens of thousands of documents, some of which contain sensitive material about collection programs against adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. Some refer to operations that in some cases involve countries not publicly allied with the United States.
The process of informing officials in capital after capital about the risk of disclosure is delicate. In some cases, one part of the cooperating government may know about the collaboration while others — such as the foreign ministry — may not, the officials said. The documents, if disclosed, could compromise operations, officials said.
The notifications come as the Obama administration is scrambling to placate allies after allegations that the NSA has spied on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reports have forced the administration to downplay operations targeting friends while also attempting to preserve other programs that depend on provisional partners. In either case, trust in the United States may be compromised.
“It is certainly a concern, just as much as the U.S. collection [against European allies] being put in the news, if not more, because not only does it mean we have the potential of losing collection, but also of harming relationships,” a congressional aide said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is handling the job of informing the other intelligence services, the officials said. ODNI declined to comment.
In one case, for instance, the files contain information about a program run from a NATO country against Russia that provides valuable intelligence for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation. Snowden faces theft and espionage charges.
The narrative thrust here is that while the NSA is dealing with damage control, the cause of the damage was not the agency’s operations; it was Snowden’s revelations.
Instead of facing reality, the intelligence community would apparently now rather engage in a farcical exercise: present itself as victim of what it regards as the mischievous actions as a single man. The problem with this narrative (apart from the fact that it clearly misrepresents Edward Snowden’s actions) is that it actually underlines the inherent weakness of the bloated post 9/11 intelligence edifice: that is, that its weakness derives in large part from its sheer size.
As much as the actions of the NSA should be viewed in geopolitical terms, they should also be seen as the result of the beguiling power of technology. That is to say, when something is presented as being technically feasible — such as recording all the metadata associated with global communications — then that possibility becomes so alluring, that more fundamental questions get shunted to one side.
An obsession with accumulating more and more information turns into a maniacal desire. The expansion of the intelligence gathering process becomes a self-justifying, blindly funded enterprise which loses sight of basic questions about the value of the data, the means through which it can be productively analyzed, and the social and political implications of sanctioning perpetually expanding mass surveillance along with highly ill-advised targeted surveillance.
Elizabeth Goitein writes: It is no secret that the United States government has too many secrets. Long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, experts and government insiders were raising alarms about “overclassification.” The Public Interest Declassification Board, an independent advisory committee created by Congress, reported in November 2012 that “present practices for classification and declassification of national security information are outmoded, unsustainable and keep too much information from the public.” Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice’s inspector general issued a review of the department’s classification practices, concluding that “DOJ is susceptible to misclassification.”
At least some of the secrecy tidal wave can be attributed to an explosion in the amount of information — of all kinds — that the government generates. Since the beginning of the modern classification system in 1940, officials have classified documents unnecessarily, whether by rote or to hide embarrassing information. In the era of typewriters and carbon copies, however, the amount of secret paperwork generated was comprehensible in scale. Today, any individual item of classified information may generate hundreds or even thousands of classified emails or intranet posts. When combined with the dramatic growth of the U.S. national security establishment, the data revolution has turned overclassification into a multi-petabyte problem. In fiscal year 2012 alone, there were more than 95 million decisions to classify information.
But the increase in secrecy is not simply quantitative; it is qualitative, too. The government has begun to advance bold new justifications for classifying information that threaten to erode the principled limits that have existed — in theory, if not always in practice — for decades. The cost of these efforts, if they remain unchecked, may be the American public’s ability to hold its government accountable. [Continue reading...]
In a report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Leonard Downie Jr., former editor of the Washington Post, writes: In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records. An “Insider Threat Program” being implemented in every government department requires all federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues.
Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press — compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters’ phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being “an aider, abettor and/or conspirator” of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.
Compounding the concerns of journalists and the government officials they contact, news stories based on classified documents obtained from Snowden have revealed extensive surveillance of Americans’ telephone and e-mail traffic by the National Security Agency. Numerous Washington-based journalists told me that officials are reluctant to discuss even unclassified information with them because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance make it more difficult for reporters to protect them as sources. “I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails,” said veteran national security journalist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity, an influential nonprofit government accountability news organization in Washington. “It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts,” he said.
“I think we have a real problem,” said New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane. “Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
At the same time, the journalists told me, designated administration spokesmen are often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries, even when reporters have been sent to them by officials who won’t talk on their own. Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
The Obama administration has notably used social media, videos, and its own sophisticated websites to provide the public with administration-generated information about its activities, along with considerable government data useful for consumers and businesses. However, with some exceptions, such as putting the White House visitors’ logs on the whitehouse.gov website and selected declassified documents on the new U.S. Intelligence Community website, it discloses too little of the information most needed by the press and public to hold the administration accountable for its policies and actions. “Government should be transparent,” Obama stated on the White House website, as he has repeatedly in presidential directives. “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.”
But his administration’s actions have too often contradicted Obama’s stated intentions. “Instead,” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote earlier this year, “it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”
“President Obama had said that default should be disclosure,” Times reporter Shane told me. “The culture they’ve created is not one that favors disclosure.” [Continue reading...]
Chris Hedges writes: A Swedish documentary filmmaker released a film last year called “Last Chapter—Goodbye Nicaragua.” In it he admitted that he unknowingly facilitated a bombing, almost certainly orchestrated by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which took the lives of three reporters I worked with in Central America. One of them, Linda Frazier, was the mother of a 10-year-old son. Her legs were torn apart by the blast, at La Penca, Nicaragua, along the border with Costa Rica, in May of 1984. She bled to death as she was being taken to the nearest hospital, in Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica.
The admission by Peter Torbiornsson that he unwittingly took the bomber with him to the press conference was a window into the sordid world of espionage, terrorism and assassination that was an intimate part of every conflict I covered. It exposed the cynicism of undercover operatives on all sides, men and women who lie and deceive for a living, who betray relationships, including between each other, who steal and who carry out murder. One knows them immediately. Their ideological allegiances do not matter. They have the faraway eyes of the disconnected, along with nebulous histories and suspicious and vague associations. They tell incongruous personal stories and practice small deceits that are part of a pathological inability to tell the truth. They can be personable, even charming, but they are also invariably vain, dishonest and sinister. They cannot be trusted. It does not matter what side they are on. They were all the same. Gangsters.
All states and armed groups recruit and use members of this underclass. These personalities gravitate to intelligence agencies, terrorist cells, homeland security, police departments, the special forces and revolutionary groups where they can live a life freed from moral and legal constraints. Right and wrong are banished from their vocabulary. They disdain the constraints of democracy. They live in this nebulous underworld to satisfy their lusts for power and violence. They have no interest in diplomacy and less in peace. Peace would put them out of business; for them it is simply the temporary absence of war, which they are sure is inevitable. Their job is to use violence to purge the world of evil. And in the United States they have taken as hostages our diplomatic service and our foreign policy establishment. The CIA has become a huge private army, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out in his book “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” that is “unaccountable to the Congress, the press or the public because everything it does is secret.” C. Wright Mills called the condition “military metaphysics”—“the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.”
Since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)—which includes the Green Berets, the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs—has seen its budget quadrupled. There are now some 60,000 USSOCOM operatives, whom the president can dispatch to kill without seeking congressional approval or informing the public. Add to this the growth of intelligence operatives. As Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in The Washington Post, “Twenty-four [new intelligence] organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips, and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.”
There are now many thousands of clandestine operatives, nearly all of them armed and equipped with a license to kidnap, torture and kill, working overseas or domestically with little or no oversight and virtually no transparency. We have created a state within a state. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: The U.S. intelligence community will now be able to store information about Americans with no ties to terrorism for up to five years under new Obama administration guidelines.
Until now, the National Counterterrorism Center had to immediately destroy information about Americans that was already stored in other government databases when there were no clear ties to terrorism.
Giving the NCTC expanded record-retention authority had been called for by members of Congress who said the intelligence community did not connect strands of intelligence held by multiple agencies leading up to the failed bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009.
“Following the failed terrorist attack in December 2009, representatives of the counterterrorism community concluded it is vital for NCTC to be provided with a variety of datasets from various agencies that contain terrorism information,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement late Thursday. “The ability to search against these datasets for up to five years on a continuing basis as these updated guidelines permit will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively.”
The new rules replace guidelines issued in 2008 and have privacy advocates concerned about the potential for data-mining information on innocent Americans.
“It is a vast expansion of the government’s surveillance authority,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said of the five-year retention period.
The government put in strong safeguards at the NCTC for the data that would be collected on U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes, Rotenberg said. These new guidelines undercut the Federal Privacy Act, he said.
“The fact that this data can be retained for five years on U.S. citizens for whom there’s no evidence of criminal conduct is very disturbing,” Rotenberg said.
“Total Information Awareness appears to be reconstructing itself,” Rotenberg said, referring to the Defense Department’s post-9/11 data-mining research program that was killed in 2003 because of privacy concerns.
Steve Coll writes: In late 2008, the United States intelligence community produced a classified National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that has never been released to the public. The N.I.E. described a “grim situation” overall, according to an intelligence officer’s private briefing for NATO ambassadors.
In late 2010, there was another N.I.E. on the war. This one painted a “gloomy picture,” warning that “large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban,” the Los Angeles Times reported. This N.I.E., too, has never been published.
This autumn, intelligence analysts have again been poring over their secret district-by-district maps of Afghanistan, finding and assessing patterns. A new N.I.E. on Afghanistan is just about finished, people familiar with the latest draft told me this week. This one looks forward to 2014, when President Obama has said U.S. troops will be reduced to a minimal number, and Afghan security forces will take the lead in the war.
The new draft Afghanistan N.I.E. is a lengthy document, running about a hundred pages or more. As is typically the case, it is a synthesis, primarily written by civilian intelligence analysts—career civil servants, mainly—who work in sixteen different intelligence agencies. These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.
Reza Marashi writes: After weeks of hyping intelligence on the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration’s public statements on the recently released International Atomic Energy Agency report are curiously moderate. Off the record, U.S. officials say that not all of America’s intelligence findings were included in the I.A.E.A. report — which aims to reflect international consensus. This fact speaks to a larger challenge — that the United States faces a credibility problem. Key countries do not share Washington’s assessment of Iran, and thus it’s unlikely that the U.S. will disclose more substantial information.
Some administration officials would like to see harder evidence made public — if for no other reason than supporting calls for more “crippling” sanctions on Iran. But U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly oppose more detailed disclosures for fear of jeopardizing intelligence-gathering and sources. The U.S. is therefore unlikely to secure more robust U.N. sanctions when it makes its case to the Security Council.
More important but less understood, however, are two longstanding and increasingly dangerous institutional problems within the U.S. government that this case has brought to the fore: an overreliance on intelligence and under-utilization of diplomatic resources when formulating Iran policy. By treating diplomacy with Iran as a reward to be earned rather than the vital national security tool that it is, American politicians have been administering a self-inflicted wound.
The recent allegations against Iran show the critical role that intelligence can play in helping policymakers gather information and make decisions on the most challenging issues. However, intelligence is not meant to be taken in isolation — and when it comes to America’s Iran policy, it almost always is.
While serving in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, I learned the 10 percent rule: intelligence is meant to make up approximately 10 percent of the overall information used to analyze strategic issues. The remaining 90 percent consists of embassy reporting and unclassified, open-source information.
As a whole, this symbiotic process is meant to provide a balanced, broader context to policymakers. Intelligence is supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle — not the only piece. Overreliance on intelligence to support key policy decisions results in skewed or incomplete analysis that lacks the fuller context needed for sound decision-making. As this information vacuum grows over time, so too does the likelihood of misperceptions, miscalculations and dangerous mistakes.
Intelligence is not a substitute for the critical work of diplomats on the ground — and perhaps no foreign policy issue demonstrates this more forcefully than Iran. Simply put, a vital national security process has been broken for over three decades, and American politicians are exacerbating rather than repairing it.
Tony Karon writes: President Obama’s point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, had written before joining the Administration that if governments reluctant to impose harsh measures on Iran believed the alternative was Israel starting a war, they would be more inclined to back new sanctions. And there’s certain a new sanctions push in the works, right now. The “intelligence” being cited by the Guardian’s sources to suggest a new urgency is hardly new — it’s material collected some time ago by Western agencies that purports to show that Iran has been doing theoretical work on designs for a nuclear warhead. What’s new is the fact that the U.S. has been pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to include those allegations in its latest report on Iran, scheduled for release later this month. The IAEA has questioned Iran’s intent and raised questions about many of is activities, but it has not until now accused Iran of running an active nuclear weapons program. A Western official told the Guardian that revelations about bomb-design work will be a “game-changer” that forces Russia and China to get on board with U.S. sanctions efforts.
It’s not clear, though, whether those charges will make it into the IAEA report — China and Russia are lobbying against what they see as an attempt to enlist the nuclear watchdog in the service of a U.S. agenda — but even if they’re in the report, Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to join the sanctions push. It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. had assumed that some new ‘gotcha’ piece of intelligence would change the game, only to be disappointed.
Indeed, former Bush Administration national security staffer Michael Singh argued in Foreign Policy this week that the only way to change China’s position on sanctions would be to prepare for a military attack, which, if it went ahead, would disrupt China’s energy supplies. A familiar argument, that one.
As to the claim by the Guardian’s sources that Iran had lately adopted a more belligerent posture, the evidence offered was the bizarre Saudi embassy bombing plot, which much of the international community remains to be convinced was actually an official Iranian effort.
For the rest, there’s not much new: Iran is restoring its uranium enrichment capability damaged by the Stuxnet computer worm and protecting it in hardened facilities. But none of that provides anything close to a casus belli that might be deemed credible by most of the international community. The chances of getting legal authorization for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities from the U.N. Security Council right now are slender, at best.
The Guardian piece, in fact, deflates its own alarmist premise when a government source notes that there has been “no acceleration toward military action by the U.S. but that could change.” Well, yes, although it’s hard to imagine why a government source would require anonymity for sharing a truism. There’s no obvious reason for the urgency of the timetables suggested by the officials briefing the Guardian — they suggested Obama would have to make a fateful decision next spring — other than the fact that the Iranians haven’t changed tack, despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions plus a raft of additional measures adopted unilaterally by Western powers, and considerable saber rattling by the Israelis. The urgency would need to be politically generated, however, because of the assumption that Iran wins the long game absent some dramatic game-changing action on the part of its adversaries. And then there’s the fact that the U.S. is entering an election year.
In a companion piece to its UK preparations for military action story, the Guardian notes that despite Obama’s reluctance to drag the U.S. into another Middle East war with potentially disastrous consequences, he enters his reelection year under pressure from Israel over Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu could even force Obama’s hand by initiating an attack on Iran that the U.S. might feel compelled to join in order to ensure its success. (The Israeli leader has certainly shown a willingness to defy Obama on issues where he believes he has the support of Capitol Hill, and attacking Iran would certainly be one of those.) Obama is no closer to persuading or pressuring Iran into backing down on its nuclear program than when he ran for office four years ago, promising the engagement he said had been missing from the Bush approach. Washington hawks say engagement was tried and failed, and it’s time to ratchet up the pressure. Doves argue that engagement wasn’t given a serious go or was disrupted by Iran’s internal power struggle, and should be resumed.
Electoral calculations, however, would more likely prompt Obama to toughen up his stance. The problem, of course, is that a harder line appears no more likely to persuade Iran to back down than a softer one, but more bellicose rhetoric from Obama could have the unintended effect of narrowing his options. A U.S. military strike on Iran would not mark the first time in history that a country had found itself marching to war without having really intended to do so.
David Rose writes: One morning in June 2001, three months before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, I happened to be interviewing a senior official from the British Secret Intelligence Service, M.I.6. His current focus was the war on drugs, not international terrorism, but he shared a piece of information that united the two subjects.
A short time earlier, the official told me, the U.S. National Security Agency had intercepted a call between two satellite-telephone users in Afghanistan—the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They had been discussing the Taliban’s ban on growing opium poppies, imposed the previous summer—a remarkably effective edict that had shrunk production in areas they controlled almost to zero.
According to the M.I.6 official, bin Laden sounded unhappy. “Why stop growing opium?” he asked. “Heroin only weakens our enemies.” There was no need to worry, Mullah Omar replied. The ban was merely a tactic. “There has been a glut, and the price is too low. Once the world price has risen, the farmers can start growing it again.”
The real lesson of this overheard conversation was not its specific content but the fact that it could be heard at all. Electronic eavesdropping clearly had potential in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But in the years before 9/11, when bin Laden’s terror plot was first being discussed, that potential remained limited. The reason was simple: Afghanistan had no cell phones, no Internet, and only a rudimentary landline network, which did not work at all outside the country’s largest cities. This could be remedied, however. Indeed, by the end of 1999, the Taliban government had embraced a full-fledged American scheme to install a modern cell-phone-and-Internet system in Afghanistan. It could have been up and running within months. The Taliban had already granted an exclusive license to a U.S.-owned firm, the Afghan Wireless Communications Company.
More to the point, electronic modifications concealed within the circuitry would have allowed every call and every e-mail emanating from Afghanistan to be relayed without interference to N.S.A. headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. “This project was a dream,” says one former senior F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist who knew about the scheme at the time. “To be able to wire up a country from ground level up—you don’t get too many opportunities like that.” No, you don’t. But at the critical moment, the Clinton administration put the project on hold, while rival U.S. agencies—the F.B.I., the N.S.A., and the C.I.A.—bickered over who should control it.
In the decade since 9/11, investigations by journalists and government commissions have explored the many missed opportunities to prevent bin Laden’s attacks. Overall, it is the story of a catastrophic failure to connect the dots. One can argue—and many have—that the connections emerge more visibly in retrospect than they ever did as events themselves unfolded. But the affair of the Afghan cell-phone network—put on hold until time ran out—falls into a category by itself. It was a course of action whose value and urgency were acknowledged by everyone, but it was impeded nonetheless. The cell-phone plan “was one tool we could have put in Afghanistan that could have made a difference,” a former C.I.A. official says. “Why didn’t we put it in? Because we couldn’t fucking agree.”