Tag: intelligence

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Free Ride

Today Politico Arena asks:

Has Romney cornered himself with his treatment of national security issues? Or was he correct to focus more heavily on the economy?

My response:

The charge from the Obama camp—echoed, of course, by the mainstream media—that Romney is “cornered on foreign policy” has grown from a single fact—that he didn’t mention “Afghanistan” in his convention acceptance speech. What nonsense! It’s akin to the singular obsession with his taxes—while the nation spirals into economic decline and out-of-control debt.

Thus we find Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei writing this morning that “For Romney, according to top [unnamed] Republicans, the danger is that he has dug an even deeper hole for himself in an area that was already an Obama strength and looks oblivious to the concerns of a crucial Republican constituency — military families and veterans.” An Obama strength? He’s got one accomplishment—dispatching Osama bin Laden—and that rested on intelligence put in place long before he ever took office. Meanwhile, he spends most of his time campaigning, as he has for years, while American soldiers continue to die at the hands of the very people we’re supposed to be helping. And for what? Does anyone know what those deaths are supposed to be accomplishing? Is anyone in the mainstream media asking that question?

Let’s remember that, unlike Romney, Obama hadn’t a shred of executive experience when he took office. And the record speaks for itself, in both foreign and domestic policy. But you have to put it together yourself. The mainstream media won’t do it for you.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Rovner on the CIA and Afghanistan

Joshua Rovner has a thoughtful post up at The National Interest’s The Skeptics today, and it reminded me to plug Josh’s book, and the event that we are hosting with him, Paul Pillar, and Mark Lowenthal on Monday, October 31st. It should be a terrific discussion. Details here.

Rovner’s blog post fits directly with the themes addressed in the book, but it also touches on something that I wrote about several months ago: would the appointment of David Petraeus as CIA Director subtly affect the agency’s assessment of progress—or lack thereof—in Afghanistan? Josh nicely summarizes the relevant concerns as Petraeus prepared to assume his new duties:

Petraeus was the public champion of the counterinsurgency doctrine that he claimed was necessary to defeat the Taliban and deliver stability to Afghanistan. How could he protect the objectivity of CIA analyses when he had such an obvious conflict of interest? Would he faithfully transmit analysts’ conclusions to policymakers, even if they implicitly criticized his approach to the war?

Petraeus addressed these concerns during his Senate confirmation hearings in June. “My goal has always been to ‘speak truth to power,’” he said, “and I will strive to do that as Director of the CIA.”

Rovner then explains what happened next, beginning last Thursday with Kim Dozier’s story for the AP that described a change in CIA analysis of Afghanistan that incorporated more information from military commanders on the ground. Citing a senior intelligence official, the story explained that ”Critics of the change say allowing the military more pushback will have a chilling effect on the analysts’ ability to give the war a failing grade.” Another “intelligence official expressed concern that this would institutionalize the former general’s habit when in Afghanistan of challenging the CIA’s unflattering conclusions.”

CIA officials denounced the report the following day, and Petraeus responded with a memorandum to all CIA employees on the AP story which, he said, “presents an inaccurate picture of my thoughts on the CIA’s Afghanistan analysis.” The change was made before Petraeus assumed duties as director, the memo explains, and it “will in no way undermine the objectivity of DI analysis on the war in Afghanistan. We will still ‘call it like we see it,’ but now with even better ground truth.”

The original story, and the CIA and Petraeus’s responses to it, have an air of “he said, she said” about them. Perhaps this was an honest attempt to improve the quality of intelligence from Afghanistan? Perhaps it was intended to shape the outcome in a more positive direction? Who knows? Rovner hones in on the essential question:

Take Petraeus at his word, accept his promises that he will not let vested interests affect his management decisions, and assume that the shift in the assessment process is not an attempt to manipulate intelligence. Is it still a good idea?

There is obvious value in incorporating military views into intelligence products. Field commanders can offer uniquely detailed views on the nature of the conflict. Continued fighting allows them to monitor enemy tactics as well as changes in the enemy’s level of effort. Their interaction with civilians also allows them to gauge public sentiment, at least at the local level. Done well, military assessments can paint a vivid portrait of the overall course of the war.

But assessments are not always done well. One reason is that they are inherently narrow. This is not to criticize: troops operating in a small area inevitably see the war through a soda straw. Nonetheless, they might conclude that trends in their own area are representative of larger trends throughout the country. Avoiding this problem requires methodical efforts to aggregate micro-level military perspectives into macro-level analyses while remaining cognizant of the serious analytical dangers involved.

Rovner concludes:

Accurate and timely intelligence will be critical as the Obama administration reconsiders what kinds of political outcomes are possible with a stripped-down force in Afghanistan. Integrating military views might lead to more comprehensive CIA assessments, but it might lead to more confusion if bad metrics are included for the sake of keeping estimates current. Hopefully the dust-up over the AP report will remind CIA officials to remain on guard against politicization, and to make sure that the changes in the assessment process do not lead to false optimism.

Read the whole thing here. And register for the event here.

Cillizza on Cain and Know-Nothing Foreign Policy

Asked on Meet the Press this weekend whether the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was an act of war, Herman Cain gave the following response:

After I looked at all of the information provided by the intelligence community, the military, then I could make that decision.  I can’t make that decision because I’m not privy to all of that information… I’m not going to say it was an act of war based upon news reports, with all due respect.  I would hope that the president and all of his advisers are considering all of the factors in determining just how much, how much the Iranians participated in this.

That struck me as a refreshingly reasonable position. Yet the Washington Post’s election handicapper, Chris Cillizza, decided to make that quote the centerpiece of an article on Cain’s “know-nothing foreign policy.” He then presents a poll showing that Republicans don’t care much about foreign policy this year, only to conclude that foreign-policy ignorance could be a fatal handicap for Cain. His evidence for that conclusion is a quote from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in arguing for wars and imperialism. Boot, as it happens, just wrote a blog post for Commentary titled, “Iran Plot Goes Straight to the Top,” where he attacks those willing to question the evidence against Iran’s leaders and vaguely supports attacking them.

Cillizza’s article makes clear that foreign-policy ignorance is far preferable to the Washington Post’s idea of expertise. The worst part is that Cain, who claims not to know what neoconservatives are, seems likely to become one, call Boot for advice, and win the Post’s respect.

What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

The tendency to treat Osama bin Laden’s killing as national holiday akin to V-E day is both understandable and unfortunate. Everyone with a sense of justice appreciates the death of mass murderers, particularly the terrorist sort. But celebrating as if we killed Hitler or won a war plays into al Qaeda’s self-serving myth. Paul Pillar put it well:

An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin’s narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States.

We should also avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But the fact that Sunday’s events do not serve pro-war arguments does not show logically, the correctness of the anti-war position, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget.  That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

4. Bin Laden’s leadership of al Qaeda. The Washington Times insists that finding communication equipment among bin Laden’s effects shows that he was actually running not only al Qaeda central but also its affiliates. They offer little evidence for that conclusion. The fact that bin Laden communicated does not mean that he commanded. There is little reason to suppose that he could control the far flung and disparate entities that use the name al Qaeda, whatever his intent. The National Journal, meanwhile, makes similar assumptions about bin Laden’s operational control in reporting that American authorities expect “a treasure trove of intelligence” to come from bin Laden’s hideout, in the form of thumb drives, hard drives and papers. Even if bin Laden was still capable of providing substantial intelligence on his associates, it is unlikely that he left it sitting around to be gathered. A guy that survived for over a decade while being hunted by various enemies probably knows enough to regularly destroy documents and files. Maybe he got sloppy, but certainly we should not expect to quickly roll up much of the remaining al Qaeda central leadership based on this event.

5. Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda. Prior to bin Laden’s death we knew that Pakistan was not as dedicated to hunting al Qaeda as it could have been. It was reasonable to guess that elements of its security and intelligence apparatus either tolerated (if only by looking the other way) or actively supported al Qaeda members. Today the same is true. That bin Laden was living under the nose of the Pakistani military does not show that he was its official guest. And if bin Laden had the help of some Pakistani intelligence or military personnel, it does not follow that many higher-ups were complicit. Pakistan is a factionalized society with weak civilian control of security agencies. It is hard to know who knows what about what or where lies the line between active complicity and unwillingness to look for things one is not eager to find. To be clear, I am not arguing that no Pakistani official is guilty of harboring bin Laden. The point is rather than no new degree of guilt has become obvious since Sunday. Like number four, this issue should be become clearer as more information comes to light.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

How Many 215 Orders?

There was an interesting exchange during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday concerning the use of the Patriot Act’s §215 orders for business records and other tangible things. FBI Director Robert Mueller hinted that the orders may have been used to track purchases of hydrogen peroxide purchases in the investigation of aspiring bomber Najibullah Zazi, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) asserted that there is “a huge gap today between how you all are interpreting the PATRIOT Act and what the American people think the PATRIOT Act is all about and it’s going to need to be resolved.”

Let’s leave our curiosity about that by the wayside for the moment, though. I’m curious about one simple empirical claim Mueller made in his testimony: That the provision has been used over 380 times since 2001. I assume he’d know, but that seems inconsistent with what’s been publicly reported to date. It’s worth noting that there are actually minor discrepancies between the numbers provided in Congressional Research Service reports, audits from the Office of the Inspector General, and the Justice Department’s annual reports to Congress. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons these numbers might vary depending on how you count, and the total variance is a difference of about 17 orders total over the years.

We know from those Inspector General reports that the majority of those 215 orders issued were “combination” orders issued in tandem with another type of surveillance order called a “pen register” so that investigators could get subscriber information about the people whose communications patterns they were tracking. When Congress amended the Patriot Act in 2006, it built that authority right into the pen register statute, making it unnecessary to seek those “combination” orders. Prior to the amendment, the government got 173 of those “combination” orders. “Pure” 215 orders, which are now the only type needed, have been used much more sparingly. None were issued at all until 2004, and from 2004 through 2009 (depending on whose tally you want to use) there were between 75 and 92 orders issued (for an average of 12–15 annually since 2004). Throw in the combination orders and the upper-bound number through the end of 2009 is 265 orders.

Unless I’ve miscounted or missed something significant—you can get the reports at the links above and check my math—that leaves 115 orders unaccounted for, assuming Mueller’s number is accurate. There are two possibilities, then: Either the government got ten times as many orders in 2010 as the historical average (the figures should be out sometime in April) or there are a whole lot of these missing from the public reporting. Possibly these have something to do with the “sensitive collection program” in which these orders play a key role, alluded to in a Justice Department official’s testimony at a hearing during the 2009 reauthorization debate. Either alternative seems like it would merit additional scrutiny. I sent an e-mail seeking clarification this morning to some of the experts at the Congressional Research Service responsible for keeping legislators informed on these issues, but haven’t yet heard back.

I’m not belaboring this because it’s inherently hugely significant whether the government has used this authority 265 times or 380. Ideally, in the coming months we’ll see a substantial narrowing of National Security Letter authority, which would predictably lead to a large increase in the number of 215 orders issued. And that would be entirely proper, since it would mean more information being sought pursuant to a judicial order rather than FBI fiat. What I do think is significant, however, is that this reminds us how little we know—and how little the vast majority of legislators know—about the use of these powers. In contrast with criminal investigative tools, these powers are entirely covert: People whose records are swept up by the government almost never learn about it, and the recipients of the orders are subject to an effectively permanent gag on speaking about them. Rulings of the secret FISA Court interpreting the scope of these authorities are never made public. Our assurance that they have been or will continue to be used properly rests entirely on the minimal required reporting to Congress and the findings of internal audits. And yet it’s hard to pin down the facts on even this most elementary factual question about 215 orders: How many times have they been used?

Despite this, we have legislators confident enough that these expanded powers are both so necessary and so well controlled that they’re advocating making them permanent. I wish I were as confident.

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