Tag: cia

GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

What’s So Great about a Heavy Footprint?

I generally like David Sanger’s reporting. His recent books (The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal) provide an excellent overview of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s approach to world affairs, filed just before the two men faced off in their third and final debate, was one of the best that I had seen.

But I’m confused by this passage from his story in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground during the fight, and his decision to keep America’s diplomatic and C.I.A. presence minimal in post-Qaddafi Libya, may have helped lead the United States to miss signals and get caught unaware in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

We have had many tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and a sizable CIA presence, on the ground in Afghanistan for years, and that hasn’t stopped attacks on Americans. Ditto for the massive troop presence in Iraq, when we had one there. We have been caught unaware in other places where we have had a massive and long-standing presence on the ground; meanwhile, some places that boast no U.S. presence at all have been quiescent for decades.

In short, what happened in Benghazi is certainly a tragedy, and possibly an avoidable one, but that one instance hardly proves that a heavy footprint (i.e. sending U.S. ground troops into the middle of distant civil wars) should be the preferred option going forward.

The American people’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a broad, bipartisan desire to avoid future such wars, constrains the president’s options. And that is a good thing. If policymakers understand that they can’t accomplish ambitious goals with small numbers of troops on the ground—or with none at all—that should compel them to focus on more limited objectives, missions that advance U.S. security, and avoid those that do not.

New Underwear Bomb, New Threat Information

It’s a good bet that news of a new thwarted underwear bomber will underlie more than one argument for the strip-search machines American travelers encounter even at the domestic terminals of our airports. According to the AP:

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said. … The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said.

Reading this, you’ve been reminded of the fact that, somewhere in a remote Middle Eastern backwater, someone would like to bomb an aircraft flying into the United States. For many, this will induce a bout of probability neglect, making it very hard to process the upshot of this news: This type of attack, which was already very unlikely to succeed, has been made even less likely to succeed.

How did it become less likely to succeed? Let’s use the Transportation Security Administration’s layered security concept to examine things.

In December 2009, the underwear bomber (well—he failed: the “underwear bomb plotter”), managed to get a deformed bomb onto a plane. It was so deformed that he could not cause it to explode. Instead, he burned himself while other passengers subdued him. In the TSA’s formulation, the plot was foiled by the last security layer (it’s hard to read in the graphic): passengers.

(This is not actually the last security layer. The design of planes to withstand shocks to the fuselage is a preventive against downings that small smuggled bombs will have a hard time overcoming.)

The latest news has it that an updated underwear bomb was seized in Yemen by the CIA. That’s the first layer of security in the TSA’s graphic. Intelligence—the first layer.

(This is not actually the first security layer. A benign, phlegmatic foreign policy would produce fewer people worldwide wishing to do the United States harm and more people intolerant of those who do.)

Now, it is not all 100%, unalloyed good security news. As the AP report says:

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

There may be an innovation in underwear bombs that make them easier to smuggle on to planes. At its best, this innovation may render the body scanners useless against them. (Again, watch for arguments that, despite their impotence, this news makes body scanners all the more essential. A news report yesterday said that new vulnerabilities in the machines have been unearthed by government investigators.)

On balance, I think this news shows just how much the threat is diminished. Innovations in bomb-making, happening on the far outskirts of modern society, are being thwarted at their source, long before they begin the journey through the many other security layers that protect aviation and air travelers. You may continue to move about the country even more confident of your safety than you did before. I’m hopping on a plane again Friday morning, and I will be just as polite and cheerful as ever in declining to go through the strip-search machines.

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.

Has President Obama Given up on Changing U.S. Foreign Policy?

Today in Politico I have an op-ed titled “How Washington changed Obama.” In the piece, I argue that the recent appointments of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA, combined with revelations in the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, suggest that President Obama has given up on changing U.S. foreign and defense policy:

Panetta is a dubious choice to fulfill Obama’s recent pledge to trim military spending. Any secretary charged with realizing that pledge would need extraordinary credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom are determined to continue raining money on the Pentagon regardless of the nation’s parlous fiscal position. Despite having once been a Republican, Panetta ran for Congress as Democrat and has served prominently in Democratic administrations. He is unlikely to craft the pragmatic consensus needed to give the Pentagon a haircut.

Petraeus’s nomination poses a different problem. He has spent the past decade focused— at the behest of his commanders in chief —  on what we used to call the “global war on terrorism.” But is U.S. nation-building in the Muslim world the most important national security and intelligence problem we face today?


The U.S. desperately needs to change its focus. We account for roughly half the world’s military spending, yet we feel terribly insecure. We infantilize our allies so that they won’t pay to defend themselves and instead allow us to do it for them. We stumble into small- and medium-sized foreign quagmires the way many people eat breakfast — frequently and without much thought.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.

The Good News and Bad News about ‘Sneakers on the Ground’

There is good news and bad news about the report that the Obama administration authorized CIA teams to go into Libya to liaise with the Libyan opposition before instituting a no-fly zone over that country. (The phrase “sneakers on the ground” has emerged in response to the administration’s firm insistence that there are no US boots on the ground there.)

Get the map out

The good news is that the administration, despite prior appearances, does indeed have a strategy in Libya: siding with the rebels in their effort to depose Muammar Qaddafi. The bad news is that siding with the rebels in their effort to depose Muammar Qaddafi is not a good strategy.

It is probably important to make clear at the outset that I do not mean to overstate the stakes here. I am not suggesting that the Libya intervention necessarily will produce a Vietnam or Iraq-scale blunder. And it is always possible that Col. Qaddafi will be deposed swiftly and a reasonably orderly transition to a reasonably decent replacement will take place.

But I would not bet on it.

Why not? For one, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper yesterday described the opposition itself as a “pick-up basketball team.” This, to my ear, does not sound like a group of people prepared for modern governance of a national state.There also have been somewhat murky reports that jihadists, if not inner-circle al Qaeda types, number among the opposition with whom we are siding. It is probably worth noting that Paul Wolfowitz, a vocal advocate of throwing our lot in with the Libyan opposition, responded to a question (at 56:50 of the video here) whether he could name the leaders of the opposition by admitting that he could not, advising instead that “you can Google and find out.” We just don’t know these people terribly well.

In addition, it is far from clear that the pick-up basketball team can win. A “senior U.S. intelligence official” yesterday reported that Qaddafi’s people have rather rapidly adapted to the no-fly zone:

Gadhafi’s forces have adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding that airstrikes have given their tanks and armored vehicles, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. They’ve left some of those weapons behind in favor of a “gaggle” of “battle wagons”: minivans, sedans and sport-utility vehicles fitted with weapons, said the official, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sensitive U.S. intelligence on the condition and capabilities of rebel and regime forces. Rebel fighters also said Gadhafi’s troops were increasingly using civilian vehicles in battle.

The change not only makes it harder to distinguish Gadhafi’s forces from the rebels, it also requires less logistical support, the official said.

This seemed to me a blazingly obvious approach for Qaddafi to take, given that were he to move his armor or artillery, it would almost certainly become a target for the coalition, but it would be much harder to detect small groups of men armed with small arms. You fight with what you can use.

All of this seems to mitigate in favor of the government, but it should be pointed out that the unsophisticated, poorly led, and poorly armed rebels have some notable advantages as well. A reasonably unsophisticated force in Afghanistan currently has the modern world’s mightiest military power bogged down in that country with only limited organization, arms, and leadership of their own. From a defensive standpoint, a few thousand men with small arms who are willing to fight and die can cause a big headache for counterinsurgents, particularly were Qaddafi to attempt to retake Benghazi with these men he’s shipping eastward.

Secretary Gates was right to say that there is no vital U.S. interest at stake in Libya over the weekend, and he is right to threaten to quit if the administration moves to insert U.S. ground forces. It wasn’t worth war to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi two months ago, and it isn’t worth war today.