What ails US intelligence?

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 29, 2010 11:09 hrs
Leaked Reports Shed New Light on Afghan War

WikiLeaks has done it again! The online organisation has now posted more than 90,000 classified military field reports originating from the Afghan front.

According to WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, the documents “reveal broader and more pervasive levels of violence in Afghanistan than the military or the news media had previously reported.”


'ISI had free hand to aid insurgency in India, Afghanistan'


He says the objective of his organisation is to document ‘unethical behavior’ by governments and corporations.

Since 2006, WikiLeaks has exposed the dumping of toxic material off the African coast, the membership lists of a racist British party, the operating manual of the US prison in Guantanamo, a helicopter attack in Bagdad called ‘Collateral Murder’ and a cable entitled ‘Reykjavik13’ about the banking crisis in Iceland.

WikiLeaks’ website justifies the ‘leak’ by saying: “We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies.”

While the revelations got a lot of ink in the world media, a series of articles by The Washington Post has remained out of the sight of commentators, though the consequences of the reporters’ findings could have tremendous consequences on the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Post reporters wanted to understand more about the “top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

Dana Priest and William Arkin, who worked for two years on the subject, soon discovered that it has “become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work”.

The US intelligence budget was for the first time announced last year: $75 billion, two and a half times the size it was before 9/11 (and it does not include military activities or domestic counter-terrorism programs).

The journalists speak of the “Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.”

The main findings of The Washington Post are:

•    Some 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

•    An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times the population of Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

•    In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent space of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet.

•    Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organisations and military commands, operating in 15 US cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

•    Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

The conclusions of the reporters is “lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.”

Even Defense Secretary Robert M Gates and Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta admitted in interviews to The Post that there was a problem.

Though Defense Secretary Gates said that he does not believe the system has become too big to manage, he acknowledged that getting precise data is sometimes difficult: “Nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say, ‘Okay, we’ve built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?’,” he told The Post.

CIA Director Leon Panetta announced that he had “begun mapping out a five-year plan for his agency because the levels of spending since 9/11 are not sustainable”.

In other words, the different agencies are over-doing their job, but without the corresponding results.

The Post reports a telling anecdote: there are a handful of senior officials in the Pentagon who are called the Super Users; these officers can get information about ALL the Department’s activities.

One of them told The Post that during his initial briefing, “he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ‘Stop!’ in frustration.” He explained that it was such an information over-load that “I wasn’t remembering any of it.”

This is the story of the US Intelligence system. One understands better why they never found out about Pokhran II (though it was three years before the 9/11 tragedy) and that today there are unable to find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, although they seem to have information that he is moving around with his associate Mullah Omar (it was confirmed by Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton).

One sometimes thinks that the good old spies a la James Bond or Mata Hari were more efficient than the top analysts seating in their bunkers (known as SCIF or ‘sensitive compartmented information facility’) in Washington DC who have hardly any idea where Kandahar or Ghazi are located.

But more interesting (and frightening in one way). The Post in another installment of its investigation speaks of “a system in which contractors are playing an ever more important role. The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. There is no better example of the government's dependency on them than at the CIA, the one place in government that exists to do things overseas that no other US agency is allowed to do.”

In other words, the US intelligence is being slowly privatised. Can you believe it?

The journalists explain: “Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mould a new generation of American spies.”

This does not sound good for Obama’s Administration (and the US citizens) because it means that these super-analysts, these super-spies are not working for their country (or in Afghanistan for the NATO Alliance), but only for money.

In fact, the so-called contractors are multinationals like any multinational in the world (except for the strict security clearance needed for their employees, but even here the clearance is sub-contracted to ‘specialised private’ companies).

When money is the motivation, the results are bound to be tainted.
This ‘privatisation’ of the intelligence business is indeed a very dangerous game and it partially explains some of the finding of WikiLeaks: one hand of the Obama (and before Bush) Administration does not know what the other is doing. It has become apparent in Washington’s Af-Pak policy.

The New York Times, one of the first three publications to get access to the leaked documents, said: “The documents, made available by an organization called WikiLeaks, suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organise networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.”

Why could not the 854,000 people, 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies working on ‘terrorism’ (or ‘counterterrorism’) have realised this?

Everyone knew it in India, but it seems to be a discovery in the SCIFs of Washington. Let us hope that it will now percolate further to the White House: the hub of international terrorism is Pakistan and its boss has just been given a 3-year extension.

One can only hope that in the future more leaks will reveal further the role of the Pakistan Army and the ISI not only in the Afghan mess, but also in Kashmir (I would include the role of Chinese in the region).

An excellent paper (China’s Caution on Afghanistan—Pakistan) by Andrew Small for the Center for Strategic and International Studies of the Washington Quarterly speaks of “this entire strand of China’s thinking, which requires a state of managed tension in the region, cuts directly against the US efforts to dissuade Pakistan from its India-centric military strategy”.

It would be great to have leaks on this.

Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier  (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.


Also read: Will the US lead once more? | Cyberwar and the ‘destruction of rules’ | More columns by Claude Arpi

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