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China’s Spies Hit the Blackmail Jackpot

With each passing day the U.S. government’s big hacking scandal gets worse. Just what did hackers steal from the Office of Personnel Management? Having initially assured the public that the loss was not all that serious, OPM’s data breach now looks very grave. The lack of database encryption appears foolhardy, while OPM ignoring repeated warnings about its cyber vulnerabilities implies severe dysfunction in Washington.

To say nothing of the news that hackers were scouring OPM systems for over a year before they were detected. It’s alarming that intruders got hold of information about every federal worker, particularly because OPM previously conceded that “only” 4 million employees, past and present, had been compromised, including 2.1 million current ones. Each day brings worse details about what stands as the biggest data compromise since Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million classified documents and fled to Russia.

Then there’s the worrisome matter of what OPM actually does. A somewhat obscure agency, it’s the federal government’s HR hub and, most important, it’s responsible for conducting 90 percent of federal background investigations, adjudicating some 2 million security clearances every year. If you’ve ever held a clearance with Uncle Sam, there’s a good chance you’re in OPM files somewhere.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast

The OPM Hacking Scandal Just Got Worse

The other day I explained in detail how the mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s internal servers looks like a genuine disaster for the U.S. Government, a setback that will have long-lasting and painful counterintelligence consequences. In particular I explained what the four million Americans whose records have been purloined may be in for:

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

The bad news keeps piling up with this story, including reports that OPM records may have appeared, for sale, on the “darknet.” Moreover, OPM seems to have initially low-balled just how serious the breach actually was. Even more disturbing, if predictable, is a new report in the New York Times that case “investigators believe that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.”

We can safely replace “may” in that quote with “almost certainly did” since for Chinese intelligence that would be some of the most valuable information in any of those millions of OPM files. Armed with lists of Chinese citizens worldwide who are in “close and continuing contact” (to cite security clearance lingo) with American officials, Beijing can now seek to exploit those ties for espionage purposes.

This matters because, while many intelligence services exploit ties of ethnicity to further their espionage against the United States — Russians, Cubans, Israelis, even the Greeks — none of the major counterintelligence threats to America are as dependent on blood ties as the Chinese. Simply put, in its efforts at recruiting spies abroad, Beijing is often uncomfortable operating outside its ethnic milieu. Spies run by Beijing who are not ethnic Chinese are very much the exception. This poses less of a problem for them that it might seem, however, as there are something like fifty million “overseas Chinese” worldwide, including about four million living in the United States.

Nearly every espionage case in the United States involving Beijing comes down to the ethnic angle, somewhere. To cite only a few examples, among many, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a CIA translator/analyst, passed highly classified information to Beijing for over thirty years. Katrina Leung managed to severely damage FBI intelligence against China for years, in a complex and messy operation that confounded the Bureau. Then there’s the messy case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, whom U.S. counterintelligence believed passed significant amounts of classified nuclear information to Beijing. Most recently was there was the case of Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a Federal worker who was caught having unreported meetings with a Chinese regime official.

It should be noted that all the persons mentioned in the previous paragraph were born in China (Lee was born in Taiwan) then immigrated to the United States. They seem to have been persuaded to betray their adopted country on behalf of their native land. Ms. Chen, against whom serious charges were recently dropped, has alleged ethnic bias in the FBI’s pursuit of her, as did Wen Ho Lee. Members of Congress and ethnic activists have joined that chorus too. Interestingly, Beijing has sung the same tune, with regime outlets alleging that anti-Chinese prejudice is at the root of U.S. counterintelligence efforts. However, whatever blame here lies in Beijing, not Washington, DC, since it is China that is exploiting its nationals abroad to further their espionage.

Beijing also uses its citizens abroad to facilitate espionage. An interesting recent case in Hawaii, which is something of a hotbed of Chinese spying, given the large number of U.S. military commands housed on Oahu, involved a retired U.S. Army officer and defense contractor working at U.S. Pacific Command who apparently got honey-trapped by a fetching young Chinese student (this is being a common Chinese tactic). Benjamin Bishop has been sentenced to more than seven years in jail for stealing classified information from work and passing it to a Chinese woman less than half his age, who was in the United States on a student visa.

The modus operandi of Chinese intelligence and its operations abroad are understood by the FBI and the Intelligence Community. However, the extent of the information loss in the OPM hack is so vast that all the counterintelligence awareness in the world may not be able to offset the advantage in the SpyWar that Beijing has won with this vast data theft. If you are (or have been) employed with the Federal government and have listed Chinese persons in any way on your SF86, it’s time to be vigilant.

Hacking as Offensive Counterintelligence

Washington, DC, is reeling from revelations that the Office of Personnel Management, the Federal government’s HR hub, has been extensively hacked. OPM is an obscure but important agency since it holds the personnel records of Federal workers, past and present, and even more, it conducts background investigations for security clearance holders across many Federal agencies.

Based on available information so far, the records of some four million Federal workers, going back to 1985, have been compromised, of whom 2.1 million are currently serving. In what has become the custom inside the Beltway, OPM had repeated warnings about its slipshod computer security practices but not much was done despite the enormously rising threat of foreign hackers. The extent of this needless debacle is truly disastrous, as I explained in a series of tweets the other day.

Speaking as a former counterintelligence officer, it really doesn’t get much worse than this. For our Intelligence Community to get hit by this and the Snowden debacle within two years speaks to systemic failure, not “oversights” and “mistakes” any longer. We’re not serious about stemming foreign espionage, as I recently explained, and now that neglect has caused serious pain that will last decades. Some of the damage may not be repairable, ever.

The IC is pointing the finger at China, tentatively, apparently at hacking entities that have a “close relationship” with Chinese intelligence. The case for official Chinese culpability is growing. It seems that Beijing is using aggressive hacking to establish a database of information about millions of Federal workers and security clearance holders.

Why China would do that isn’t difficult to guess. While defensive counterintelligence, the preventing and uncovering of enemy spies, is the “JV” level of counterespionage, as President Obama might put it (notwithstanding that the IC can’t manage even this), the real pros engage in offensive counterintelligence, which aims at recruiting spies inside the enemy camp, particularly inside the opposing intelligence service. That’s how you gain control of the enemy’s central nervous system: You know what he knows about you, hence you can deceive him at a strategic level. This is the essence of SpyWar, as I’ve explained, the secret struggle between the West and adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran, a clandestine battle that never ceases, yet that the public seldom gets wind of, except when something goes wrong. “May we read about you in the newspapers,” is the old Mossad curse/wag for a reason.

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this is not merely that four million people are vulnerable to compromise, through no fault of their own, but that the other side now so dominates the information battlespace that it can halt actions against them. If they get word that a American counterintelligence officer, in some agency, is on the trail of one of their agents, they can pull out the stops and create mayhem for him or her: run up debts falsely (they have all the relevant data), perhaps plant dirty money in bank accounts (they have all the financials too), and thereby cause any curious officials to lose their security clearances. Since that is what would happen.

If this sounds like a nightmare scenario for Washington, DC, that’s because it is. Decades of neglect have gotten us here and it will take decades to get us out of it. The first step is admitting the extent of the problem. Getting serious about security and counterintelligence, finally, is the closely related second step. Back in the 1990’s, CI professionals warned the U.S. government about the hazards of putting everything online (we also pointed this out about internal databases that were supposed to be “secure”). Any cautions or caveats were dismissed as “old think,” out of hand. We were right about this, just as we were right about insider threats like Snowden. The past is the past, it’s time to move forward and do better without delay. The SpyWar is heating up and there’s no time to waste.

A System for Bothering People

Even the most cynical critics of the Transportation Security Administration, perhaps the most unpopular organization in the whole U.S. government, must have been surprised by the recent revelations. According to a leaked internal report, TSA Red Team members, whose job is to test performance, were able to get past security with hidden weapons on 67 out of 70 occasions, or 95% of the time.

The shock of this leak has caused a ruckus inside the Beltway. The TSA’s acting director has been “reassigned” — a rare step for an administration that has difficulty firing anyone for anything.

If you’re asking why the TSA exists at all right now, you’re not alone. In the same week that the domestic surveillance component of the Patriot Act has been scaled back, it’s worth pondering whether the TSA, another post-9/11 creation, needs to be mended, or perhaps even ended.

Read the rest at the LA Times

OSS: The Myth That Never Dies

It’s now apparent to anyone with open eyes that the Islamic State is on the march in Iraq and is not being halted by American actions. Obama’s ardor to defeat Da’ish can charitably be called diffident, so people are seeking answers for what’s gone so wrong here. To anyone versed in how the White House and the Pentagon get along, it’s evident that what experts term “the civil-military dialogue” over Da’ish is in a bad way.

Reports of American aircrews and special operators, who are the pointy end of our spear in Iraq, being upset by White House micromanaging the campaign against Da’ish, to the detriment of military effectiveness, cannot help but echo President Johnson’s failed efforts to bring Hanoi to the peace table in the mid-1960’s through airpower. Then there’s the issue of strategy which, to the extent it can be detected at all in our pseudo-war against Da’ish, is clearly lacking reassessment, since the enemy is winning despite our efforts.

Someone needs to be blamed, and as is so often the case inside the Beltway, the spooks offer a prime target. It’s always tempting to cite “intelligence failure,” since that’s shrouded in mystery and the Intelligence Community can’t always defend itself against such media accusations.

Along comes David Ignatius to explain that the root of our misguided war on Da’ish is an “intelligence deficit” — we simply don’t know enough about the enemy. It speaks volumes that the IC may not know enough about a country that we recently occupied for nearly a decade and have been at war with, or in, more or less nonstop since 1990. Ignatius cites General Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, explaining that the Pentagon was surprised by recent Da’ish successes. Blaming spooks, of course, is an easy thing to do when you have no clear strategy.

Yet there is ample evidence that our recent failures in Iraq stem not from a lack of intelligence, rather from top decision-makers, military and civilian, not knowing what to do about Da’ish. In particular, the Obama administration let Ramadi fall to the enemy, despite having “significant intelligence” about what was going to happen. This speaks to a failure of policy, not intelligence.

That said, Ignatius is a savvy journalist who has a close relationship with Langley, so when he says CIA isn’t doing a very good job in Iraq, that matters. Additionally, most of what he says about CIA shortcomings on the ground are accurate, particularly his charge that Agency personnel, confined “inside the wire” in places like Afghanistan and Iraq for their own safety, are missing out on important things.

This is undeniably true and it’s simply a fact that CIA’s operational model is better suited to a cold war than a hot one, particularly a conflict where the enemy would love to kidnap and torture CIA officers to death. That the Directorate of Operations, the Agency’s espionage arm, isn’t well suited to taking on hardcore mujahidin like Da’ish is both true and a truism. (For a primer on the DO and how CIA is organized and operates, see this.) Moreover, Ignatius explains:

For decades, the CIA and the military have tried to fix intelligence problems by relying on National Security Agency surveillance. But the jihadists have gone to school on the leaks about U.S. capabilities and learned to mask their operations.

That’s an oblique reference to the enormous damage caused by Edward Snowden’s massive theft of classified NSA materials, which has helped the terrorists in countless ways. So we need better human intelligence — but how to get it? That knotty problem Ignatius has a fix for:

Gathering intelligence against this 21st-century jihadist adversary, paradoxically, will require the kind of old-fashioned spying and resistance operations we associate with the CIA’s founding generation in the OSS.

As is inevitably the case whenever someone wants CIA or DoD to “get in the espionage fight” they cite the OSS. That’s the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, established at the beginning of America’s entry in the Second World War. Few topics get American spy buffs more excited than mentioning the OSS, which won a reputation for swashbuckling derring-do, dropping agents behind enemy lines to stir up trouble. For anybody frustrated by the current Intelligence Community’s institutionalized risk-aversion and incomprehensible bureaucracy — and I’m among the first to decry these cancerous IC tendencies — the lean and mean OSS looks something like paradise.

In the first place, OSS was awash in smart young people, many of them Ivy Leaguers and social register types. Not for nothing did OSS detractors, who were numerous, deride the outfit as “Oh So Social.” Its boss, William “Wild Bill” Donovan was a connected New York lawyer and bona fide hero of the Great War, who had President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ear. To say nothing of the excitement of jumping out of airplanes over occupied France to do secret spy stuff, which sounds more exciting and markedly less awful than, say, storming Omaha Beach.

The problem with getting weepy about the OSS is that it’s simply a myth. A myth that has generated countless books, mind you, but a myth all the same. In truth, the OSS did about as well as could be expected given that it was an instantly-created organization staffed and led by people without any experience in espionage. It was well intentioned but naive and unskilled and, while its bias for action was admirable (and something that today’s IC could use a healthy dose of), it often went badly wrong in the field.

In the first place, OSS attitudes towards secrecy were laughable. Thanks to lax security policies, it was deeply penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies. We know of at least a dozen Soviet agents inside the OSS and, even though one of them was a genuine hero, it’s safe to say that Moscow was very well briefed on OSS activities. This didn’t seem to bother Wild Bill, and despite the fact that President Roosevelt liked Donovan, he was careful to keep really important secrets out of slippery OSS hands. In particular, Donovan’s outfit was kept in the dark about the ULTRA secret and related important SIGINT successes against the Axis by the Army and the Navy. Sadly, OSS-style lackadaisical attitudes toward counterintelligence plague American espionage still, with deadly consequences.

Donovan was better at bureaucratic fighting than spying, and he waged non-stop campaigns against his main rivals — the FBI at home and Army intelligence abroad — to get OSS “in the fight.” Donovan got on the bad side of both J. Edgar Hoover and General George Strong, the Army G-2, and Roosevelt had to adjudicate turf spats among his espionage bosses with depressing frequency. OSS also was incautious about its domestic operations, which was why President Harry Truman disbanded Donovan’s outfit immediately after the end of the war, noting that the country did not need an “American Gestapo.”

Some OSS missteps were comical, perhaps most infamously in 1943 when Donovan had to be waved off stealing a code machine from the Japanese embassy in Lisbon, an operation that had been painstakingly planned. Donovan was very excited about this “black bag” job, which offered a crack into Japanese codes. General Strong was furious and demanded that the OSS stand down, since Army intelligence, the future NSA, had been reading those secret messages for years and theft of cryptographic materials might push the Japanese to change their codes, which would be a big blow to the war effort. Of course Donovan and his crew, not being cleared for ULTRA, knew none of this. Strong and the Army got the OSS out of the code-stealing business for good after the near-debacle in Lisbon.

Well-intentioned but harebrained is a fitting moniker for a lot of OSS activities. Its paramilitary operations in Europe and Asia, while undeniably brave, were assessed as being of little value to the overall war effort by the Army and the Navy. This was good stuff for movie plots, not winning wars, in the opinion of most generals and admirals, who were unimpressed by much of the intelligence Donovan was getting.

OSS also birthed the first formal “intelligence analysis” shop, Research and Analysis, which was staffed by leading academics and scholars in myriad disciplines who were brought into the war effort. Many of R&A’s leading lights were Ivy League dons but their overall impact on the war effort was low since their assessments, with few exceptions, were limited to the SECRET level and, here again, their lack of access to ULTRA, the war’s genuine intelligence triumph, was crippling. While CIA analysts to this day look to R&A as a model of excellence, you will search in vain for many scholars of such wartime caliber at Langley now.

There was one part of the OSS that lived up to its reputation, yet it’s the element that almost nobody knows about. That was X-2, the counterespionage branch, which was small, select, very hush-hush, and closely mentored by the British. It was also the only OSS element cleared for ULTRA, which it used to good effect in rooting out Axis spies in many countries. However, X-2 was tarnished in the long run since it gave CIA James Angleton, the genius/flake who headed Agency counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974, until reverberations from the Watergate scandal caused his downfall. Angleton is a widely misunderstood character, yet it cannot be denied that his emergence from X-2, where he was a real star, have unfairly tarnished that fine little outfit’s historical reputation.

OSS didn’t really die, of course, its parts were divvied up between the military and the State Department, only to be reassembled in 1947 with the birth of CIA, which claims the legacy of Donovan’s organization (some of it is likewise claimed by the military’s special operations community). Unfortunately, many OSS bad habits continued too, particularly a slipshod attitude towards counterintelligence. Early Cold War adventures such as dropping agents and supplies to resistance movements in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, which continued well into the 1950’s, were across-the-board failures, since all these daring, well-intentioned CIA operations were thoroughly penetrated by Soviet spies. They were compromised before they ever took place.

There are aspects of the OSS legacy that all American intelligence officers today should be proud of. Its can-do attitude and its intrinsic bias for action are things that today’s risk-averse IC could use a strong dose of. But doing espionage the OSS way, shooting before aiming while not taking counterintelligence seriously, will lead to more problems than solutions. Moreover, militarizing CIA, which is proceeding rapidly, is certain to cause troubles in the long run. CIA and the Intelligence Community need to do better. Assessing the OSS legacy honestly would be a good start.

I Told You So

I can’t help but take some pleasure in seeing the mainstream media, however belatedly, explain that the NSA defector Edward Snowden is a very useful tool for Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services in what I term their Special War against the West. I’ve been pointing this out, since it’s obvious to anybody actually acquainted with the ways of Russian intelligence, in considerable detail for a long time, so I welcome anybody who joins Team Reality, no matter how long it takes them to get there.

Putin is growing less subtle by the day, and in his latest rant about the FIFA scandal, which seems likely to expose some dirty Kremlin deals, he put in a good word about his boys Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (what exactly is the relationship between the Russians and Wikileaks? well, I told you that too). For a former KGB counterintelligence officer, this is pretty much showing your hand.

But a Russian hand in a lot of nefarious things has been visible, at least in outline, in many stories over the years that never got the media attention that they deserved. I called Cold War 2.0 after the Russian theft of Crimea, and it seems tough to deny that we’re in one now. And if we’re lucky it will stay cold. It may not. This recent tweet caused a firestorm:

I’m not sure why this caused a ruckus, since the reality, visible to anyone with eyes to see, is that Russian aggression over the last year and more has created a very unstable environment in Eastern Europe. Not to mention that the Russian military was simulating nuclear attacks on NATO countries as far back as 2009, back when ties between Moscow and the West remained far from chilly, indeed positively reset-y. The post-Cold War order has been destroyed by Russian acts in Ukraine, and we’re headed towards some sort of new system — whether through renewed Cold War or actual war remains to be seen.

I am increasingly pessimistic that a wider war can be averted, not least because Putin has been winning off his gambling, despite holding an intrinsically weak hand, and gamblers tend to keep playing when they’re winning. Top NATO officials are now signalling just how dangerous the situation is in Eastern Europe. Yesterday Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance secretary general, denounced “Russia’s recent use of nuclear rhetoric, exercises and operations are deeply troubling,” adding the obvious, that “Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.”

Mincing no words, a top NATO general announced that Russia could take over the Baltic states in just two days. Petr Pavel, the former head of the Czech armed forces and the incoming boss of the Alliance’s Military Committee, ruffled some feathers with his blunt statement, which accords with military reality. Lacking strategic depth, the Baltic states indeed could be overwhelmed by Russia in just a couple days: in other words, before they could be saved by NATO. General Pavel explained that NATO actions to counter Kremlin aggression have been “embarrassingly ineffective” — which, again, is a truth that we are unaccustomed to top Western officials saying in public.

Pavel added comments about weaknesses in NATO intelligence, which track with alarming words from his boss, General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, about “critical” intelligence gaps regarding Russia, in particular the fact that, due to said espionage shortfalls, NATO cannot predict Kremlin moves with much certainty. The possibility of a Russian surprise attack on a NATO country, therefore, is worryingly real and not something we may see in time to deter it. Here again, Snowden’s defection to Russia after stealing over a million classified U.S. documents should be on the table in discussing why we’re in the dark on such important matters.

Of course, moving thousands of troops is a difficult thing to hide completely in this day and age, and yesterday Reuters broke the story that large numbers of Russian troops, armed with tanks and artillery, have been sighted near the Ukraine border, more or less opposite the strategic city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Worse, Russians have been seen removing unit insignias from their vehicles and uniforms, in emulation of last year’s “little green men” episodes in Crimea and Southeast Ukraine. Putin is either readying to launch a renewed offensive in Ukraine or he wants the world to think he’s about to. Deception, what Russians call maskirovka, is a well-honed art there, so it’s possible this is yet another saber-rattle. But we don’t know yet. Though I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.

Fully a year ago, I explained how, with a modest amount of conventional deterrence, the West could prevent further Russian aggression. Despite pleadings of Alliance members for just such a bona fide deterrent force, nothing substantial has been done, and NATO has been content to have some showy exercises and photo-ops: the “embarrassingly ineffective” measures castigated by General Pavel. For want of a few brigades of NATO troops in Eastern Europe, we may get Russian aggression that could change the world, and not for the better. I hate to say it, but … I told you so.

A Brief Intelligence Reality Check

Our right wing is in a flutter over recently declassified and released Pentagon intelligence documents regarding Middle Eastern events in recent years. FoxNews is blaring about failures to miss the rise of the Islamic State and (of course) about Benghazi, in its customary way, but without much context.

Worse is this piece, which has a pronouncedly conspiratorial bent, implying that the Pentagon was somehow in on the rise of the Islamic State — which is precisely what Tehran and Moscow want you to think. The documents in question, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, can be seen in full here, but the report generating the most heat, if not light, is this one.

This is an early August 2012 field report to the Defense Intelligence Agency, known in the trade as an Intelligence Information Report or IIR. As it states clearly, this is an “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence.” Its contents are deemed explosive by those seeking explosions. According to outraged observers online, this DIA IIR is “proof” that “the Pentagon” and “the Intelligence Community” knew more about the rise of the Islamic State than they let on. At best, they’re fools; at worst, they’re deceivers who have lied to the American people.

It’s time for a reality check. Having written my share of IIRs, let me explain a few things to you. First off, this report, which is classified SECRET/NOFORN (i.e. it’s far from “highly classified”) is so heavily redacted that it’s difficult to say much meaningful about it. Who filed this IIR has been taken out, and its distribution list (at least what we can see of it) is the usual alphabet soup of DoD and IC headquarters and agencies. Nothing special here, not one bit.

As for the pronouncements in this IIR, which are taken as highly meaningful by the conspiracy-minded, they are routine, the sort of thing found in the thousands of IIRs that DIA generates annually, on a wide range of subjects. Is this the take of a U.S. defense attaché somewhere in the Middle East, and therefore a reflection of his/her personal views only? Is this the rant of someone who claims good access, who may (or may not) have that? Are these the ramblings of a partner security service — in other words, glorified hall gossip — that an attaché felt obliged to report back in that mixture of “FYI” and “CYA” that dominates inside the Beltway? Given the heavy redactions, it’s simply impossible to say.

What we can say with certainty, however, is that this IIR is not the view of “the Defense Intelligence Agency” or “the Pentagon,” much less “the Intelligence Community.” The IC is a sprawling enterprise of seventeen different agencies, some of which don’t play well with each other. Plus, not to put too fine a point on this, DIA isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the IC shed, being viewed as a bit of an also-ran by CIA and NSA, who are the Big Dogs of American intelligence in terms of mission, budgets, and prestige.

This is but one IIR, whose provenance we know basically nothing about. Don’t read too much into it. There is nothing conspiratorial here to those who understand the IC. Raw intelligence like this is often wide of the mark, and DIA’s reputation here is less than stellar. Has everybody forgotten about CURVEBALL so soon?

I am pretty critical of the Obama administration’s policy towards the Islamic State, as I’ve written about many times, and it’s clear that calling them the “JV team” was a stupid mistake. As I’ve reported, there has been robust debate inside the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community for several years about what the Islamic State exactly is, and what should be done about, and it’s safe to say that most of DoD and the IC today are out of step with the White House’s soft-touch approach to its pseudo-war against this virulent and fanatical enemy.

This lone IIR is but a single data point that serious analysts will not get worked up over, as opposed to those who have ideological axes to grind, to say nothing of the tinfoil-hat brigade. After 9/11, the Intelligence Community was exhorted to “connect the dots” better. I would caution all to observe that this is a mere dot, one whose provenance and reliability we do not know.

On a final note, let me add that, while I am in favor of the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community releasing more classified documents to promote greater public understanding — an area where this administration, contrary to its grandiose promises of transparency, has a dismal track record — releasing documents that are so heavily redacted as to be almost incomprehensible does not actually promote understanding of complex issues, rather the contrary.


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