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.

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

For years I’ve warned the U.S. Intelligence Community to get serious about counterintelligence, the business of preventing penetrations of our side by hostile espionage services. Counterintelligence is actually a lot more than that — mastering its offensive side is the key to real espionage success — but Washington, DC, is still far off from mastering even the defensive part of this game. Ignoring CI, as we systematically do, has cost this country lives and treasure in abundance, and it will continue to right until the IC gets serious about counterintelligence.

However, what I’ve termed the counterintelligence imperative just doesn’t seem all that imperative to IC bigwigs, who continue to regard CI as a nuisance and an afterthought. This reluctance seems an immutable law of the vast, sprawling, and expensive Intelligence Community, having long ago been institutionalized. A dozen years ago, a former NSA director bemoaned American CI’s “dismal performance,” noting that counterintelligence is fragmented, under-resourced, and neglected, and none of that has improved since. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Counterintelligence continues to be regarded as something less than a full-time job by most IC leadership, who prefer not to think about it at all. Just how peripheral CI is to U.S. intelligence was made clear by an assessment done by the Congressional Research Service back in late April 2013. This detailed study, intended to be a primer on the Intelligence Community for Congress, was a walk-through of the entire IC, with analysis of which agencies do what as well as explanations of all the various -INTs. Yet, in this thirty-page study, the word “counterintelligence” never appears, not even once.

It’s perhaps fitting that this CRS study appeared just two months before Ed Snowden defected to Russia after stealing over 1.5 million classified documents, representing the greatest intelligence loss in the history of Western espionage. Such is the price of totally ignoring counterintelligence. One might have thought that the epic Snowden debacle would concentrate minds in the IC about the need to get finally serious about CI. Alas, one would be wrong.

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The IC has belatedly promised to clean up its totally dysfunctional security clearance process, while a crackdown on suspected insider threats is underway. Having seen this show before, I am pessimistic about this having much effect beyond terrifying thousands of perfectly loyal IC employees. Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, a few months ago announced the formation of a new, unified IC center to consolidate counterintelligence and security missions, which sounds promising but may just be another “reorg” designed to make things look better than they actually are, which is a venerable Beltway tradition.

Besides, how Clapper really feels about counterintelligence was made clear in his recent testimony before Congress about how the Intelligence Community views the world and what the spooks think really threatens America. Although the IC has been at pains lately to say counterintelligence is a high priority — after the Snowden disaster, how could they not? — Clapper never specifically addressed CI in his remarks, not even once. Perhaps worse, no Senators asked Clapper about the state of counterintelligence at all.

This gross neglect continues despite jaw-dropping headlines about Russians accessing the emails of the State Department and the White House, recent arrests and expulsions of Russian spies from America and other Western countries, as well as from NATO headquarters. Kremlin espionage against the West now equals the highest levels of the Cold War, and they are as aggressive as ever in their targeting of our politics, governments, and economies, yet U.S. intelligence continues to pretend that counterintelligence is unimportant.

Losing the SpyWar against the Russians will have grave consequences, not least because Putin’s forces are engaged in what I term Special War against us, and espionage constitutes the cornerstone of that campaign. Based on evidence available to date, it’s apparent that the Russians are winning the SpyWar and have attained what the Pentagon terms “information dominance” over NATO.

This was made clear by recent rather frank comments by General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Warning that more Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond may be imminent, Breedlove added that NATO faces “critical” intelligence gaps. As SACEUR told Congress:

Russian military operations in Ukraine and the region more broadly have underscored that there are critical gaps in our [intelligence] collection and analysis … Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russia’s involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited.

In other words, he’s worried that the Russians have the drop on NATO and we might not detect a sudden Kremlin attack on Ukraine — or worse, on a NATO country. It’s not everyday that SACEUR is this blunt in his public language, and Breedlove’s words should be taken as a warning of how bad things have gotten in Western intelligence. Since the lion’s share of U.S. (and often NATO) intelligence comes from signals intelligence, i.e. from NSA and its partners, it’s clear that Western SIGINT has taken a big hit recently. That hit was named Edward Snowden.

As I predicted almost two years ago, the Snowden Operation has been a huge win for the Kremlin, and right now its special services have an edge in the SpyWar thanks to Ed’s betrayal. His treachery is at least the equal, strategically speaking, of William Weisband’s at the onset of the Cold War, Weisband being the worst of our SIGINT traitors … until Snowden.

While the damage inflicted by Snowden on Western intelligence will eventually be repaired, that will be years off. In the meantime, the Russians are playing a strong hand, espionage-wise, leaving NATO guessing what Putin’s next move will be — and where. This is a bad place for the Atlantic Alliance to be, as any strategist or military historian will tell you. While NATO dwarfs the Russians in conventional strength, good intelligence can compensate for that weakness, particularly when combined with strategic denial and deception of the sort that the Kremlin excels in.

We are entering a dangerous period for Europe and the West, now that Putin has completed his Victory Day public extravaganza, and the risk of being strategically surprised by the Kremlin is very real. Just this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the Russians have bolstered forces in and around Eastern Ukraine and now possess “the capability to launch new attacks with very little warning time.” There is little that the West can do right now to make good the intelligence losses caused by Snowden, that will take time, but getting serious about preventing the next Snowden and blunting the impact of rising Russian espionage against NATO is absolutely imperative. There may be little time left to waste. We must get in the counterspy game with vigor and without delay, or be prepared to lose the SpyWar, and much more.