Friday, February 11, 2011

Walking back from our nation's directors of intelligence

It's quite disturbing to have the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper go up to testify on Capitol Hill and make as big a blunder as he did yesterday.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper discussed the Islamist group during a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier Thursday. He testified that the organization has "pursued social ends" and a "betterment of the political order," and downplayed its religious underpinnings.

"The term 'Muslim Brotherhood' ... is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," Clapper said.
Does this represent the level of our intelligence on Egypt? It was so idiotic that the DNI had to issue a statement "clarifying" what their own director had testified to.
"To clarify Director Clapper's point, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation. He is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization," DNI spokesperson Jamie Smith said.
If Clapper had any doubt, perhaps he could check out what the leaders of the Brotherhood say themselves. As Cliff May wrote,
I mean, who are you going to believe? DNI Clapper or the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Supreme Guide,” Muhammad Badi, who said it was his hope and plan to raise “a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life”? Kamal al-Halbavi, a senior member of the Brotherhood, was probably just kidding around when he told the BBC the other day that he hoped Egypt soon would have a government “like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr. Ahmadinejad.” (These guys just have a wicked sense of humor.)
Andrew McCarthy adds in,
This is the Muslim Brotherhood whose motto brays that the Koran is its law and jihad is its way. The MB whose Palestinian branch, the terrorist organization Hamas, was created for the specific purpose of destroying Israel — the goal its charter says is a religious obligation. It is the organization dedicated to the establishment of Islamicized societies and, ultimately, a global caliphate. It is an organization whose leadership says al-Qaeda’s emir, Osama bin Laden, is an honorable jihad warrior who was “close to Allah on high” in “resisting the occupation.” The same leader who insists that “the history of freedom is written not in ink [i.e., constitutions] but in blood [i.e., jihad].” [links in original]
Once again our intelligence community is caught flat-footed when it comes to events. Apparently, the head of the CIA is basing his statements on Egypt on what he is hearing on TV>
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta, testified before the House of Representatives on Thursday morning that there was a “strong likelihood” that Mr. Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.

American officials said Mr. Panetta was basing his statement not on secret intelligence but on media broadcasts, which began circulating before he sat down before the House Intelligence Committee.
His aides had to jump in and walk back those comments.
CIA Director Leon Panetta helped touch off an avalanche of erroneous expectations Thursday when he testified that there was a "strong likelihood" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.

Within minutes, senior aides to Panetta sought to tamp down the impact, saying he was merely referring to media reports. But by then, the comments had ricocheted around the Internet, underscoring U.S. confusion about events unfolding in Egypt, as well as the perils of publicly weighing in on such developments while serving as director of CIA....When Panetta was asked later in the session to clarify his comments, he softened his assessment but did not indicate that he was simply relaying what he had read.

"Let me say, just to make very clear here, that I've received reports that possibly Mubarak might do that," Panetta said, referring to the prospect that Egypt's leader would step down. "We are continuing to monitor the situation. We have not gotten specific word that he, in fact, will do that."

Well after Mubarak's speech Thursday evening, agency officials continued to insist that Panetta's comments were based on news reports and not on analysis done by the CIA.

"His statements were not based on intelligence reports," said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that the CIA didn't get things right on Egypt. The agency has been tracking developments very closely, and there were very real and rapidly unfolding changes over the course of the day in what has been - by any measure - an extremely fluid situation. That's the nature of the intelligence business, and U.S. intelligence agencies will continue to follow events in Egypt and the region closely."
Panetta complained about his lack of real intelligence about what was really going on. So why make such definite statements?

But never fear, the Director of National Intelligence thinks that the US intelligence efforts have been rather darn good.
Speaking to the same House panel, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, gave spy agencies a grade of “B-plus, if not A-minus” for their recent Middle East forecasting. But, he cautioned, “We are not clairvoyant.”
Don't you feel better?


John A said...

"Panetta complained about his lack of real intelligence about what was really going on."

Yes, and I would actually put the blame on a previous Congress. After learning that Gen. Noriega had been a CIA source, the CIA was directed to "stop paying criminals" - in effect, drop all HumInt (human) and rely almost solely on ElInt (electronic).

tfhr said...

John A brings up an important point but the problem goes back decades - to the Church Commission and the subsequent dismantling of our HUMINT capabilities. His specific example illustrates that even after we suffered a huge intelligence failure regarding Iran in 1979, we still miss few opportunities to blind ourselves.

We relied on the Shah's intelligence services for our estimates of Iran. We should not have been surprised to learn later that they often told us what we wanted to hear, not what we needed to know. We've continued to remain dependent on third party intelligence services for HUMINT despite our recent efforts to improve in that arena of collection. It takes time to develop useful HUMINT sources and it takes a willingness to set aside quaint notions that "friends" do not spy on "friends". It appears that we've done neither.

Now working in my third decade within the Intelligence Community, I can say from first hand experience that even the best technical intelligence, that information which can be derived from satellite surveillance, aircraft, listening posts, etc., then subjected to the most thorough and imaginative analysis is still severely challenged to define the intent of a person, group, or organization. There is rarely an adequate substitute for good HUMINT.

Technical intelligence assets and the organizations tasked with acquiring, operating, and exploiting them are enormously expensive. Men like Clapper don't concern themselves with the actual intelligence derived from the systems and organizations they are responsible for but instead occupy their time with fighting Beltway battles for resources and access.

I worked for Clapper's predecessor and his successors at one of the agencies charged with producing imagery intelligence. His reputation was that of a consummate budget warrior able to secure resources and fight and win turf wars. It looks to me like he continues in that same manner as DNI. I'm not surprised. He's perfect for that job in that it does not require him to operate away from his strengths UNTIL someone asks him a question about what is going on in the world outside the Beltway.

tfhr said...

Panetta has done a decent enough job despite being an outsider and a politician himself. But the CIA is still riddled with political agendas and the Intelligence Community, as a whole, spends nearly as much effort - sometimes more - fighting internecine battles for budget stakes rather than solving intelligence problems relevant to our national security.

The office of Director of National Intelligence was an attempt to correct that problem but it has failed. It failed before Clapper arrived because the DNI was simply an extra layer of bureaucracy that did not focus resources more effectively but rather added an extra burden.

The DNI should be eliminated. It has done for intelligence what the TSA has done for airport security. I would retain some of the legislation aimed at coordinating intelligence after 9-11 but would return the responsibility to the CIA after it underwent a thorough purge of actual politicians and Beltway politicos.