Back on the NSA Watch

March 30, 2015–The wire news service Associated Press is reporting this morning that our spooks of the National Security Agency (NSA) have been, in effect, dishonest as well as disingenuous. Readers of this space–and those who have followed the NSA dragnet eavesdropping controversy–will know that the spy agency defended itself against the Snowden revelations by making a big deal about how important was the dragnet. The spooks indulged in a series of misleading claims about how many terrorism cases had been based on the mass recording of people’s phone connections, how many plots had been broken up due to this information.

The NSA claimed not just that national security had been damaged as a result of the public discovering that the government is watching people 24/7, but also that the United States could not afford to do without this intelligence. This assertion formed the basis not only for the agency’s defense of its illegal and unconstitutional surveillance, against Congress and national-level policy reviews, but of NSA’s appeals to President Obama to permit it to continue the eavesdropping.

Now the Associated Press tells us that months before the Snowden leaks, officials within the NSA themselves proposed to terminate the dragnet surveillance. The recommendation was based on the proposition that the eavesdropping yielded little intelligence of value while requiring substantial dollar outlays to store the data obtained! Attentive readers will notice that NSA officials here were making the identical argument to what many said following the Snowden bombshells, when the National Security Agency openly asserted the opposite–that the surveillance data was invaluable.

There can be no plainer illustration of the arrogance and complete lack of integrity of our intelligence services. The latest report again indicates that our spooks seek to preserve any program they are capable of implementing, not those spy programs that are producing valuable intelligence. This is not “national security,” it is pure posturing–on a level with the CIA’s attempt to keep open the option to resume torture even after the black prisons project had been revealed and President George W. Bush had closed the prisons and sent the detainees along to Guantanamo Bay. The worthlessness of a “strategy” built on a basis like this is palpable.

Legal authority for the dragnet surveillance expires this year along with the sunset of the legislation that created it, let me remind–on the basis of NSA misleading Congress then too. It is time to get rid of this albatross which continues to discredit America’s intelligence community.


March 19, 2015–Scurrying to regain some esteem after its recent and horrendous record with the American public, two weeks ago the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invited reporters in for a briefing on Director John O. Brennan’s ambitious plans to restructure the spy agency. This is said to be the broadest reorganization in decades–cue the horn section, piping in the background–enabling the CIA to be successful against modern adversaries.

This development is not entirely unexpected. As long ago as his 2013 confirmation hearing, John Brennan spoke of getting the agency back to its traditional tasks of spying. Months ago the agency let it be known it had set up a group to study CIA organization. Weeks ago the director of the National Clandestine Service–the agency’s spy arm–seeing the handwriting on the wall, resigned. The officer named to replace him, “Greg V.,” is the man who headed the reorganization study group. Let’s stop there.

The first thing you need to know about the “new” CIA organization is that it’s not new at all. Director Brennan is talking about “mission centers” that have a functional purpose and combine intelligence analysts with spies and covert operators. If that makes you think of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) you have the idea already. The mission center model, while not as old as the hills, has been around for two-and-a-half decades. The CTC was among the first of these entities, which were then called “fusion centers.” They were supposed to bring together analysts and operators and to combine the inputs from all kinds of intelligence activity.

By the mid-90s the fusion center was already being hailed as a panacea. There were centers aimed at counternarcotics, counterproliferation, unified intelligence on ground weapons (that fusion center helpfully provided George W. Bush the “intelligence” that artillery rocket casings were in actuality high-performance centrifuges producing the [non-existent] nuclear material for Saddam Hussein’s [non-existent] nuclear weapon), and more. After September 11 the CIA set up a Terrorist Threat Integration Center–of which John O. Brennan was the first director–and President Bush followed by creating the National Counterterrorism Center (NTC). Then the 9/11 Commission cited fusion centers as devices to break down barriers between disparate police and intelligence agencies and pretty soon you had almost sixty new regional threat integration centers bringing together operatives from Washington’s “alphabet agencies” and local police forces. That was in addition to over a half dozen such centers situated within the CIA and the NTC on top of the heap.

What John Brennan is doing with his reorganization is simply feeding the burgeoning fusion–or “mission,” or whatever you like–centers from the carcasses of CIA’s traditional line divisions. At his press conference Mr. Brennan mentioned there might be ten or more fusion centers. Terrorism, weapons proliferation, the Middle East, and cyberwarfare were mentioned as areas of responsibility. Cyber is new and reflects the Obama administration’s concern to build capabilities in this field. It will get an entire directorate. The Middle East combines features of the Middle East divisions of CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence and the National Clandestine Service. The others already exist.

To the degree that there is anything novel about the new mission centers it is that the formula adds paramilitary and other covert operators to the traditional mix. This effectively increases the militarization of the CIA and not, as the standard understanding of “getting back to traditional espionage” implies, reducing the agency’s lopsided tilt toward operations.

In addition the new form of the fusion center will weaken the CIA’s capacity for traditional types of crisis and threat intelligence. This is because the centers are operations-oriented and their intelligence analysts come to focus on mission support for their own activities.

Also distressing–and the other side of that coin–is there is a good chance the new organization will make no difference to the CIA’s ability to meet the “modern” intelligence adversary. A penetration agent–the carefully groomed spy–is the most vital source when it comes to the terrorist groups, even as she/he was in the old days against the Soviet monolith. But fusion centers encourage mechanization, not individual, long-cultivated ties. There is reason to doubt their efficacy in John Brennan’s own terms

More than that, it is probable the new organizational formula will weaken control over the entire CIA organization. That is because the centers, combining operations and analytic personnel, cannot be fairly supervised by, say, the Deputy Director for Intelligence, or the Director of the National Clandestine Service (reportedly to return to its former appellation of “Directorate for Operations,” by the way).Only the CIA chief has the breadth of responsibility to go the distance. So the fusion centers will report to him. But, the director–even John Brennan–has limited attention to devote to this and so it is probable the fusion centers will get less and less supervision–in particular as there are more and more centers. The horrible mess Director Brennan made of the rollout of the Senate torture report shows what perils lie in store here.

This rearrangement of the deck chairs on the CIA will, most likely, not get us out of the problems the agency has caused. The betting is open on the next CIA flap!

I’m Back !

March 15, 2015–Over the past weeks I’ve regretted the pressing concerns that kept me away from the website. Completing an assortment of projects that actually pay money was paramount. In the meantime so much has happened that I wanted to talk about. The latest ISIS outrages. Continuing hysteria on terrorism over here. Renewed secrecy issues. Extended lack of accountability for the CIA torture. The pending CIA reorganization. It’s all a big load! I’ve got a couple of trips to speak in coming days but I’ll also have more time to spend here. Stay tuned for fresh posts!