Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Random Thoughts

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Sometimes I am amazed by what I read in the newspapers. It makes me return to the question of what is a secret.

Shame on You, Walter Pincus

In my book, the names of spies, former, current and in train, are secret. If we can’t keep the names of those working for us out of the public domain, what incentive is there for that potential spy to cross the line, risk his or her life, and tell the CIA or any other US intelligence agency, “I want to cooperate with you.”? This article by Walter Pincus falls in the irresponsible category by printing the Iraqi’s name. The defense is that “Johnny did it too” does not cut it any more in the nation’s capital than in the elementary school principal’s office.

Ex-Iraqi Official Unveiled as Spy
Former Envoy Worked With French, CIA
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006; A17

Deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's last foreign minister, Naji Sabri, was a paid spy for French intelligence, which later turned him over to the CIA to supply information about Iraq and its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs more than six months before the war began in March 2003, according to former senior intelligence officials.

Although some CIA officials met informally with Sabri, who traveled extensively outside Iraq, the French and the CIA used a third-country intermediary when attempting to get information from him about Hussein's inner circle and weapons programs, according to the retired officials who refused to be identified because the information is classified.

"It was never clear what he wanted," one former official familiar with the situation said of Sabri, "but we never paid him." Sabri's role in providing information to the United States was reported by NBC News on Tuesday.

Over the summer of 2002, Sabri, as foreign minister, negotiated the terms U.N. inspectors' return to Iraq, and in November 2002 he announced Hussein's acceptance of the proposal.

Publicly Sabri was insisting that Iraq had no prohibited weapons of mass destruction. Privately, the sources said, he provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active, and that no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was underway.

When it came to chemical weapons, Sabri told his handler that some existed but they were not under military control, a former intelligence official familiar with the situation said. Another former official added: "He said he had been told Hussein had them dispersed among some of the loyal tribes."

At the time, the Bush administration was preparing for the coalition's invasion of Iraq and publicly insisting that Hussein had reconstituted nuclear programs and was concealing from United Nations inspectors both chemical and biological weapons in violation of Security Council resolutions. The White House, which was seeking a congressional resolution that would permit the use of force against Iraq, hoped Sabri would defect, the two former officials said.

"They wanted a big public defection, which would have been good for the policy," one official said. But Sabri comes from a prominent Iraqi family and defection was not an option, one of the former officials said.

The White House was far more interested in trying to get Sabri to defect than in the information he was providing on Iraq's weapons programs, in part because the intelligence community did not trust him, another former intelligence official said.

Sabri took office in fall 2001 after a major housecleaning of Hussein's foreign affairs team. A diplomat with an Iraqi Christian background, Sabri once taught English literature at Baghdad University and was director general of the information ministry during the Persian Gulf War. His brother was one of the Iraqi officials that Hussein had killed because of alleged disloyalty.

Sabri was described as "smart and smooth" by a U.N. official who dealt with him, and as "a type that appeals to Westerners." According to a former intelligence officer, Sabri went out of his way to spend time with Americans and others when he was a diplomatic official in Vienna.

In a speech in February 2004, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet referred to Sabri, although not by name, when he said the CIA had obtained information from "a source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle." Tenet said that source described Hussein as covertly seeking to get a nuclear weapon and having stockpiled chemical weapons while his scientists were only "dabbling" with biological weapons development with little success.

Misplaced Priorities

I wish I could just be upset by the printing of spy’s name. The entire story is disturbing because it shows just how rotten the politicized world of espionage had gotten under former DCI Tenet. Here we had the chance to run a spy inside the inner circle of Saddam Hussein and collect leadership intelligence. It just does not get any better than this in the intel world. Sure, there must have been questions on his reliability. THERE ALWAYS ARE!

Instead of doing the meat and potato work of putting together careful debriefing sessions and vetting the intelligence take careful, we went for the political big-play, defection. Surprise, the guy refused because all of his extended family would be instantly dead. I am sure the CI folks were whispering, “Oh he won’t defect. He must not be for real.” This is what the CI folks always whisper because they are paid to be paranoid. The bottom line is the CI folks have absolutely no feel for the agent’s reality—the potential death of absolutely everyone in his family. CI folks are always lost in the wilderness of mirrors.

In comparison, the political optics of a big-name defection—even though the guy was saying things that didn’t jive with Washington’s line—would have been a propaganda coup and a lot less complicated. In the name of security, defectors can be kept under close wraps so he would not be able to actually publicize what he is telling his debriefers. Why run a spy, which is the hard part of espionage, when you can have a parade animal?

This is embarrassingly poor tradecraft. And now the guy’s name is all over the media. Iraqis have a tendency to play for keeps. This is one for the instructional books at the Farm. Unfortunately, however, there are no books that contain missions blown because of the CIA culture that failure is not an option and if it does happen, it is covered up.

Outsourcing Intelligence

It seems that the powers that be might be waking up to the costs of outsourcing intelligence work. The contracting world in intelligence has exploded since 9/11. I wrote about this in my book Denial and Deception, which came out in 2004. There was absolutely commentary on this subject. In 2004, it just was not relevant.

What is going on? Seasoned officers are opting to walk away from their careers as staff officers in exchange for flexible schedules, higher income and more freedom on selecting assignments. This is a win scenario for the intelligence professional. It is a lose scenario for the intelligence community because it is not adjusting by creating an open labor market in the profession. Security clearance are hard to come by (and take forever to get for a contractor) so that it becomes a contractors market. Market balance can only be established if the labor flow is increased by creating channels for entry for professionals with knowledge and/or experience, but lacking the clearance.

The employer has to pay more for labor, but actually gets less. Institutional loyalty and knowledge is lost. This is telling situation because it is happening while the IC bemoans the lack of experience officers with time on target.

Increase in Contracting Intelligence Jobs Raises Concerns
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006; A03

AllWorld Language Consultants Inc., a Rockville firm, is seeking experienced military interrogators to work in Iraq for $153,500 a year plus bonuses, with proficiency in Arabic "preferred but not required," according to Yahoo's Hot Jobs listings.

The U.S. Army element of the Multi-National Force-Iraq is looking for a private contractor to provide airborne surveillance over that country that will "provide situational awareness of the entire area of operations," according to another Web announcement.

Lockheed Martin Corp. is seeking a counterintelligence analyst to work for the Pentagon's newest intelligence agency, the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), in its Colorado Springs facility to "create and deliver briefings, write reports, and represent Counterintelligence Field Activity," according to a Web classified ad.

These positions and thousands like them are part of a growing trend at the Pentagon to contract out intelligence jobs that were formerly done primarily by service personnel and civil service employees.

But, by using contract employees, government agencies lose control over those doing this sensitive work and an element of profit is inserted into what is being done. Also, as investigations have revealed, politics and corruption may be introduced into the process.

The office of Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte has quietly begun to study the contracting issue because "it already is a problem," a senior intelligence official said in a recent interview.

A related concern for intelligence agencies inside and outside the Pentagon is that the government is training people and getting them security clearances, but they then leave for better pay offered by contractors, sometimes to do the same work.

"Once cleared, they can get a higher salary outside and they are gone," the official said. "We're leasing back our former employees."

The phenomenon is partly the result of Congress's approving large funding increases for intelligence activities but not increasing the limit on the number of full-time persons that agencies can hire. "We don't have the billets," the official said, so the surge is taken care of by contracting out the jobs.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who ran Iraqi military training from 2003 to 2004, describes the hiring of civilians to do jobs previously done by the military as a "shell game" created by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to keep the "force strength static on paper." In an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, Eaton wrote, "This tactic may help for a bit, but it will likely fall apart in the next budget cycle with those positions swiftly eliminated."

"The Pentagon ramped up so fast, it had to turn to contract personnel to have continuity," said another former senior intelligence official who now does contract work. He pointed out that some jobs are so complex, military personnel on three-year rotations are facing reassignment just as they master their jobs.

The trend toward contracting for intelligence analysts will hurt the ability of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency to retain and keep high-quality people, said a former senior intelligence official who helped supervise the rebuilding of the CIA's case officer and analyst corps. "It takes time to get the young up to snuff, and you need 10 to 20 years to get the value for that investment," this former official said, asking for anonymity because of his past role in government.

John O. Brennan, the longtime CIA official who started up and headed the National Counterterrorism Center before his retirement, said contract personnel "bring on recognized expertise that exists outside government" and "often are needed as new [intelligence] systems are being built."

Now a contractor himself, Brennan said it should come as no surprise that many younger military and government-trained intelligence personnel, who have top security clearances, are resigning to take jobs in the private sector.

The CIA's contracting has generally been limited to technical support, but almost two years ago a "spy drain" was described in a column by intelligence expert James Bamford, who warned, "Private contractors are taking over jobs once reserved for highly trained agency employees." Because of the rush to expand activities, Bamford said some newly hired former CIA officers said that "their talents are being wasted on unsophisticated tasks."

Attention has also been focused on the rapid growth of Pentagon intelligence contracting because of recent guilty pleas by former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and contractor Mitchell J. Wade, who used contributions and job offers to get his former company, MZM Inc., more than $100 million in mostly intelligence contracts between 2002 and 2004. In one case, according to court papers, Wade drafted and gave Cunningham an outline of the work that CIFA then contracted with MZM to perform.

Federal investigators are reviewing CIFA's contracts, according to a government prosecutor involved in the inquiry. CIFA Director David A. Burtt II said in a recent interview that 70 percent of his agency's work is handled by contractors.

Brennan said that contract employees frequently cost less for government agencies when they are needed for short durations while new agencies get fully staffed. Thereafter, higher pay given to contract employees over government employees can be justified only in part because contractors offer less job security than the government does.

Brennan said he introduced a rule at the National Counterterrorism Center that personnel cannot resign and return to do the same job with a contractor until a certain amount of time had elapsed.

The contracting for intelligence personnel is "neither black nor white," according to Brennan, but it "needs to be watched."

The Arabic-speaking interrogators that AllWorld Languages is seeking must be U.S. citizens, have security clearances, and be willing to start immediately and deploy to any city in Iraq. AllWorld is a subcontractor of L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., a multibillion-dollar defense contractor that recently got a six-month, $420 million extension to its no-bid Army contract for translators. About 80 percent of the 5,000 translators L-3 employs for the Army are working in Iraq.

William Golden, who runs IntelligenceCareers Inc., maintains a Web site listing thousands of jobs, including senior posts within the intelligence community. In a slide presentation on his site, Golden points out that as the number of contract positions in the intelligence field increases, the number of candidates for such jobs decreases -- in part because the number of people leaving military and government service in the intelligence field is less than the number of jobs being opened up to contract employees.

In a recent presentation, Golden said 65 to 70 percent of new contract employees who took contract jobs after they left government with security clearances came from the military. Less than 15 percent earned their clearances while working for contractors. One reason for the difference is that it takes a year or more to get a top-secret clearance; meanwhile, an employee is waiting to be hired or is hired and doing a non-cleared job. Those who had clearances just need to have them updated, which takes far less time.

As a result, someone with a top secret and special compartmented information clearance, meaning access to electronic intercepted data, can get as much as 35 percent more pay than others with lesser clearances or no clearances, according to Golden. Brennan, who now runs his own intelligence consulting concern, the Analysis Corp., agreed that "a security clearance in the Washington area means money."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Analytical Challenge

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Several days ago I attended a luncheon hosted by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers at which Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director of Intelligence (DDI) John Kringen spoke. I was struck by the lack of dynamism Dr. Kringen emoted. It could be that public speaking is just not his thing. I hope it is not an indication of where the DI is these days.

In his prepared remarks, Kringen spoke about the challenges to analysts today: the push for actionable intelligence, the information explosion, personnel problems, and poisoning impact of partisan politics on intelligence. These are all challenges, appropriate to mention, but are they the big issues that the individual analyst must face? They are certainly management problems. But what does the GS 13 analyst worry about?

First of all, there probably are only a handful of GS 13 analysts—meaning mid-level careerists—since the CIA got out of the hiring business in the 1990s. Analysts, according to Kringen, have an average of 3.5 years of experience. So the mid-level analyst probably devotes a disproportionate part of his or her day mentoring new analysts. This is a good thing for the new analyst, but hard on the mid-level analyst who probably wants to do some deep thinking about his or her accounts.

Secondly, 9/11 and the Iraqi WMD lesson learned (there is an assumption here) is that analysts must deeply and broadly know their issue. This means that analysts must work the same account for years to gain the texture that only experience provides. While GS 13 analysts are told they must become true experts, they live in an organizational environment of upheaval. Bureaucratic structures are changing in response to intelligence failures, the committee review structure that selected out creativity is being dismantled, alternative analysis groups are being put together in each component, and the entire organization is under threat of being moved out of the CIA and placed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Okay, there are not enough of them, there are not enough hours in a day and they live in chaos…what else? Tools. In terms of technology, they live in the Dinosaur Age! I remember when I started at the CIA in 1988. At home I had an IBM computer working from DOS and big floppy disks. It had the processing speed of a snail. At work I had access to a Wang (not one on my desk—that was accessorized with a typewriter). The Wang made my IBM look like a Cray. When I left the CIA, technology had improved but not by much. I had no access to unclassified information at work—the internet and email was considered hostile. PDAs were banned from Langley because of the security threat they posed. CIA-proprietary search engines (which started off more advance than commercial ones) were so slow and inflexible that they were more of a burden. The problem is not that technology has yet to be invented that will be useful in the intelligence world. The problem is that “security requirements” make it so difficult to piggy-back on commercial technology. The CIA still looks at technology through a fear optic. So our GS 13 is in a constant battle with his or her computer to get it to retrieve the information needed in a timely and dependable way.

CIA analysts conduct “all source” analysis. This means that technically the analysts should be able to look at all intelligence produced by the intel community and the open source information as well. Analysts reach across organizational lines remains limited outside the counterterrorism area. The analyst working Russia, for example, has not more access to FBI reports today than five years ago (and I hasten to add that FBI agents have no more access to FBI reports than five years ago given their continuing failure to fix their information management systems.) The final coup de grace: they still don’t have routine access to all CIA intelligence. The super secret HUMINT intelligence remains compartmentalized to a hand-select few because the HUMINT folks still live in the mentality of the Cold War (beware: the enemy has penetrated us!).

The politicization that Dr. Kringen mentioned is one challenge the individual analyst must face with trepidation. The realities are messengers of bad news get shot all the time. My heart goes out to the analysts working the Middle East. There are not a lot of good trends to analyze. For the intellectually honest, unbiased analyst, writing assessments on Iraq must be tough because the war is not going the direction of the political spin. It makes me think about how the mid-level analyst survived during the Vietnam War when the circumstances were similar. The big difference, in my view, was CIA senior leadership. The DCI and DDI stood up for the analytical judgments even though the White House and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon disagreed with them. The lesson from this is politicians will act as political animals—expect it. CIA management should not.

I think we should really appreciate that fact that we have smart analysts working in the intelligence community, new hires and experienced career officers. Expectations are steep; failure is not an option. I just hope that creative minds are at work in CIA management to help them realize their full potential and overcome these daunting challenges.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The March towards War?

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

I’m having that “déjà vu” sense. It hit me last week twice, first while attending the AIPAC Annual Policy Conference and then when listening to former National Intelligence Officer (NIO) Paul Pillar talk about Iraq at the Middle East Institute. I hear the drum beats of war and a sense another intel/policymaker collision. The topic this time is Iran.

In the last month, the US has changed its posture towards Iran. The policy of subcontracting out to the Europeans is over—principally because they have failed to reach a negotiated agreement with Iran to roll back its nuclear program. The US will now lead the assault, first through the UN Security Council and then through a coalition of allies—assuming Russia and China will not cooperate on a UN-backed sanctions regime. If Europe goes wobbly, the US will go at it alone.

What’s making me uncomfortable? Similarities to how the Iraq war unfolded.

Sudden Urgency

After a decade of containment, the US decided the Iraqi WMD required urgent attention and as a consequence regime change had to be the policy. Overnight, the intelligence community changed its assessment that Iraq was years away from a nuclear weapons capability to being on the threshold.

The US has been trying to contain Iran since 1979 and has more recently been worried about a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The intelligence community (IC) until last year assessed the Iranians were between 5 to 10 years away. Suddenly, we are talking about Iran approaching the tipping point, the point of no return. The Israelis are strongly pushing for increased urgency. AIPAC is firmly behind, illustrated by the lobbying group’s decision to put stopping Iran at the top of its lobbying agenda. The message is to stop Iran now before it crosses the threshold.

Intelligence Basis

The cause for war in Iraq was based on intelligence—bad intelligence on WMD as it turned out. The intelligence basis on Iraq was very poor since the US did not have a presence in Iraq for a number of years. Once the IAEA inspectors were thrown out, even this limited window closed. It was considered a hard target, meaning the IC was having a hard time getting good intel. It turned out that the opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), was feeding a bunch of bad intel to the Pentagon through defectors in order to influence the US to go to war. The Iraqi WMD report did a good job highlighting the IC’s difficulty in dealing with Iraq. There was disagreement with the IC on the Iraqi program, but these disagreements were glossed over in order to make a more compelling case for war.

Iran is also a hard target. The US government as not had diplomatic feet on the ground since 1979. The IC has been trying to put together a complete picture of the Iranian nuclear program. In the press, the breaks appear to be associated with information provided by the MEK (an anti-Iranian group that is on the US terrorism list) who have identified secret Iranian nuclear sites. Relying on information from another interest group of questionable credibility to make the case on WMD is disturbing, to say the least.

Democracy Agenda

Removing Saddam Hussein and creating a democracy that would be more closely aligned to US interests was a goal of the Bush Administration. The Administration believed democracy in Iraq would have a domino effect on the entire region, transforming it from a place that breeds terrorism to one that is integrated into the Community of Democracies and the global economy. According to Pillar, the Administration dismissed the IC’s warnings that setting up a functioning democracy in Iraq would be very challenging given the absence of a tradition of sharing power, the ethnic and religious divides and Kurdish separatist aspirations.

The Administration instead listened to the INC who said the Iraqi people would welcome the US military with open arms. The ongoing insurgency and the difficulty in getting all three Iraqi groups to agree to new rules of the political game demonstrate that the IC called this one correctly. Increasingly, we are talking about Iraq slipping into civil war—with the current inability to form a government being seen as the trip wire. According to Pillar, the IC rejected the idea that Iraq could be a domino, assessing instead that liberalization and democracy reform would be driven by domestic factors in each state in the region. Iran was the exception, according to Pillar, where it was thought that Iranians might view a democratic Iraq under Shiite control as something they could have instead of the Mullahs.

The regime change policy towards Iran has gained the ascendancy in Washington lately. President Bush said in a recent speech that “freedom in the Middle East requires freedom for the Iranian people”. This statement shows how far the Administration has come; when the Broader Middle East Reform Agenda was first put together, Iran was excluded. The US is now reaching out more aggressively to the Iranian people through increased funding ($75 million) to media operations and cultural exchange programs.

What is the IC telling the Administration on Iranian ripeness for regime change? Iranians want to make their own decisions and don’t want foreign interference. While the upwardly mobile and the urban youth don’t like their government, the power centers in Iran remain loyal to the system. Iran is not ripe for a revolution and attempts to “help create the conditions” will be rejected by strong nationalism. The Administration should also be mindful that Iran is not monolithic; there are strong ethnic divisions and if the central authority should weaken, these historical divisions will re-emerge.


The Administration engaged in the war in Iraq as part of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), despite the fact that the Iraqi regime played no role in the 9/11 attacks, nor did it provide support to al-Qa’ida. The Atta-Iraqi intel connection was fiction. Certainly, Iraq under Saddam did support groups using terror tactics against Israeli occupation. Saddam also gave sanctuary to anti-Iranian terror groups such as the MEK and Ansar al-Islam. The Iraq war has evolved into a magnet for al-Qa’ida terrorists, drawing in the international set of Sunni jihadis and converting Iraqi nationalists to the jihadi cause. It is Afghanistan of the 2000s—providing a training ground, networking environment and inspiration for a new generation of jihadis.

Iran also played no role in the 9/11 attacks and has not been cooperative in the GWOT post 9/11. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism—but of the Shia variety. Iran has been implicated in a number of terrorist attacks—the 1996 Khobar bombing just to name one. Rice, in testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, called Iran the central banker of terrorists. Will a military attack against Iran strike a lethal blow against al-Qa’ida? No. Will it end or reduce Shia terrorism? Perhaps, or it could increase it by motivating retaliatory attacks in Iraq or elsewhere.

War versus Strike

None of the above comments is meant to argue for or against using the military option against Iran. The purpose is to emphasize that we are talking about a war, not merely a strike. When considering this war, we should think more about how it will unfold and not put on the rose-colored glasses that we wore in the run up to the Iraq war.

This is where the intelligence issue comes in. As Pillar aptly described in his Foreign Affairs article, the intel/policymaker relationship is broken. In an atmosphere of distrust, will the Administration accept the IC assessments at face value? Or will the White House pick and choose the factoids it likes? Will the IC fail to speak truth to power in order to protect their jobs? Will Congress play partisan politics or do its job as a co-equal branch of the US government by asking the hard questions? Will we have a repeat of Iraq or will we demonstrate that we have learned some lessons?

If we opt for war, we must do it knowledgably: it will be long; there will be heavy costs in terms of blood and treasure; it could completely destabilize the Middle East and open a new chapter of the jihadi war. It could also in the long term completely change the balance of power in the region, unseating state sponsors of terrorism and their proxy groups, including Syria and Hizballah, and deny a regional power nuclear weapons. It should be up to the American people to do the cost-benefit analysis.