June 3, 2012

Intelligence and the Obama Administration - Amateur Hour?

The recent spate of revelations of successes, failures and inner workings of the U.S. intelligence community highlights a trend of what I assess is a series of controlled leaks for political purposes. The release of such sensitive data may have some political expediency for an Administration desperate to win re-election, but the ramifications are greater than these political hacks realize.

Let me pick out some of the more egregious examples of "too much information."

We all remember the December 25, 2009 failed attack by "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, a Nigerian trained by al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and inspired by radical American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi. Al-Mutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner. After immediately reading the terrorist and would-be mass murderer his rights, thus limiting our access to whatever intelligence information he possessed, the FBI revealed that the device malfunctioned because of a flaw in its detonator design and the fact that the PETN explosive charge got damp during the flight.

A professional intelligence agency would never have revealed that information, however, the FBI is not really an intelligence organization. Although it has an intelligence role, when all is said and done, the FBI is a law enforcement organization focused on collecting evidence and prosecuting cases. I fear that telling AQAP that their detonator design was faulty was a major factor in the 2012 case that I will address later. (More in my earlier article, Al-Qa'idah members - criminals or combatants?)

It seems the Obama Administration could not wait to tout its success in foiling a terrorist attack on the United States, when in reality, it was just blind luck. The fact that the perpetrator's own father had tipped an American embassy about his son's possible recruitment as an Islamist terrorist and nothing was done with that information points out a colossal intelligence failure, not a success.

One of the most shocking intelligence leaks - in my opinion, an authorized, calculated release of sensitive intelligence and operational security information - came just hours after the May 2, 2011 successful raid into Pakistan that resulted in the death of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin. The Administration could not wait to describe the raid in great detail, revealing heretofore unknown special operations capabilities, the type of intelligence materials gathered at the Abbottabad compound, and most shockingly, how the Central Intelligence Agency had mounted an impressive on-the-ground surveillance and agent operation in the Pakistani city unbeknownst to the Pakistanis.

It got worse. In January, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (he was the CIA director at the time of the raid) revealed on national television the identity and role of a recruited U.S. intelligence asset. It defies logic, and borders on the criminal. See my earlier article, Breaking faith: the CIA and the Pakistani doctor.

Now we hear that the Administration has granted unparalleled access to sensitive information for a movie production company to produce a feature film about the raid, highlighting again the successes of the Obama Administration possibly at the expense of operational security and protection of intelligence sources and methods. The movie was originally scheduled to be released just before the November elections. Is it any wonder that people are cynical of this Administration and its ability to safeguard America's secrets?

In the spring of 2012, it was revealed publicly that the CIA (with Saudi and British assistance) had penetrated an AQAP bombmaking cell, the same cell that was responsible for "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab. Excellent work, until it came to taking credit. Again, the Administration described the source in great detail to the point that there is no way AQAP has not figured out who the penetrant is. Rather than engineering an arrest or some other operational conclusion to the case, the Administration claimed victory and released too much operational information, compromising sources and methods in the process. We also may have unwittingly validated AQAP's success in perfecting their previously-faulty detonator design. See more inmy earlier article, CIA penetration of al-Qa'idah - how about "need to know?"

The latest "authorized leaks" concern a previously extremely close-hold American capability in the information operations arena, sometimes referred to as "cyber warfare." This involves the Flame and Stuxnet computer attack programs targeted against the Iranian nuclear program dating back to the previous administration. Why are we hearing about these sensitive capabilities in the New York Times? Why has the Obama Administration not directed the Justice Department to investigate the sources of the leaks, about whom the Times writes, "None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day." Is there no concern for our ability to use these capabilities in the future?

This disregard for operational security is reminiscent of Congressional leaks that ended intercept of Usamah bin Ladin's satellite phones in 1998. At that time, I was in charge of a Defense Intelligence Agency counter-terrorism effort targeted against several organizations posing threats to U.S. forces overseas, including al-Qa'idah. The loss of the ability to collect and exploit bin Ladin's communications hurt our ability to track al-Qa'idah and determine its plans, indirectly leading to the failure to detect and prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001. These leaks are that damaging.

The leaks, in my opinion, must be the work of Administration political appointees managing public perception or those connected with the Obama re-election campaign. No professional intelligence officer would countenance these leaks - the consequences are too dire. Those of us who have done this for a living will not even hint at some of our sensitive intelligence operations even decades later. The loss of the information would be severe, and the threat to the sources is real. This is not an academic exercise - people die or spend their lives in prison. Look no further than Pakistan and Dr. Afridi.

I can only imagine that Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper is pulling out what remains of his hair. I worked for General Clapper several times over my career. He has spent almost his entire adult life in the intelligence community - he gets it. How he copes with what appears to many of us as "Amateur Hour at the White House" is beyond me.