Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Spy Vs. Spy

Linda Robinson's compelling opening paragraph in US News and World Report is at once suggestive and accusatory. It is suggestive of what human intelligence gathering and analysis can achieve while subtly asking why it was not done before. 

In the second week of December 2003, U.S. Special Forces captured an Iraqi man named Fawzi Rashid, a top insurgent leader in Baghdad. Rashid was carrying a letter from Saddam Hussein, U.S. News has learned, that was less than a week old. It would prove to be the key break in the 10-month manhunt for the Iraqi dictator. Military intelligence specialists, working with the Green Berets, persuaded Rashid to identify the courier who had delivered the letter. Two days later, the courier led U.S. forces to Saddam's grim spider hole. The lightning-fast sequence of events was the result of a decision to have intelligence analysts work side by side with soldiers, known in Pentagon-speak as "collectors." "Analysts were telling the collectors what they needed, and collectors were giving their collections right back to the analysts," says a senior Pentagon official, describing Saddam's capture. "What's new . . . is that you had analysts and collectors all under the same chain of command."

If the target in the story was Saddam Hussein, the target of the story was the Central Intelligence Agency. But the Washington Post describes the US military efforts to create a human intelligence gathering infrastructure in less glowing terms, depicting it as a Rumsfeldian dodge to conduct operations without Congressional oversight.

The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA's historic bailiwick, has created a new espionage arm and is reinterpreting U.S. law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his "near total dependence on CIA" for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists alongside newly empowered special operations forces. ... Pentagon officials emphasized their intention to remain accountable to Congress, but they also asserted that defense intelligence missions are subject to fewer legal constraints than Rumsfeld's predecessors believed. ... Under Title 10, for example, the Defense Department must report to Congress all "deployment orders," or formal instructions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to position U.S. forces for combat. But guidelines issued this month by Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone state that special operations forces may "conduct clandestine HUMINT operations . . . before publication" of a deployment order, rendering notification unnecessary. Pentagon lawyers also define the "war on terror" as ongoing, indefinite and global in scope. That analysis effectively discards the limitation of the defense secretary's war powers to times and places of imminent combat.

At a Department of Defense briefing, an unnamed senior Defense official flatly denied these charges, emphasizing that these Strategic Support Teams were in fact lineal descendants of earlier units called "Human Augmentation Teams"; that they would operate directly under senior commanders -- but not the Secretary of Defense -- and that the tasks of the teams were coordinated with the Director of Central Intelligence. That hardly mollified some critics. AP writer Robert Burns reports "Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other Democrats called for hearings, but Republicans balked. According to The Washington Post, the Department of Defense is changing the guidelines with respect to oversight and notification of Congress by military intelligence. Is this true or false?" Feinstein wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld." One key difference, according to the IHT was that ""DOD is not looking to go develop strategic intelligence," said one senior adviser to Rumsfeld who has an intelligence background. "They're looking for information like, where's a good landing strip?"

It appears that they are looking for slightly more than that. Global Security reports that the Pentagon is building up a constellation of human intelligence support systems including:

  • J2X CONOPS -- a system for providing analytic support to HUMINT operations at the strategic, theater, and tactical echelons;
  • ROVER -- a geospatial Information System-Palmtop- Digital camera system;
  • FALCON, FORUM and SMINDS -- which are automatic translation systems enabling people of different languages to speak to each other simultaneously or interpet documents in foreign languages while in the field.
  • WMD1st and Digital RSTA -- WMD analysis and a targeting tool; and
  • a HUMINT laptop system to house all the relevant tools.

This looks very much like a closed-loop system in which intelligence leads can be prosecuted iteratively until they lead to action, with no discernible boundary in between. But it is not the philosophical abolition of the barrier between thought and deed that really rankles. It is also about turf. Linda Robinson asserts that the scale of the Pentagon effort effectively threatens the CIA monopoly on spying, whatever the Department of Defense says.

A key flashpoint has been the recruitment and handling of sources. For many years, all intelligence sources recruited by U.S. agencies, including the Pentagon, were registered and maintained through the CIA's InterSource Registry. Now the Pentagon has begun registering the human sources it uses for military purposes under a separate registry, called J2X.

Whether or not the Pentagon succeeds in its endeavors remains to be seen. What is less debatable is the need to improve human intelligence operations. Marc Ruel Gercht in a Weekly Standard article described the CIA's currently human intelligence system as seriously broken. He believed that as presently constituted the Agency had no chance of significantly penetrating the ranks of the terrorist enemy.

One can, however, grade intelligence services on whether they have established operational methods that would maximize the chances of success against less demanding targets--for example, against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, which is by definition an ecumenical organization constantly searching for holy-warrior recruits. It is by this standard that ... the CIA will continue to fail, assuming it maintains its current practices. ... It was in great part structurally foreordained: Not only the promotion system but also the decision to deploy the vast majority of case officers overseas under official cover--posing as U.S. diplomats, military officers, and so on--set in motion a counterproductive psychology and methods of operation that still dominate the CIA today. ... And there is simply no way that case officers--who still today are overwhelmingly deployed overseas under official cover or, worse, at home in ever-larger task forces--can possibly meet, recruit, or neutralize the most dangerous targets in a sensible, sustainable way.

It is into that gaping breach that the CIA's rivals will sail.