Fighting fire with PCs

Shalin Hai-Jew

By A Contributor

INTEL WARS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIGHT AGAINST TERROR. Matthew M. Aid. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2012. 252 pp. $28.00 hard cover.

“Parallel to the American military’s efforts, the U.S. intelligence community has been engaged in a twilight struggle across the globe finding America’s enemies, determining their plans and capabilities, and, in some cases, killing them by whatever means are available.”
— Matthew M. Aid

For a common citizen, the past post-9/11 decade has meant fundamental changes. Air travel now involves body scans, pat-downs, and the ever-friendly TSA note that they’re riffled through the luggage.

Workplaces require security background checks. There are near-instantaneous law enforcement responses when people take photos of “critical infrastructure.”

Anyone parked near sensitive areas have their license plates run for a risk assessment.

People go to places of worship and know that law enforcement is in their midst.

Electronic computing systems collect numerous data points about people, and clever algorithms are run to see if just the right alchemical mix might mean a terrorist-in-the-making. This has been a decade of watchlists and near real-time vetting of people. Security is a pervasive force, like the ever-present wind.

Closed circuit television systems have created a panopticon in most public areas with software reading people’s (behavioral) biometrical gaits and scanning for suspicious behaviors. The amount of time that electronic information is kept has lengthened in time. Online information is crawled by automated robots and intelligence agents scouring that data, and anarchist hackers are making masses of leaked data available for mass consumption.

For those from abroad visiting the US, they encounter biometrical scans at the border.

Even before arriving there, they’ve been vetted thoroughly. Now, 10 years in, an initial sense of a new American iciness has thawed to a kind of cautious hospitality.

Historian Matthew M. Aid’s “Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight against Terror” probes the changes that the past decade has wrought on the civilian and military intelligence communities of the US. Have these agencies retrenched towards a greater culture of sharing and collaboration? Is their leadership effective? Are they spending the public funds in effective ways? Are these agencies sufficiently vigilant and accountable to the American public? How effective are American intelligence agents abroad-in war zones and in the global environment and in domestic spaces?

Aid begins with an overview of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the tensions between the intelligence agencies and the executive branch regarding the efficacy of the on-ground military and diplomatic strategies and tactics. He highlights some of the wretched battles in Afghanistan where the US failed to hold ground or when a small base was almost overrun (due to poor leadership and poor intelligence in Wanat, where Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler was attacked in July 2008, resulting in 9 US soldiers dying and 27 wounded) and the Korengal Valley where the US lost many.

A recurrent theme in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been the challenges of corrupt governance and the wastage of American funds for nation-building (to help these countries establish law and order over their own citizens and to head off potential terrorism).

This dynamic has also applied to the Pakistan “ally” in the fight against terror.The US, while paying close attention to actual behaviors and actual metrics, has tried to package incentives and leverage to move foreign governments to squelch terror groups operating on their own soil-with mixed results. Oftentimes, the US has had to painstakingly cobble together information and take matters into their own hands-as with the take-down of terror leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

In Afghanistan, the lack of information on-ground meant early underestimations of the Taliban capabilities. Truckers who drove the “Jingle” cargo trucks between Kandahar and Quetta were asked about any signs of Taliban activity on their various routes. This strategy did not result in many discoveries and was discontinued after a short time.

“There were no high-grade intercepts of Taliban leaders talking on their cell phones, nor had the CIA or any of its foreign partners ever managed to insert an agent into the Taliban’s high command in Quetta, Pakistan. The CIA stations in Kabul and Islamabad had tried just about everything they could think of to penetrate the high command, but without much success to show for all the time and vast sums of money spent on these efforts,” writes Aid.

A more fruitful effort ended up being self-reportage by the Taliban, that went online to recruit fighters and donations. “Over time, among the most important and productive, if unlikely, sources of intelligence information for the U.S. intelligence community about the Afghan insurgents have proven to be the Taliban’s Web sites, such as the English language Voice of Jihad. These Web sites are monitored twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week by CIA and ISAF intelligence analysts for any new information that might reveal the Taliban’s short- or long-term plans, or insight into the thinking of the Taliban’s leadership in Quetta,” writes Aid. An online magazine al-Samoud (“Resistance” or “Resilience”) also provided interviews with the terror group officials and commanders.

Still, with the information streams, an imposter pretending to be a senior Taliban official named Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour (as a representative for Mullah Omar) was able to scam the US out of “suitcases of cash” to negotiate possible terms-of-peace before being identified as an imposter and disappearing in 2010.

The Taliban strategy was to outlast the US “trading the lives of their fighters for time while wearing down their larger and better-armed opponents with a ceaseless campaign of ambushes, suicide bombings, and IED attacks.” Even though the Taliban lost every battle since the US-led invasion in October 2001, the latest estimates suggest that the Taliban (fighting on their home turf and blending in with the local population) will not be defeated militarily and may resurge once the US leaves. Any solution must involve other diplomatic efforts.

After 9/11, intelligence reform efforts strove to break down some of the silos of information held by the various agencies to provide smoother real-time awareness and decision-making and action.

A new layer was added to the bureaucracy with the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) position, which was undercut by the Congress and even President Obama when it came time to decide how much power the DNI would have over various intelligence agencies. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, while it has started out with high hopes, has resulted in an agency that is over-built and not engaging in information of deeper analytical value (engaging in “duplicative work”), according to this author.

Decisions are made within the Pentagon that are off-the-books intelligence-gathering operations that very few legislators even are informed of. The House and Senate intelligence committees apparently allow the US intelligence community a free pass on tougher oversight.

This author offers a primer of the various intelligence agencies, both civilian and military. He highlights the important role of the FBI in domestic intelligence and law enforcement. The Defense Intelligence Agency is the military counterpart of the CIA. The Department of the Treasury tracks financial information, among other efforts. The NSA deals with signals intelligence, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency uses satellite technologies to glean information.

For all the intelligence measures, various nation-states are developing counter-measures (such as moving various endeavors underground away from the prying visuals of satellites (and surveillance drones).

Aid observes the high number of personnel needed to operate surveillance and attack drones: “One of the reasons the drones are so expensive is that they require a huge number of pilots to fly them remotely, and an even larger number of maintenance and support personnel to fly a single Predator drone mission, far more than what is needed to fly a comparable mission by a U-2 spy plane. The air force alone has 1,100 airmen in the Middle East and South Asia maintaining the drones that fly daily strike and reconnaissance missions over Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, plus another 5,000 pilots and support personnel back at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nevada, who actually fly the drones by remote control via satellite.”

The individuals who work in the high-pressure field of intelligence tend to be young, well traveled, computer literate, well educated, multi-lingual, and psychologically healthy. Still, many suffer health ailments linked to the stress, such as ulcers, digestive tract problems, respiratory problems, nervousness, and irritability. The divorce rate in the intelligence community is one of the highest in the US. The suicide rate is above the national average. “Mental disorder and breakdown statistics for intelligence workers are well above virtually any other government job,” writes Aid.

“Intel Wars” offers a look ahead into the near-future with the need to develop information sources in Libya and Syria, with the Arab Spring. Work continues in Iraq especially with fears that that government may move closer with the Iranian state (even though these countries had a highly destructive eight-year war).

Dubai, as the Middle East’s banking center, is a center of espionage for banking records given that many European oil companies have been covertly purchasing Iranian oil and natural gas-undercutting US sanctions to slow Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is “the principal source of financing for Mullah Omar’s Taliban guerrillas and all of the Afghan drug kingpins” and so is of interest.

There is a sense of growing terror threat on America’s borders, both north and south. In Canada are over a dozen foreign terrorist groups, and to the south are Mexican drug cartels.

Africa has become more of “a major hot spot for Muslim terrorist groups.” In multiple countries in North America, al Qaeda has morphed into the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

With North Korea’s shift in national leadership and isolationism, this “paranoid and hypersecretive” police-state is another target for intelligence agencies. In South and Central America, there are countries that host rebel groups or drug cartels-which merit interest.

Cyberwar is another realm of intelligence interest, in both offensive and defensive capacities. The PRC has been engaging in a “massive” cyberwar effort with the main targets being “the computer and communications systems of the U.S. government and military,” he writes. Given the high interconnectivity of numerous sensitive systems and the IP value held by both public and private sectors, intelligence agencies have been engaging full-bore in this realm.

Domestic intelligence has ramped up immensely since 9/11. Some 5 percent of the 564,000 individuals listed in the Terrorism Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) are Americans suspected of terrorist ties (in 2009). The emergence of self-radicalization has upped the ante of domestic homegrown terrorism. There is fear among some that the American Muslim population may represent “a huge potential recruiting base for al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist organizations that needed closer scrutiny.”

Aid suggests that there is “an estimated 10,000 FBI special agents, intelligence analysts and reporters, and technical surveillance operators are doing nothing else but working on active counterterrorism investigations, accounting for almost 40 percent of the bureau’s annual budget.”

The perspective in “Intel Wars” assumes a reapolitik in which nation-states are constantly eyeing each other with appropriate paranoia.

The work of espionage is never-ending because of the need for continual vigilance.

They engage in a broad global effort to learn of other countries’ capabilities and intents. They support endeavors at non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Arrayed against a complex world is the US intelligence apparatus, awash in “an embarrassment of riches” (some $85 billion in a May 2011 spending bill passed by Congress), for the “intelligence battlefield of the future.”

The US intelligence community is the largest in the world, with over 210,000 individuals involved, 30,000 private contractors, and a presence in almost 170 countries around the world.

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.

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