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Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Chilling Effect on U.S. Counterterrorism

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been carefully watching the fallout from the Obama administration’s decision to release four classified memos from former President George W. Bush’s administration that authorized “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In a visit to CIA headquarters last week, President Barack Obama promised not to prosecute agency personnel who carried out such interrogations, since they were following lawful orders. Critics of the techniques, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have called for the formation of a “truth commission” to investigate the matter, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has called on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal inquiry into the matter.
Realistically, those most likely to face investigation and prosecution are those who wrote the memos, rather than the low-level field personnel who acted in good faith based upon the guidance the memos provided. Despite this fact and Obama’s reassurances, our contacts in the intelligence community report that the release of the memos has had a discernible “chilling effect” on those in the clandestine service who work on counterterrorism issues.
In some ways, the debate over the morality of such interrogation techniques — something we do not take a position on and will not be discussing here — has distracted many observers from examining the impact that the release of these memos is having on the ability of the U.S. government to fulfill its counterterrorism mission. And this impact has little to do with the ability to use torture to interrogate terrorist suspects.
Politics and moral arguments aside, the end effect of the memos’ release is that people who have put their lives on the line in U.S. counterterrorism efforts are now uncertain of whether they should be making that sacrifice. Many of these people are now questioning whether the administration that happens to be in power at any given time will recognize the fact that they were carrying out lawful orders under a previous administration. It is hard to retain officers and attract quality recruits in this kind of environment. It has become safer to work in programs other than counterterrorism.
The memos’ release will not have a catastrophic effect on U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, most of the information in the memos was leaked to the press years ago and has long been public knowledge. However, when the release of the memos is examined in a wider context, and combined with a few other dynamics, it appears that the U.S. counterterrorism community is quietly slipping back into an atmosphere of risk-aversion and malaise — an atmosphere not dissimilar to that described by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) as a contributing factor to the intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attacks.
Cycles Within Cycles
In March we wrote about the cycle of counterterrorism funding and discussed indications that the United States is entering a period of reduced counterterrorism funding. This decrease in funding not only will affect defensive counterterrorism initiatives like embassy security and countersurveillance programs, but also will impact offensive programs such as the number of CIA personnel dedicated to the counterterrorism role.
Beyond funding, however, there is another historical cycle of booms and busts that can be seen in the conduct of American clandestine intelligence activities. There are clearly discernible periods when clandestine activities are deemed very important and are widely employed. These periods are inevitably followed by a time of investigations, reductions in clandestine activities and a tightening of control and oversight over such activities.
After the widespread employment of clandestine activities in the Vietnam War era, the Church Committee was convened in 1975 to review (and ultimately restrict) such operations. Former President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Bill Casey as director of the CIA ushered in a new era of growth as the United States became heavily engaged in clandestine activities in Afghanistan and Central America. Then, the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair in 1986 led to a period of hearings and controls.
There was a slight uptick in clandestine activities under the presidency of George H.W. Bush, but the fall of the Soviet Union led to another bust cycle for the intelligence community. By the mid-1990s, the number of CIA stations and bases was dramatically reduced (and virtually eliminated in much of Africa) for budgetary considerations. Then there was the case of Jennifer Harbury, a Harvard-educated lawyer who used little-known provisions in Texas common law to marry a dead Guatemalan guerrilla commander and gain legal standing as his widow. After it was uncovered that a CIA source was involved in the guerrilla commander’s execution, CIA stations in Latin America were gutted for political reasons. The Harbury case also led to the Torricelli Amendment, a law that made recruiting unsavory people, such as those with ties to death squads and terrorist groups, illegal without special approval. This bust cycle was well documented by both the Crowe Commission, which investigated the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and the 9/11 Commission.
After the 9/11 attacks, the pendulum swung radically to the permissive side and clandestine activity was rapidly and dramatically increased as the U.S. sought to close the intelligence gap and quickly develop intelligence on al Qaeda’s capability and plans. Developments over the past two years clearly indicate that the United States is once again entering an intelligence bust cycle, a period that will be marked by hearings, increased controls and a general decrease in clandestine activity.
Institutional Culture
It is also very important to realize that the counterterrorism community is just one small part of the larger intelligence community that is affected by this ebb and flow of covert activity. In fact, as noted above, the counterterrorism component of intelligence efforts has its own boom-and-bust cycle that is based on major attacks. Soon after a major attack, interest in counterterrorism spikes dramatically, but as time passes without a major attack, interest lags. Other than during the peak times of this cycle, counterterrorism is considered an ancillary program that is sometimes seen as an interesting side tour of duty, but more widely seen as being outside the mainstream career path — risky and not particularly career-enhancing. This assessment is reinforced by such events as the recent release of the memos.
At the CIA, being a counterterrorism specialist in the clandestine service means that you will most likely spend much of your life in places line Sanaa, Islamabad and Kabul instead of Vienna, Paris or London. This means that, in addition to hurting your chances for career advancement, your job also is quite dangerous, provides relatively poor living conditions for your family and offers the possibility of contracting serious diseases.
While being declared persona non grata and getting kicked out of a country as part of an intelligence spat is considered almost a badge of honor at the CIA, the threat of being arrested and indicted for participating in the rendition of a terrorist suspect from an allied country like Italy is not. Equally unappealing is being sued in civil court by a terrorist suspect or facing the possibility of prosecution after a change of government in the United States. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of CIA case officers who are choosing to carry personal liability insurance because they do not trust the agency and the U.S. government to look out for their best interests.
Now, there are officers who are willing to endure hardship and who do not really care much about career advancement, but for those officers there is another hazard — frustration. Aggressive officers dedicated to the counterterrorism mission quickly learn that many of the people in the food chain above them are concerned about their careers, and these superiors often take measures to rein in their less-mainstream subordinates. Additionally, due to the restrictions brought about by laws and regulations like the Torricelli Amendment, case officers working counterterrorism are often tightly bound by myriad legal restrictions.
Unlike in television shows like “24,” it is not uncommon in the real world for a meeting called to plan a counterterrorism operation to feature more CIA lawyers than case officers or analysts. These staff lawyers are intricately involved in the operational decisions made at headquarters, and legal issues often trump operational considerations. The need to obtain legal approval often delays decisions long enough for a critical window of operational opportunity to be slammed shut. This restrictive legal environment goes back many years in the CIA and is not a new fixture brought in by the Obama administration. There was a sense of urgency that served to trump the lawyers to some extent after 9/11, but the lawyers never went away and have reasserted themselves firmly over the past several years.
Of course, the CIA is not the only agency with a culture that is less than supportive of the counterterrorism mission. Although the prevention of terrorist attacks in the United States is currently the FBI’s No. 1 priority on paper, the counterterrorism mission remains the bureaus redheaded stepchild. The FBI is struggling to find agents willing to serve in the counterterrorism sections of field offices, resident agencies (smaller offices that report to a field office) and joint terrorism task forces.
While the CIA was very much built on the legacy of Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, the FBI was founded by J. Edgar Hoover, a conservative and risk-averse administrator who served as FBI director from 1935-1972. Even today, Hoover’s influence is clearly evident in the FBI’s bureaucratic nature. FBI special agents are unable to do much at all, such as open an investigation, without a supervisor’s approval, and supervisors are reluctant to approve anything too adventurous because of the impact it might have on their chance for promotion. Unlike many other law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI rarely uses its own special agents in an undercover capacity to penetrate criminal organizations. That practice is seen as being too risky; they prefer to use confidential informants rather than undercover operatives.
The FBI is also strongly tied to its roots in law enforcement and criminal investigation, and special agents who work major theft, public corruption or white-collar crime cases tend to receive more recognition — and advance more quickly — than their counterterrorism counterparts.
FBI special agents also see a considerable downside to working counterterrorism cases because of the potential for such cases to blow up in their faces if they make a mistake — such as in the New York field office’s highly publicized mishandling of the informant whom they had inserted into the group that later conducted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It is much safer, and far more rewarding from a career perspective, to work bank robberies or serve in the FBI’s Inspection Division.
After the 9/11 attacks — and the corresponding spike in the importance of counterterrorism operations — many of the resources of the CIA and FBI were focused on al Qaeda and terrorism, to the detriment of programs such as foreign counterintelligence. However, the more time that has passed since 9/11 without another major attack, the more the organizational culture of the U.S government has returned to normal. Once again, counterterrorism efforts are seen as being ancillary duties rather than the organizations’ driving mission. (The clash between organizational culture and the counterterrorism mission is by no means confined to the CIA and FBI. Fred’s book “Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent” provides a detailed examination of some of the bureaucratic and cultural challenges we faced while serving in the Counterterrorism Investigations Division of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.)
Liaison Services
One of the least well known, and perhaps most important, sources of intelligence in the counterterrorism field is the information that is obtained as a result of close relationships with allied intelligence agencies — often referred to as information obtained through “liaison channels.”
Like FBI agents, most CIA officers are well-educated, middle-aged white guys. This means they are better suited to use the cover of an American businessmen or diplomat than to pretend to be a young Muslim trying to join al Qaeda or Hezbollah. Like their counterparts in the FBI, CIA officers have far more success using informants than they do working undercover inside terrorist groups.
Services like the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, the Saudi Mabahith or the Yemeni National Security Agency not only can recruit sources, but also are far more successful in using young Muslim officers to penetrate terrorist groups. In addition to their source networks and penetration operations, many of these liaison services are not at all squeamish about using extremely enhanced interrogation techniques — this is the reason many of the terrorism suspects who were the subject of rendition operations ended up in such locations. Obviously, whenever the CIA is dealing with a liaison service, the political interests and objectives of the service must be considered — as should the possibility that the liaison service is fabricating the intelligence in question for whatever reason. Still, in the end, the CIA historically has received a significant amount of important intelligence (perhaps even most of its intelligence) via liaison channels.
Another concern that arises from the call for a truth commission is the impact a commission investigation could have on the liaison services that have helped the United States in its counterterrorism efforts since 9/11. Countries that hosted CIA detention facilities or were involved in the rendition or interrogation of terrorist suspects may find themselves exposed publicly or even held up for some sort of sanction by the U.S. Congress. Such activities could have a real impact on the amount of cooperation and information the CIA receives from these intelligence services.
As we’ve previously noted, it was a lack of intelligence that helped fuel the fear that led the Bush administration to authorize enhanced interrogation techniques. Ironically, the current investigation into those techniques and other practices (such as renditions) may very well lead to significant gaps in terrorism-related intelligence from both internal and liaison sources — again, not primarily because of the prohibition of torture, but because of larger implications.
When these implications are combined with the long-standing institutional aversion of U.S. government agencies toward counterterrorism, and with the difficulty of finding and retaining good people willing to serve in counterterrorism roles, the U.S. counterterrorism community may soon be facing challenges even more daunting than those posed by its already difficult mission.

This article originally appeared in Stratfor Global Intelligence and is republished with their permission.

Monday, April 27, 2009

North Korean Pirates?

North Korea is starting to become a very bad international joke. North Korea's most recent victims are Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American reporters. North Korean border guards detained Laura Ling and Euna Lee along the Chinese / North Korean border on 17 March. They are under investigation for spying. Many experts believe this is another effort to put pressure on South Korea and the U.S. during negotiations about North Korea's missile tests. The North continues to insist that the missile launches are an effort to get North Korea into space. Most other countries perceive it as an attempt to test nuclear capable missiles. The North is appearing to be taking lessons from the pirates off Somalia. They seem to think that by taking hostages they will obtain positive results on any financial or diplomatic negotiations.

The question of the days is: Since the North Koreans are acting more like pirates everyday and the U.S. Navy Seals were successful at handling the hostage standoff with Somali pirates, should they intervene in North Korea?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

North Korea continues its diplomatic brinksmanship.

In its ever-increasing roll as the center of attention in the Pacific Region, North Korea continues to exploit international fears. Even though the U.N. Security Council is preparing a list of companies from North Korea to be blacklisted because of their rocket launch, the threat seems to carry little concern for N. Korea. It is possible that N. Korea has been at this game so long that they are quite aware of the Security Councils capabilities or lack there-of.

Meanwhile the north refuses to release the detained worker from the Joint Industrial Park. For more information on this event see article below dated Monday, April 20, 2009.

North Korea is also trying to ramp up military tensions between the two nations by accusing South Korea of moving a border marker by several dozen meters. The markers are located in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is a buffer between the North and South. The DMZ is four-km wide.

Question for the day: Is North Korea a real threat or a “Paper Dragon”?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Quick notes on Thailand collected from the Department of State website

Thailand is approximately 198,114 sq. mi., which is about the size of France and slightly smaller than Texas. The capital is Bangkok with a population of 9,668,854. As of 2007, it is estimated that Thailand has a population of 65.74 million.

Buddhism is the dominate religion making up 94-95% of the population. The rest are divided between Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Brahmin and other.

Thai is the official language and the county's elite use English as a second language. Thailand is a very literate country with twelve years of school required.

The country is a Constitutional monarchy.

The per capita income as of 2007 was $3,738 but the unemployment rate was low at 1.4% of the labor force. Thailand’s natural resources are tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum, timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite and fluorite. The economy is export dependent. Thailand is expected to have a weak economy throughout 2009.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Threat from China

According to the “Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage, FY07”, China is a major threat to Americas Industrial and Economic base. The following extracted comes from that report.

Since 2002, the United States has identified China-
connected computer network intrusions that have
compromised thousands of hosts and hundreds of
thousands of users accounts and exfiltrated terabytes
of data from US, allied , and foreign government,
military, and private-sector computer networks.

Actors conducting a subset of intrusion activity
affiliated with China have used socially engineered
e-mails to compromise the computers of cleared
defense contractors.

US Government networks are being continuously probed and targeted by both state and non-state actors for a wide variety of reasons, including legitimate cooperative scientific research. Chinese networks are the source of a significant amount of malicious activity targeting computers in the United States, but it is often difficult to attribute the origin or specific intent of any given activity. Many countries and criminals are able to get into the PRC’s networks and use its Internet protocols (IP) to obscure the origin of their attacks against other targets.

Pacific Regions Security Corporation has also noticed this trend relating to its own website. Since the corporation set up its website in 2008 nearly 25% of its hits have come from Beijing, China.

Beside the network probing by China, they are also involved in illegal export of sensitive items from the United States. In 2007, there were at least six incidences involving China. These incidences included illegal transfers or technology theft by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

Although China is not alone in illegal transfers, theft or efforts to compromise workers with security clearances, they are perhaps the most persistent of all the Pacific Rim Countries.

Question of the day is: What steps are being taken by your organization to ensure security awareness?

Monday, April 20, 2009

North Korean control of the South

North Korea is becoming more of a problem everyday for Pacific Rim Countries. Even as North and South Korea discuss a troubled joint industrial complex, the North continues to make threatening overtures towards other countries in the region with rocket launches. This activity continues to provide a great deal of tension in the area and does nothing to assist in the talks with South Korea. The gist of the talks concerns a joint manufacturing park north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). North Korea has recently detained a South Korean who worked there. He is a captive now for more than 22 days. North Korea seems to be using this joint manufacturing park as a tool to control South Korea. Some believe that North Korea is using this complex to stop South Korea from fully joining the Proliferation Security Initiative,

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is an international effort led by the United States to interdict transfer of banned weapons and weapons technology. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton developed the idea of the PSI. The idea came about when 15 Scud missiles found on board a North Korean freighter could not be confiscated because international law would not allow it. PSI is an effort to see that weapons and technology transferred between countries is lawful.

The question of the day is: What measures should be taken to help South Korea join the Proliferation Security Initiative?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Illegal Fishing

It appears that some fish from the Pacific are finding their way directly to the dinner tables in Europe without going through the normal route. Greenpeace reported fishing vessels, fishing illegally in the Pacific appear to be owned or operated by Europeans. They stated that most of the cases showed clear links to tuna sold in European markets.
Estimates of illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands area is increasing. This illegal activity reduces the Pacific Islands states income by several times what their normal income would be if license and other fees were paid.
Illegal fishing is not only a problem in the Western Pacific it is a security problem throughout the entire Pacific Region. Illegal fishing is having an increased financial impact on more Pacific Rim Countries. With limited resources and a growing demand for sea food on everyone’s table the problem is not likely to go away. The U.S. Coast Guard is heavily involved in protection of U.S. fishing areas and enforcement of International Fishing Treaties.

The question for discussion today is: Should there be a Pacific Region Fishing Enforcement entity or should each Pacific Rim Nation be responsible for enforcing their own areas, as is presently done?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bombs around the Rim

Bombs continue to be the number one choice of rebels, terrorists and extremists. Within the Pacific Rim countries bombs continue to make a statement by groups that have limited financial and personnel strength. Recently there have been bombings in the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Peru and Columbia. According to “The Nation” - a newspaper for Muslims – on 10 April, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded at Kalamansig in the Southern Philippines. The police indicated that the bomb was similar to ones used by Muslim Extremists. In Indonesian Papua “The News ; International” reported on 8 April a home made bomb fashioned from a mortar round exploded under a bridge in Muara Tami district 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Papua provincial capital Jayapura. The explosion took place shortly before elections. In Peru, members of the Shining Path killed 13 soldiers with a combination of grenades and dynamite on 12 April. Bomb making ability is readily available to anyone who understands chemistry or can read an instruction manual. Information on bomb making abounds on the internet and in public libraries. However, the majority of these individuals that make and place bombs do not get their information from the internet or the library. Most of them get their information from other group members through formal and informal training.
Although the bomb threat is real and present, the restriction of information is not the answer. Those that want to do harm will always find a way to inflict it on others. The real problem is the inability to detect the threat. If you have the ability to detect the threat, the threat becomes moot.
Through experiences gained in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Government is conducting studies of individual soldiers that seem to be good at picking out roadside bombs. The U.S. Government hopes to identify, train and imbed additional soldiers in various units. These soldiers will act as human radars for combat patrols, warning their comrades when something in the landscape is amiss, possibly saving them from harm or death. The question for the day is: Once the U.S. Government finalizes the study should it be made available to Pacific Rim countries or be held as a secret?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Piracy on the High Seas

According to an analysis by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), several factors contribute to the capture of commercial vessels by pirates. Among the most obvious contributing factors were; low speed, low freeboard, inadequate planning and procedures, visibly low state of alert and/or evident self protective measures, and a slow response by the ship. The IMB analysis also reports that no successful attack has occurred on ships traveling in excess of 15 knots. The ship’s crew that have trained and planned for such an event has repelled the majority of attacks.

Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Coast of Somalia can be read at

The question for discussion today is; should commercial vessels transiting high-risk areas be armed or have armed military personnel on board while transiting these areas?

I would say that the cost would be less than a five-day standoff or paying millions of dollars for continued hostage rescue.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Using Interpreters properly

One of the largest events in a Pacific Rim Country will be taking place within the next ten months. British Columbia Canada will be hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. The number of workers is estimated to be over 40,000. Not all these workers are Canadian citizens. Many of these workers, including volunteers will come from foreign countries.

So, what does this mean for security? It means a big headache. Security personnel have to not only deal with the normal aspects of event security but will also have to deal with the ability to communicate across social and linguistic boundaries.

For many security people this may be a new and complicated development placed on their already detailed and exacting security plans. It will also be an extra factor in dealing with the paid and un-paid workers.

It is not often that most people have the opportunity to work with Interpreters. For some of us it’s old hat. Something that everyone should keep in mind is that interpreters are not mere interpreting or translation hardware stuffed with the proper language software. Interpreters are social interpreters as well as language experts. When dealing with interpreters it is important to understand their full capabilities. It is important to know and agree with the interpreter ahead of time, their preferred method of interpreting. The method used could mean the difference between a successful communication and a disaster.

Many interpreters have specialties. You will find interpreters that do medical interpretation, legal interpretation, social interpretation, technical interpretation and some that do several of these. If you find one that has experience and training in one or more of these fields hold on to them and guard them closely as they will be invaluable. These specialties are not gained easily because each specialty has its own language.

When it comes to security, communications is always a major factor. How many times have things gone from bad to worse because of the inability to communicate with the people on the ground? When most people make there Emergency Plans they think in terms of Mass Communications or Internal Communications. Most Emergency Plans do not plan for communications across social and linguistic boundaries.

How many Security Experts use interpreters properly? How many have been trained to use interpreters properly?

Today’s questions for discussion are: What are your thoughts on including interpreters in your basic Emergency Plan? What are your organizations plans to have personnel trained in the proper use of interpreters? Does anyone have examples of when it worked or did not work?