Archive for January, 2003

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

The national terrorism-alert level was raised to orange – one step below the top level – just before Christmas 2003. Our gift from administration officials was advice that we could go ahead with whatever holiday plans we had, but should exercise “increased vigilance.” Just what does that mean? Before we answer that, however, we need to ask ourselves whether this color-coded alert system really serves our needs.

Terrorist threat intelligence is extremely tricky, often incomplete and ambiguous stuff. It’s unlikely that we have sufficiently penetrated the al-Qaida organization to produce timely intelligence about its intentions and capabilities, which is really what we need to be more secure. It takes time to get to the point where we can hope to penetrate an intelligence target. Judging from our experience with Soviet intelligence services, internal discontent within al-Qaida will grow as the organization matures, a dynamic that gives us opportunities to penetrate it. At this stage of the game, however, information seems to come largely in bits and pieces from a wide range of technical collection sources as well as from al-Qaida members being held and interrogated by our intelligence agencies in places like Guantanamo Bay. This sort of intelligence is “raw” and therefore largely unevaluated. Unless there is corroborating information, it is really impossible to evaluate. That presents major problems for the administration.

Let’s say we have fragments of phone conversations and e-mails from known or suspected al-Qaida members. This information indicates there will be some sort of attack and that it may involve the West Coast, possibly Las Vegas. There is no corroborating intelligence. If the administration says nothing to the public and there is an attack, there will be a huge price to pay in the press and Congress. If it does inform the people and there is no subsequent attack, the population will have become a bit more paranoid, but no real harm to people or property will have been done.

So, in the absence of accurate and actionable intelligence, a terrorism alert system is created, and we are told what color we are living in at the moment. This leads inexorably to the politically motivated solution of telling the public every time a threat seems credible. The political advantages are obvious: By issuing public warnings, the administration protects itself against the possibility (which they are unable to corroborate) of an attack being launched against an unwarned public. In Washington, that’s called CYA – cover your ass – and it’s a time-honored tradition with both Republicans and Democrats.

This approach has problems. Anyone familiar with the little shepherd boy who cried wolf will understand immediately its long-range implications.

It also leaves this country wide open to what we in the intelligence business call “disinformation.” In this case, “disinformation” means the deliberate provision of false intelligence and false corroborating information to intelligence services by al-Qaida members participating in a carefully conceived operation to mislead the U.S. government into undertaking action counterproductive to its real interests.

The scenario reads like this: Al-Qaida feeds us information through channels it knows (from congressional leaks) that U.S. intelligence is monitoring. That information implies that terrorists are going to fly a hijacked plane into Caesar’s Palace, but it’s not that straightforward or clear. It’s in code and is leaked to us in dribs and drabs that require complicated, difficult and imaginative professional analysis to sort out. When we get the information the hard way, we are more likely to accept the findings. At that point, CYA kicks in, and the public is informed that the threat level has been raised.

Why is this so bad? Simply because we end up increasing the public’s stress and paranoia, squandering vast amounts of our resources, and alienating our allies – all of which would clearly serve al-Qaida’s interests. How often will the British or French be amenable to our requests that they stop flights to the United States, costing them millions? How many times will this have to happen before they blow us off on a request that has real merit (“Wolf!”)? How inclined will they be to share threat intelligence with us in the future?

How will these kinds of actions, along with the recently introduced photographing and fingerprinting of foreign travelers, affect us economically and politically in the rest of the world? And what about the effect on the American public? We are told to be “more vigilant.” That is an exhortation that is completely relative. Reactions to it will range from the truly paranoid citizen who sees enemies in everyone who is not blue-eyed, pale-skinned and blond, to the vast majority, who haven’t the faintest idea of how to respond. In short, such advice is all but meaningless.

This is not an easy problem. The administration must do everything it can to protect us, something it clearly is attempting to do. The CYA aspect of this issue is the real problem and presents the greatest challenge.

Is it really necessary to continually remind us of the threat level? Probably not; it does us little real good. What is necessary is that our government protect us. It can best accomplish that by acting without political motivation, colors and bombast, but rather through quick, discreet and decisive action based on accurate intelligence. The best hope we have for such intelligence right now is that it will come from countries still willing to cooperate with us in the war on terrorism. We alienate those allies, particularly those in the Middle East, at the risk of blinding ourselves to the terrorist threat.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and was Chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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A revolution in foreign policy

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

The Republican Party has long said that the Democrats are uneasy with power and disinclined to use it. There is probably some truth in that. However, until now, there has been no absolute truth about the Republicans’ claim of their ability and inclination to use power. From Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, Republican presidents have been spotty in that arena – until George W. Bush.

Many administrations come into power in the United States married to their own concept that those who came before them were fools and that they alone know what really has to be done and how to do it. Fortunately, in the post-war era those administrations came to power in the middle of the very stable Cold War. That gave them time to reflect and learn after coming to power unpressured by world events, and to incorporate some realities into their policies. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has had no such luxury. The events of 9/11 have accelerated world events and taken from this administration the opportunity to learn through the safety of inactivity and innocuous experimentation.

The Bush administration’s foreign policy reflects some very hard-nosed underlying attitudes about the United States and its newly aggressive role in the world. On the surface, it would appear that this administration has decided that whatever is good for America is good for the world. If the Kyoto agreement, land mine treaties and expanded World Court jurisdiction are bad for America, don’t sign them, whatever the rest of the world seems to want. This president has said that the only successful model in the world is the American model with its reliance on free enterprise and elective democracy. Any country that has that system is OK. Those that haven’t, unless you need them for the moment (as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan) are bad.

We are clearly embarked on a revolutionary new foreign policy based entirely on this administration’s definition of American interests and essentially oblivious to the needs and desires of the rest of the world. If it’s good for us, we’ll do it. The companion to that is that in the case of terrorism, if it’s good for us, you do it, too. That would seem to be the primary area in which coalition-building is part of administration foreign policy.

American foreign policy in the post-war period was characterized by coalition-building and containment. We built NATO and SEATO specifically to contain the challenge of communism from the USSR and China. Even though our communist protagonists, particularly the Soviets, were armed to the teeth with “weapons of mass destruction,” preemptive military attack against our enemy was never seriously considered. We tacitly accepted mutually assured destruction (MAD) as both sides knew they could not survive the guaranteed retaliation after a first strike. It worked throughout the second half of the century, and it worked in an environment which had its share of murderous dictators, Stalin being the preeminent example.

This approach seems no longer acceptable, despite the fact that it served us so well. Apparently, we are now living in a preemptive world. This represents the most revolutionary change in U.S. foreign policy in the past hundred years. The United States is on the threshold of becoming an aggressor nation. We are about to attack Iraq because of something they may be able to do to us in the future and the same may prove true of North Korea and even of Iran, the third member of the “axis of evil.” Will Americans be comfortable in the role of arrogant bully to the world?

How did we get here? The enabling factor was 9/11. Unqualified support for the president in the aftermath of 9/11 has emboldened him to go ahead with a number of very conservative agenda items that might well not have flown in a different environment. Having been successful in the move to label anyone who disagreed with administration policies as unpatriotic, the scene was set, among other things, for this revolutionary change in American foreign policy, all undertaken as part of the “war on terrorism.”

The Democratic Party has absolutely disappeared – abdicated in the face of this conservative Republican onslaught. Because of this abdication, we have not been given the opportunity to discuss and debate our radical, new foreign policies.

It has never been healthy or successful in the past for foreign policy, or for that matter, any important policy to change radically without public discussion and debate. Perhaps such a process would have ended with Americans convinced of the need for such changes. Perhaps the new world we live in, populated as it is by terrorists and rogue nations armed or soon to be armed with terrible weapons, is justification enough for this revolution. Perhaps it is not.

This is a situation in which mistakes carry the potential to plague us for generations to come. It is no time for bravado. It is a time for caution and careful reflection. We are not getting that now, and all too few people are calling for it.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who lives in Williston.

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