Archive for August, 2004

[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

The British government recently complained quite clearly about the U.S. release of information obtained in Pakistan about planned terrorist activities. The complaint and the release of intelligence underline a key difference between the way terrorist threat information is handled in the two countries and points out a serious flaw in the American approach.

Intelligence on terrorist organizations like al-Qaida is hard to come by. Of course, the best intelligence would come from an ongoing human penetration of that organization at a level of sufficient importance to give access to continuing, important intelligence on the capabilities and plans of al-Qaida.

The acquisition of such a source requires either the tremendous luck to be there when a disgruntled terrorist chooses to volunteer to us or to find a sufficient number of American intelligence officers with the language skills, experience and knowledge necessary to recruit such a source. It would seem that we are not in that comfortable and desirable position.

Our ability to exploit technical collection — phone, fax, e-mail, etc. — has been increasingly denied to us because of al-Qaida’s awareness of our collection methods.

Instead, we seem to be relying, appropriately, on our relationships with friendly liaison intelligence and security services, particularly those in Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. Their employees have the languages, area knowledge and physiological characteristics needed to operate successfully in that part of the world. Can you imagine a blond, blue-eyed CIA officer working the mosques in Pakistan?

What we do when we get counterterrorist information underlines the difference between us and the British. The British will withhold that information from the public until they are sure there is no further exploitable intelligence in it.

If there is, they will continue to withhold until they have exhausted their ability to exploit the available leads even though there may be some risk of missing a terrorist operation. This gives them the chance to recruit terrorists, affording the opportunity to learn more about terrorist plans, thus protecting themselves even more fully in the long run. This was the reason for the British complaint about our release of the information, which precluded further such attempts.

We seem married to the concept of wrapping up these “operations” before we know whether they really do exist. In that sense, we are married to the color-coded terrorist alert system that so far has simply served as a self-protection mechanism for the Bush administration: release the information to the public regardless of whether it is valid. The thinking is, if you do, you’re on the side of the angels if the operation is real. If it is false, no immediately discernible damage will be done. If you don’t put it out and something bad happens, there will be all hell to pay.

While this has some short-term benefits for politicians and bureaucrats, there is no long-term gain. Rather than carefully and covertly investigating the alleged targeted sites to see if hostile activity is still going on, we blow the whistle and cover the exposed backsides in the administration.

To have identified or captured/arrested a terrorist in the act of planning or implementing terrorist activity could lead to the penetration of the terrorist organization and ultimately might give us access to things about which it would appear we know very little.

This American approach is a combination of our politicized system (which will not serve us well in counterterrorist operations) and the history and culture of our internal security organization — the FBI, which, unlike Britain’s MI5, has virtually no understanding of this kind of operation. This is, however, the way the FBI operates because it is a true police organization that really does not understand intelligence or counterterrorist operations.

These little things will haunt us in the struggle against terrorism. Ultimately, if we really want to win, we will have to take some risks here in the United States. There will be failures, but without those risks, it us unlikely that we will get the intelligence that we need to truly neutralize al-Qaida’s operations in our homeland.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and as chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

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