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Archive for February, 2011

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

In the last few months, we have seen the underpants bomber trying to blow up a plane in the US, as well as an attempt to use computer printer cartridges for the same purpose. The origin of these activities lies in the same country where the successful attack on the USS Cole was carried out in 2000—Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Last year, a CIA analysis said that al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a far worse threat to U.S. security than is its parent organization in the hills and caves of Pakistan. This is completely consistent with the ongoing diffusion of authority, the “McDonaldization of Al Qaida Central,” to outlying affiliates like AQAP.

Apart from the Cole incident, what do most Americans know about Yemen? First up, they should be aware of the uncanny similarities it has with Afghanistan.

Almost as large as Texas, Yemen consists primarily of mountainous desert which is described as even tougher than the Afghan mountains. Its blazing sun is said to have been the reason that the Roman legions left after one attempt, giving up any thought of conquering Yemen.

The Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for centuries, never really controlled Yemen, nor did the British Army when it occupied southern Yemen from 1937 to 1963. Yemen is not an hospitable place for foreigners.

It is not simply the terrain that makes Yemen such a problem. It is a country of 20 million people, most of them armed to the teeth. According the CIA Factbook, it is the poorest country in the Arab world, with 40% living below the poverty line, some 50% of the country illiterate and 35% unemployed. The population is projected to double to 40 million over the next 20 years.

According to the Yemeni Times, the problem gets more complicated for U.S. policy-makers because “the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains weak outside the capital, lacking in resources and credibility, and riddled with corruption.”

Southern secessionists, a Shiite rebellion in the north and civil wars between north and south characterize recent Yemeni history. Constantly in turmoil, Yemen is a poor bet for any kind of stability and a welcoming place for AQAP.

Adding to that, past incidents involving American drone attacks that have killed primarily civilians have fostered widespread belief, with eager help from AQAP, that the United States is responsible for all of Yemen’s misery and problems.

Oil accounts for about a third of Yemen’s GDP. It is expected to run out in 10 years and no thought has been given to an oil-free future.

It uses a sizable percentage of its water supply and agricultural land (less than 3% of the country) to grow the stimulant qat, which is said to bring clarity of thought. Its use used to be de rigeur prior to important tribal and governmental meetings, but its real product is only a mildly stoned population.

Poverty has made Yemen vulnerable. AQAP has found a population that is not hostile to its presence. AQAP numbers estimates range up to 500 members who can blend seamlessly into local populations. Many are said to have married into local families and are thus afforded community protection.

Yemenis have been sympathetic to radical Islam for decades. It is, after all, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. They joined jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and are the largest population group present at our Guantanamo detention center. Whatever they do, they are apparently always welcomed back home to Yemen.

This collection of facts and observations raises important issues about U.S. policy, not only in Yemen, but in the region as a whole. We are faced with an enemy that enjoys relative stability while it plots to carry out terrorist plots against our homeland.

We can only hope we have learned enough from our experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan to know that military intervention in Yemen would only further radicalize the country, lead to a boon in AQAP recruitments and support and create a set of new problems for us.

Quite apart from our questionable ability to bear the financial costs of yet another war in the Middle East, who is to say that such an invasion would not precipitate an AQAP move from Yemen to, say, Somalia?

What is wrong here is our counterterrorism policy. We persist with massive troop commitments, when we should be thinking more about totally non-conventional, non-military solutions to the counterterrorism problems that face us in the Muslim world.

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Too few eyes, ears for big world

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

According to the CIA’s official website, “The mission of the National Clandestine Service is to strengthen national security and foreign policy objectives through the clandestine collection of human intelligence (HUMINT) and Covert Action.”

The lack of targeted focus of the CIA’s clandestine collection efforts in the past has never been widely discussed outside intelligence circles, but given today’s realities, particularly the slowing availability of resources and the threat of terrorism, it certainly should be.

During the Cold War, the only critical requirement for the National Clandestine Service was to provide its customers with intelligence on the “capabilities and intentions” of our enemies. Human intelligence gathering was the only collection method that worked against these requirements, as they were essentially immune to technical collection.

We needed to target Soviet military research and development. We knew that if we waited until a new weapons system hit the test pads (and was finally vulnerable to technical collection), the United States would be unable to develop countermeasures for at least seven years. Thus, to be safe, we needed to know what systems were being developed in Soviet military design bureaus. Finally, of course, we needed to penetrate their decision-making apparatus for intelligence on their intentions.

It is an unfortunate fact that only a relatively small percentage of Cold War NCS officers actually worked on the recruitment of Soviet citizens who could report on our most important requirements. Much lip service was paid to the importance of the Soviet target, but with far too few exceptions, many of the NCS’ geographic area divisions and their personnel were doing other, far less meaningful things.

There were two reasons for this reality.

First, every administration hedges all its bets. If a potentially bothersome or embarrassing issue pops up in some obscure part of the world, they expect the intelligence community to be on top of it. This translates into a tasking system within the community, including the NCS, that tries to cover everything in anticipation of that one potentially unpleasant and embarrassing surprise.

Second, an NCS Cold War case officer in Latin America knew that the odds of recruiting a significant Soviet were very low and that he would more likely be viewed as successful if he were to run propaganda operations or recruit local politicians and local Communist Party members, none of which, however, would get us remotely close to our critical national need for intelligence on Soviet military research and development and intentions.

What we can learn from these realities is the probability that at any given time, only a relatively small proportion of NCS officers are working on targets that are critical to our national goals. There are simply far too many other targets available. From there, it is fairly easy to stipulate that those who are not working such goals are not performing critical functions and might better be retargeted.

If we were really worried about terrorism, why were we active in Iraq where there were no terrorists before our 2003 invasion, and in Afghanistan today where there are few if any terrorists, only insurgents?

The present-day equivalents of our Cold War requirements are all connected with the ability of terrorists to attack us with weapons of mass destruction. We cannot afford to have a nuclear weapon detonated in one of our major cities.

Effective operations against the terrorist target will include the recruitment of anyone who supports terrorism: foreign supporters, terrorists’ lines of communication, document support, travel support, terrorist funding mechanisms — anything or anyone who can give us insight into terrorist plans and intentions.

Our intelligence commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan support only our ongoing military operations there, not our struggle with terrorism. They certainly are an injudicious use of manpower if our major target really is terrorism.

Intelligence organizations are, by their nature, omnivorous. They will slip into and fill any empty space and easily justify it in terms of their overall mission. The enormous size and meaningless tasks of the NCS commitment in Vietnam were a perfect example. But these are different times. International and domestic realities have created an environment in which selective intelligence targeting will become increasingly important.

If terrorism truly is our existential intelligence problem, policymakers need to learn to focus their requirements better. They must learn to differentiate between terrorism and insurgencies and to shy away from unconnected, less important activities.

If, because of overly broad White House tasking, the NCS feels it has to know about an impending coup in every obscure Third World country, it will be less likely to learn of an impending terrorist attack on the homeland.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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