The Third Rail of American Intelligence: The Convergence of Foreign and Domestic Threats

Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Joe Mazzafro

From an Intelligence perspective the first two weeks of May have been quite startling, but few seem to have noticed.  On May 2nd we experienced the failed Time Square car bombing; on May 6th machines took over stock trading resulting a near 1000 point crash of the Dow Jones Average; and on May 8th Secretary Gates warned that the current level of defense spending is unsustainable.  As backdrop to all of this an oil rig exploded on April 20th killing eleven and has been spewing 5000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico ever since threatening an environmental disaster of epic proportions. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence (HPSCI) for no apparent reason have reengaged on passing an FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill so either the President can veto it or it can be become law just in time to have no impact on IC activities!

Besides chronological propinquity,  all of these events share in common being  serious threats to U.S. national security.  The bad news is this spectrum of danger shows the diversity of the threats the Intelligence Community needs to be on guard to warn about, but the good news is the nation seems to have absorbed all of them in stride even as the economy struggles out of recession. But they also have one other disturbing attribute in common, so as Ross Perot likes to say, “let’s take a peek under the hood” and see what’s going on.

The IC seems to have drawn a pass on the Time Square failed car bombing because the bomb as assembled had no chance of detonating and the extraordinary police work done to take down Faisal Shahzad 53 hours after the event as he was trying to flee to Pakistan.  Originally characterized as a “lone wolf,” subsequent information is showing that Shahzad had assistance from the Pakistani Taliban, indicating that neither Shahzad nor his foreign supporters where on the IC radar. Because of his naturalized American citizenship, Shahzad’s return to the U.S. without his family after six months in Pakistan seems have been something the IC had not taken note of, which is especially dangerous in view of his connections with the same radical Imam in Yemen as the Fort Hood Shooter.  Fortunately the watch list process worked at John Kennedy Airport with NCTC alerting DHS/TSA to “no fly” Shahzad and when Emirates Airlines missed him the DHS/TSA double-check found him and got the airliner turned around on the taxi way.  I am surprised though why no one has questioned why the TSA Airport screening process didn’t stop him --- or maybe that checking IDs against boarding passes really is just meant to give us all a false sense of security.  Does anybody get extra screening when they buy a ticket at the gate with cash as Shahzad did ?!?!?  Talk about an indicator going back to 9/11 and seen as recently as with the FLT 253 Christmas bomber!

While I am happy to accept without question the claims by the government, stock exchanges, and Wall Street firms that the computer induced extreme volatility experienced on May 6th was not the result of malicious cyber activity, I am not reassured though based on what did happen that any part of the financial community (including NSA, DHS or the White House Cyber Coordinator)  is prepared to deal with cyber events (either foreign or domestic) designed to cause a loss of confidence in broad equity indexes such as the Dow Jones, S&P, or NASDAQ.  What we all saw on May 6th , but nobody seems to want to notice because things quickly returned to normal  are the expansive cyber dangers Mike McConnell has been trying to get the nation’s attention about and the importance of the IC being able to work at “machine speed” that General Keith Alexander urges whenever he speaks in public.

After stunning the leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps along with their industrial base at the annual Navy League meeting on May 3rd regarding the utility/affordability of aircraft carriers and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles, Secretary of Defense Gates told an audience at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas on May 8th that the current DoD force structure is unsustainable at likely funding levels meaning major cuts to expensive programs as well as bloated staffs.  The Secretary’s point in both of these speeches is that after a near doubling of the defense budget since 9/11, economic reality now means that new capabilities can only be funded by offsetting them with savings from elsewhere.  It also doesn’t take much reading into Gates’ remark’s that besides affordability he is not confident that DoD’s force structure is well suited to the types of conflicts in which the U.S. is likely to be engaged.  I wonder if Secretary Gates will deliver a similar admonishment to the “IC Glitterari” when he accepts the 2010 Baker Award on May 21st.  I will spot all points for politeness, and bet this former DCI uses the Baker Dinner forum to deliver a message to the IC about affordability and relevance.  Secretary Gates will not mention the increasing domestic threat to national security beyond the impact of the burgeoning national debt, but given the events at Fort Hood and in Time Square he surely understands that the IC must move more decisively to merge domestic and foreign intelligence in order to be effective.  In case you are wondering, DNI Blair has already regretted that he cannot attend this year’s Baker Award Dinner.

As with the stock market computers going haywire on May 6th, there is no reason to suspect that the BP Deep Drilling Rig Explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th was anything but a tragic accident.  However, like the stock market event one shudders at the environmental, economic and social calamity that could result from a purposeful destruction of underwater well heads based on what we have seen from this accident.  Certainly adversaries of the U.S. have seen from events in the Gulf of Mexico, that making off shore drilling more risky is a way to keep the US dependent on foreign energy supplies by tapping into American environmental fears.  Moreover, offshore oil rigs, as was the case on 9/11, provide the means to use our own infrastructure against us.

Aside from the realities that there are only five months left in FY 2010 and the IC has survived now without an authorization bill since 2005, the HPSCI and the SSCI are re-engaged in passing the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill rather than actively looking into the intelligence implications of any of the events discussed here --- all of which to some degree have in common an increasing home grown threat to national security.  Having been pointed out by the 9/11 Commission, apparently “the third rail” of intelligence oversight is the convergence of domestic and foreign intelligence associated with the increasing potential that that threats to U.S. national security will come from U.S. citizens abetted by foreign powers.  This certainly complicates not only the way the IC is organized and operates now, but it also raises serious questions about whether legislation is needed to provide for national security exceptions to concepts like minimization and comingling of foreign and domestic intelligence.  Ironically, the continued reluctance by the DNI and the IC Congressional Committees of Jurisdiction to “touch this third rail” means a clear and present danger to national security will remain unaddressed.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

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It is impossible to overestimate the structural and cultural problems facing the IC. It is formed of a myriad of quasi- independent groups, each with Congressional and Executive Department godfathers, each fighting for a share of the capital and operating budgets.

None of the godfathers want to take responsibility for the lack of discipline and cooperation among their children. From the egregious mismanagement of the Rumsfeld and Cheney crews attempting to bend intelligence information to their political point of view, to the failure of the senior career executives to stand on principle, lessons have been passed down to the working stiffs. Cooperate and Graduate.

We have tried DNIs with varying military, civilian agency and other intelligence staff experience. None have been given the time necessary to instill modern management procedures, shake out the unbelievers, restore confidence not only in the system but also in its leadership.

Classification and Compartments have been used as elements of bureaucratic power. Stovepipes remain.

The Art of intelligence remains an imperfect approximation of the real world. Mosaics have missing tiles and can only be viewed with the perspective of the experienced analyst. Unfortunately, National Command wants perfect intelligence and 100% foresight when there is no such thing.

What is needed at the top is a seasoned executive who understands that imperfections abound, that risks remain in any command decision making and above all that the process results for the most part in an estimate not a certainty.