Shield-and-sword.gov

As Emma Bull once said: "Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys."

We were told that the timing of the arrest of 10 members of the so-called Russian Spy Ring, which almost overlapped with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the United States, was purely coincidental.  Perhaps, but I still prefer to cling to my conspiracy theories.

On the other hand, this month's Washington Post publication of a three-piece story on intelligence gathering in the U.S. does appear to be completely incidental to the Russian spy saga.  A product of a two-year investigation conducted by two superb reporters, Dana Priest and William Arkin, the story is a piece of serious journalism that doesn't belong in the media circus (to which the Post has contributed its fair share) surrounding the Russian "unlawful agents."  (And I'm even willing to accept that the timing of the Post's publication was not coincidental to the Senate hearing on the nomination of Ret. Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. to become the next Director of National Intelligence.)

The only coincidence I could think about is the summer season, a designated time to read goose-bumping spy stories.  Like the one featuring Angelina Jolie and Anna Chapman ("Chapman.  Anna Chapman", as they now say in Russia).  Isn't it wonderful beach reading?  It sure is.  But the coincidence stops here, because the Post's story isn't fun reading.  On the contrary, it's very disturbing.  Let's read what Priest and Arkin tell us about U.S. government's attempts to protect us from deadly terrorist attacks: 

"The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs [and] how many people it employs…After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."

Has become large

The number of intelligence entities has mushroomed since 9/11.  24 shops were set up by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security (Department since November 2002).  37 more were added in 2002, 36 in 2003, 26 in 2004, 31 in 2005, 32 in 2006, and about 20 in 2007, 2008, and 2009 each.  In total, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.  All in all, Priest and Arkin estimate that:   

"Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States."

Naturally, all this costs money.  Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress allocated $40 billion atop of the existing homeland security budget.  $36.5 and $44 billion more came in 2002 and 2003, respectively.  Last year's publicly announced intelligence budget was $75 billion, a 250% increase over what it was on Sept. 10, 2001.  But, as Priest and Arkin point out, "…the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs." 

Has become unwieldy. 

The rapid creation of so many agencies has had two unintended (however hardly unanticipated) consequences.  First, it resulted in a vast redundancy in their activities.  For example, 51 (!) federal organizations and military commands are charged with tracking the flow of money belonging to terrorist networks.  Second, and much more troubling, the numerous agencies are producing such a monstrous volume of information that no one seems to be capable of making sense of it.  Consider this:

– Every day, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.  A fraction of this information is sorted into 70 separate databases. 

– The analysis of all gathered information are spread over 50,000 (!) intelligence reports each year.

Its effectiveness is impossible to determine. 

Impossible to determine?  Why?  Doesn't look like rocket science to me.  Here are the facts.

On November 5, 2009 at the Fort Hood military base, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding 30.  In the months before the shooting, Maj. Hasan had exchanged 18 emails with a well-known radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who, by the way, was monitored by the FBI.  Yet this information had not reached the organization charged with counterintelligence within the Army, the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group.  And why not?  Because instead of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army, as it was supposed to do, the 902nd has been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al-Qaeda student organizations in the United States, something that other counterintelligence agencies — surprise! – have been already doing.

Last fall, a group of secret U.S. commandos operating in Yemen reported about a Nigerian radical, whose father was worried about his son's whereabouts and intentions. This intel did reach the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in Washington, but arrived there buried within 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data. So when the above-mentioned "Nigerian radical", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, on Christmas Day of 2009, and attempted to detonate an explosive device, it wasn't up to U.S. counterterrorist agents, but rather to a courageous Dutch passenger, to thwart a disaster. 

Now, let's make it very clear: it's not that the two terrorists had outsmarted the U.S. counterterrorist watchers.  No, they gave all visible indications of being a threat to our national security.  But the signals were missed because too many government agencies — and no one in particular — were in charge of picking up, correctly interpreting, and acting upon these signals.  Like the proverbial seven Russian nannies who can't  take care of a single baby.  (Except that the U.S. Intelligence Community is composed of 16 "nannies.")  

The reaction of the top national security officials to Fort Hood shooting and Christmas Day bombing was very predictable. The then Director of National Intelligence,  Admiral Dennis Blair, asked Congress for more money and more analysts to prevent future "mistakes."  Michael Leiter, Director of NCTC, also asked for more analysts (to back up the 300 he already supervises).  Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security suddenly realized that it also needed more air marshals and analysts, despite the fact that, as Priest and Arkin point out, "…it can't find nearly enough qualified people to fill its intelligence unit now."   

Against this background, the brilliancy with which the FBI handled the 10 alleged Russian spies looks just exemplary.  True, in contrast to radical jihadists, the members of the Russian Spy Ring behaved much more cooperatively: they talked to themselves in FBI-bugged homes when composing messages to the "Moscow Center"; they spilled their guts to federal undercover agents posing as their Russian intelligence handlers; they left behind secret passwords written on pieces of paper; and called their daddies in Moscow when having troubles.  If only all the terrorists (including the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, who almost escaped the FBI watch) were so low-maintenance!

Better yet, the Russians never obtained any classified or otherwise-sensitive U.S. information, and, honestly, never made any serious attempt to do so.  However, it took an untold number of FBI agents almost 10 years (and spending of untold amounts of money) to watch these dangerous people.  And after the FBI finally got rid of them in a Swap-of-the-Century,  the agency (using Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, as a mouthpiece)  presented the case as "a wake up call to the public" and demanded — surprise again! – more money and more agents. 

One can't help but admire the leadership of U.S. Intelligence Community at least for their consistency: whether reacting to a "wake up call" or preventing future "mistakes", they ask for more money and more human resources regardless. 

The reaction of the top national security officials to the Post's story was mixed.  Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged the problem and promised to review existing programs for waste.  But Acting Director of National Intelligence David Gompert opined  that the Post's report "does not reflect the Intelligence Community we know."  (We who?)  His future permanent replacement, James Clapper, wasn't cheerful, either, calling the report "sensationalism" and claiming that the U.S. intelligence community is "under control."  Under control?  Well, I wish Gen. Clapper good luck when he soon assumes control over 16 intelligence nannies. 

Writing for the Post on July 21, David Ignatius eloquently summarized what all of us, non-professionals, seem to understand better than the people doing this for a living:

"…a smaller, better-controlled intelligence community will actually make the country safer than the unmanaged sprawl we have now."

I'm just afraid that the idea of a smaller (and therefore cheaper) intelligence community has a little chance of surviving in a city where so many love talking about "small government." 

As former President George W. Bush famously noted in 2005:

 "It will take time to restore chaos and order…But we will." 

Chaos we already have.  It's time to restore order.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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23 Responses to Shield-and-sword.gov

  1. Hi Eugene
    You remind me of a meeting one of my serbversive friends told me about some years back.
    The State Department invited some leading NY metro area Serb activists to a meeting designed to influence them into supporting the official US government line on former Yugoslavia.
    The guests were simultaneously honored and spooked about getting selected.
    I was told that the meeting was 100% the State Department seeking to influence its will with no interest in considering a change of its policies.
    This manner hits home on the limits of how intelligence gathering is utilized.
    Best,
    Mike

  2. Alex says:

    Eugene – a good post, imho – well above a “blog” level.
    The timing of this “capture” indeed was a weather-vane. I am still not sure, though, which side called a stop to this mutually-beneficial joint venture, but if asked, I would put my bet that it were the Russians. With their chief of SVR staying, who were they?
    Let me quote the Dubia too:
    “This thaw — took a while to thaw, it’s going to take a while to unthaw.” –George W. Bush, on liquidity in the markets, Alexandria, La., Oct. 20, 2008
    Cheers

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike, Alex-
    Thanks for your comments and nice words.
    God knows, it wasn’t my intention to become an “expert” in spying and counterterrorism. But the more I look into ways U.S. government protects us from terrorist threats, the less I like it. It’s not already about diminishing returns; it’s more like the more we do (money- and HR-wise), the worse we are. Scary.
    Best,
    Eugene

  4. Alex says:

    Eugene, growth of bureaucracy is the expected result of Parkinson’s law and the budget – of the belief that Keynesian method applies to real world. I am not sure the US readers can understand your “nanny” reference properly, but they should be familiar with groupthink & its consequence(as the “we” in the Gate’s remark.)

  5. The show must go on in some form, inclusive of comedic spying and the comedic surveillance of such action.
    The masses have become numbed by this nonsense, in addition to being taxed with other issues.

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Alex,
    I’m not sure either that my US readers understood completely the nanny joke, but when introducing it, I was actualy thinking about Australians🙂
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    The show we have indeed. I’m not as much concerned about the money — we’re a rich country — as about chasing wrong “bad people”, when real ones seem to be multiplying. This article from TNI has upset me tremendously:
    http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=23716
    Best,
    Eugene

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    The show we have indeed. I’m not as much concerned about the money — we’re a rich country — as about chasing wrong “bad people”, when real ones seem to be multiplying. This article from TNI has upset me tremendously:
    http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=23716
    Best,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene
    Missed that one. Thanks for sharing.
    Faisal Shahzad’s privileged background reminds me of OBL and some revolutionaries of a prior era.
    Their being able to mesh with some of the less fortunate in troubling circumstances is trouble.
    On a somewhat related note, I was initially a bit surprised by this one, courtesy of Austere Insomniac (Leos Tomicek):
    http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=35807&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=6e194dfc8d
    Offhand, I suspect that some if not most of the mentioned arrivals from Uzbekistan to Crimea are likely the families of deported Tatars from the WW II period. Upon reading it in full, I see why the author in question is concerned. He sees these folks as a threat to Crimea as part of Ukraine, whereas Ukrainian nationalist leaning folks have tended to see the Tatars as a counterweight to the dreaded Moskals.
    Best,
    Mike

  10. Forgot to mention the impact regarding the more secular and pacifist of Tatars.
    Fortunately, the level of ethnic tensions in Crimea isn’t quite as high as in some other former Communist regions like Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh.

  11. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    I liked your penetrating comment about Oz. You know, we are pretty relaxed here – and democratic – as long as the democracy does not need to be paid for🙂
    Cheers

  12. Alex says:

    Mike
    I am not sure how the situation with Crimean Tatars changed, but, indeed, some 15-20 years ago there were a lot of them in Tashkent. While most were very patriotic and almost all going “back” to their “motherland”, I did not see a single radical or just overzealous muslim among them. That is in contrast with some Uzbeks (I actually remember one Uzbek PhD in nuclear physics who prayed in front of the operating neutron generator..). Even though to place financial center for muslim radicals in Uzbekistan is too much. Besides the claims that Russia wants to destabilize Crimea with Al Queda are definitely over the top. So, perhaps, the author has an agenda – and not a very good one. And indeed – a show.
    Cheers

  13. Alex
    Times and people can change.
    In the US, there’re a good number of Jews from Uzbekistan. I’ll try to query though some folks who’re acquainted with that community.
    Regarding a point you make from the EDM article is this excerpt from it:
    “Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in the Crimea have declared that Dzhemilev is not a true believer and therefore a potential target. Dzhemilev accused Russian military intelligence (GRU) of being behind planned assassination attempts, part of a wider plan to promote instability in the Crimea. Moskal has publicly stated his disagreement that Russia is behind these Islamic fundamentalists. Moskal believes the funding for these militants in the Crimea comes from the Taliban via Uzbekistan.”
    ****
    I don’t get the impression that said extremists think well of Russians in Crimea.
    Dzhemilev seems to go out of his way to tweak every politically mainstream Russian position. Calling him a “moderate” is (put mildly) relative.
    Salut!

  14. Alex
    Times and people can change.
    In the US, there’re a good number of Jews from Uzbekistan. I’ll try to query though some folks who’re acquainted with that community.
    Regarding a point you make from the EDM article is this excerpt from it:
    “Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in the Crimea have declared that Dzhemilev is not a true believer and therefore a potential target. Dzhemilev accused Russian military intelligence (GRU) of being behind planned assassination attempts, part of a wider plan to promote instability in the Crimea. Moskal has publicly stated his disagreement that Russia is behind these Islamic fundamentalists. Moskal believes the funding for these militants in the Crimea comes from the Taliban via Uzbekistan.”
    ****
    I don’t get the impression that said extremists think well of Russians in Crimea.
    Dzhemilev seems to go out of his way to tweak every politically mainstream Russian position. Calling him a “moderate” is (put mildly) relative.
    Salut!

  15. Mark says:

    I second the evaluation that this analysis, with its linked references, is well above typical blog fare.
    If the Great Spy Swap of 2010 were a movie, the real spies would be the ones Russia traded to America, to a red-carpet welcome. Maybe that’s what actually happened, and we’ll find out years from now. In any case, assumptions that spycraft has become so pedestrian that “operatives” like Anna Chapman represent the cutting edge of subversion would be foolish indeed. Neither country is that sloppy.

  16. Mark says:

    I second the evaluation that this analysis, with its linked references, is well above typical blog fare.
    If the Great Spy Swap of 2010 were a movie, the real spies would be the ones Russia traded to America, to a red-carpet welcome. Maybe that’s what actually happened, and we’ll find out years from now. In any case, assumptions that spycraft has become so pedestrian that “operatives” like Anna Chapman represent the cutting edge of subversion would be foolish indeed. Neither country is that sloppy.

  17. Alex
    As a follow-up to your point, I don’t question that most Crimean Tatars (as well as Tatars at large) don’t fall in the religious fundamentalist category.
    However, a small number of extremists can cause a good amount of trouble. There’s another thought to consider as well. Violent national/ethnic extremism can be of a more secular manner. I’m reminded of this piece:
    http://www.counterpunch.org/averko03042008.html
    The person seen as the founder of Pakistan was known as someone who wasn’t particularly religious. This aspect didn’t prevent him from seeking a predominately Muslim state out of India.
    Up to a point, I’m in agreement with the neolib leaning Sorosians and neocons who’ve said that the Muslim fundamentalist factor in Bosnia and Kosovo has been exaggerated in some circles. On the other hand, similar to the linked EDM article, Stephen Schwartz (the antithesis of a pro-Serb Russophile) acknowledges some existence and threat regarding a Muslim fundamentalist presence in former Yugoslavia.
    Best,
    Mike

  18. Alex
    As a follow-up to your point, I don’t question that most Crimean Tatars (as well as Tatars at large) don’t fall in the religious fundamentalist category.
    However, a small number of extremists can cause a good amount of trouble. There’s another thought to consider as well. Violent national/ethnic extremism can be of a more secular manner. I’m reminded of this piece:
    http://www.counterpunch.org/averko03042008.html
    The person seen as the founder of Pakistan was known as someone who wasn’t particularly religious. This aspect didn’t prevent him from seeking a predominately Muslim state out of India.
    Up to a point, I’m in agreement with the neolib leaning Sorosians and neocons who’ve said that the Muslim fundamentalist factor in Bosnia and Kosovo has been exaggerated in some circles. On the other hand, similar to the linked EDM article, Stephen Schwartz (the antithesis of a pro-Serb Russophile) acknowledges some existence and threat regarding a Muslim fundamentalist presence in former Yugoslavia.
    Best,
    Mike

  19. Alex says:

    Mike
    I simply meant to point to certain deficiencies of the Crimean article you referenced (and mainly because the word “Uzbek” was repeated there about 10 times🙂
    I do agree that even a small group of religious fanatics can effectively control much larger group of people – I’ve see how it worked in Uzbekistan.
    Of course, I agree that nationalistic motives can be and probably, nowadays are stronger than the religious. And thanks for the link to Kosovo article – I absolutely share the same feelings on the subject there.
    Cheers

  20. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark,
    So far, no news about red-carpet welcome for the Russian part of the Swap. At the very least, no one seems to have sung any songs with them.
    The only news that I’ve heard was about Sutyagin whose life in London appears to be quite miserable.
    Check out my next Pravda on the Potomac report (tomorrow or on Wed) for more on that.
    Best,
    Eugene

  21. Alex
    Understood and agree that the EDM article in question should’ve been more detailed on the matter of substantiating the reference to Uzbekistan.
    That EDM article was nowhere near as incomplete as this one:
    http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Bswords%5D=8fd5893941d69d0be3f3785762&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=36395&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=e129798aac ,
    which I took it upon myself to answer:
    http://www.eurasiareview.com/20100527393/haggling-over-the-former-moldavian-ssr-dispute.html
    Some analysts seem to exist in a glass house like situation, where they carry on without addressing key particulars. In comparison, I think it’s fair to say that some others make more of an effort to address both sides to an issue.
    This very matter concerns why the coverage is lacking.
    Salut!

  22. Regarding my last set of comments, the glasshouse reference isn’t as precise as characterizing a situation shielded from legitimate views that run contrary to the commentary being favored.
    Some think tank affiliated projects can have a politicized academic aspect to them in a way not that isn’t so different from some mass media slants.

  23. Needless to say but said anyway, I look forward to your upcoming posts Eugene.
    Of possible interest to Alex and some others is this recent post on Crimea:
    http://www.austereinsomniac.info/blog/2010/8/3/luciuk-dreams.html
    Just trying to make the best of the net in what can be termed as constructive trouble making.😉

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