Tag Archives: counterterrorism

Best sentence on intel in 8 years

Perspicacity points to Doyle McManus:

“By shining light on organizational dysfunction that’s hard to dramatize, the attempted bombing has highlighted a problem that desperately needs to be solved.”


CIA notification policy subject of probe

Nukes & Spooks notes the move to probe CIA’s notification policy:

The chairman of the House intelligence commitee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said Friday that the panel is opening an investigation into whether the CIA has properly notified Congress of significant covert actions.

Reyes’ move was triggered by CIA Director Leon Panetta’s June 24 disclosure that Congress had not been notified of a major planned counter-terrorism program, later reported to be an agency effort to form elite teams to hunt down and kill top terrorist operatives at close range. The effort never got off the ground, and then-Vice President Dick Cheney told the agency not to tell Congress’ intelligence committees of the matter.

It appears from what’s emerging in recent days that “all options are on the table” discussions led to at least two major proposals:

  1. Elite teams for up-close kills
  2. Drones for remote kills

There were probably many other options discussed, but these are the two we know the most about.  The former was apparently too problematic to pursue (so far as the public knows), and the latter became the most public means of addressing the problem, albeit with some mixed results on collateral damage and territorial disputes.

The matter of organizational interest here, of course, is the clarification and observance of policy; specifically, what does the somewhat vague language of the National Security Act of 1947 require?  At present, the interpretation of the language tends to provide some cover and discretion for CIA in failing to disclose sensitive information, especially if that information is able to be classified as early-stage and non-operational.  Put another way, you don’t have to tell anyone if you’re just tossing ideas around.

The likely outcome from the investigation is some sort of middle way that gives Congress some satisfaction and stops short of punishing the CIA, though I wouldn’t rule out some rebuke.  CIA has spent most of its existence as a politically convenient “whipping child”, to quote Senator Judd Gregg.

An interesting question, though:  to what degree might the program have been discussed as an alternative to war rather than a complement to it?

[Bonus trivia:  The National Security Act was signed aboard Truman’s Douglas C-54 Skymaster presidential plane, the precursor to Air Force One.  That plane was called The Sacred Cow.]

US increasingly relies on foreign intel cooperation

Despite some thorny problems, cooperation may be desirable and necessary:

The United States is now relying heavily on foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain all but the highest-level terrorist suspects seized outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to current and former American government officials.

The change represents a significant loosening of the reins for the United States, which has worked closely with allies to combat violent extremism since the 9/11 attacks but is now pushing that cooperation to new limits.

In the past 10 months, for example, about a half-dozen midlevel financiers and logistics experts working with Al Qaeda have been captured and are being held by intelligence services in four Middle Eastern countries after the United States provided information that led to their arrests by local security services, a former American counterterrorism official said.

The thorny problems, of course, include the potential for catch-and-release policies to return bad guys to the field and for innocents to have electrodes attached to their genitals.  Those considerable concerns aside, building patterns of cooperation with foreign intel services just makes sense.  It defuses a lot of the anger about US interventionism and creates interdependence (and influence) among parties closer to the problem.

That said, torture and detention of the wrong people is almost a certainty, and the US cannot dispose of its complicity in these activities by outsourcing them.  Effective cooperation requires transparency and accountability.

Week in Public Organizations, 10Apr2009


Late again, but I needed a few days to grieve and recover.  Wouldn’t you know it–there were a bunch of stories about organizations in public life over the last three days.  I’ll get right to them.

As for last week, Bob Quick resigned as UK counterterrorism chief (third one in a year), New Zealand made statistics accessible to citizens, Iran and North Korea differed in their nuclear approaches (not much of an axis, is it?), groups were shown to be more efficient with new information (duh), Stanley Fish skewered academic criticism, and I got incensed over a milk carton.  These were the posts that hit the radar last week:

Counterterrorism resignation puts stability at risk
NZ energy picture worth… oh, you know…
Forden compares Iran and North Korea missile programs
Study indicts group efficiency
Missing common sense on milk carton
Fish on the menu of academic criticism

Counterterrorism resignation puts stability at risk

UK Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick resigned today after accidentally revealing a secret document to photographers at 10 Downing Street–a document detailing an imminent operation to stop an all Qaeda attack plot:

BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford said sources close to the investigation had revealed the counter-terror operation had been launched in response to a possible terrorist plot that had reached its final stages of planning.

Although no specific target was mentioned in intelligence, police moved quickly because of concerns over the scale of the attack and the fact that it was going to happen soon, he said.

Security expert Peter Taylor told the BBC the attack was possibly to be made using an improvised explosive device.

The operation, and its subsequent raids in in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire, had gone ahead on Wednesday afternoon rather than 0200 BST on Thursday after Mr Quick’s memo blunder, Mr Taylor said.

What Quick did was boneheaded, but did it require a public servant who had “served with dedication and professionalism throughout his career”to fall on his sword?  The mayor, commisioner, and home secretary all had kind things to say about Quick and his service to his country–but that’s what they do when someone resigns.  The implication is that a resignation will be met with dignity-preserving sentiments, while an outright ouster is going to get ugly.

Quick was controversial, at one point arresting a member of parliament over alleged security leaks and at another attacking the conservatives for spreading rumors about his wife’s business.  The target on his back had probably been there for a long time.  That’s almost a certainty.

There’s more to the story, though.  This was a seasoned leader in the midst of what is alleged to have been a very large operation.  Preservation of continuity would seem more important than a symbolic head rolling.  Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone noted that there have been three senior officers in charge of counterterrorism within the span of a year, noting that al Qaeda would be celebrating.  He also pointed out that this official stepped down over a minor blunder while scandals rage elsewhere in the political establishment.

What Quick did was thick.  It was an accident, and it could have had severe ramifications, but the cries for punishment should have been drowned out by the imperatives of maintaining a stable counterterrorism organization.  Petty politics are a luxury societies cannot afford in the search for security.

Anti-piracy efforts offer counterterrorism lessons

Who knew there was an organization called the International Maritime Bureau?  Until this afternoon, not me:

The floating corpses with their bedraggled bounties of dollar bundles were a chilling symbol to the pirates and a grim victory of sorts for shippers.

The five drowned hijackers washed up off central Somalia this month, pockets stuffed with cash, after capsizing when they took their share of a $3 million ransom for a Saudi tanker.

Despite such perils, Somali pirates who enjoyed an unprecedentedly prosperous 2008 are eager to repeat their success this year, but an array of warships from 14 nations is starting to make that more difficult.

“It is still too early to talk of a definite trend, but there has been a reduction in the frequency of hijackings and that is a good sign. We attribute it largely to the naval activity,” International Maritime Bureau director Pottengal Mukundan told Reuters.

“The attacks are still happening, however, so we need the naval forces to commit for a long time.”

That’s a rather long excerpt, but there’s a lot of news in there.  Point by point, I have it as

  1. Pirates are dying at work.
  2. Those who survive are getting some big bucks.
  3. International cooperation is curbing Somali piracy.
  4. There is the aforementioned Bureau (a wing of the International Chamber of Commerce).
  5. International cooperation to police pirating will require sustained commitment.

All told, this reads like a situation requiring firm, consistent law enforcement to protect against a threat that responds well to being managed.  What interests me about this is that the effort could prove instructive in the management of–not “war on”–global terrorism.  The effort, the timeline, the inter-organizational mechanisms are all being tested in a current conflict with lawless actors threatening the safety and prosperity of multiple nations.  I’m sure there will be differences, but anti-piracy efforts offer a good test run for what global cooperative counterterrorism could become.

Speaking of pirates and organizations, the proprietor of the very good Authentic Organizations blog and I have had some brief discussions on modern piracy, which you can read here.  For exceptional insight into organization and economics regarding pirates through history, Peter Leeson of George Mason University is the master.

Brennan named top adviser on counterterrorism

More evidence that the CIA is in for a great deal of change:

Barack Obama has picked John O. Brennan as his top adviser on counterterrorism, a role that will give the CIA veteran a powerful voice on the government’s use of security contractors and on other sensitive issues in which he recently has played a private-sector role.

By appointing Brennan to a senior White House position not subject to Senate approval, Obama is also making him an influential adviser on the Middle East and on Iran, a topic on which Brennan has called for a sharp break with past U.S. policy.

Obama has been critical of private security firms; Brennan has run one.  That should mitigate for something resembling middle ground.  Contractors are a reality of modern warfare and intelligence, one that calls out for a coherent set of principles.  Between Panetta’s expected streamlining and Brennan’s knowledge of the contracting business, what changes the public is permitted to see should be interesting.

One wonders what veterans at Langley are anticipating.  Resistance to change is often born before the change even begins, especially when opportunities are missed to involve those affected by the change in creating it.  Panetta probably understands this very well.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that many of the old guard will feel disenfranchised, but that view doesn’t have to be the norm.