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Those Were the Days

The real value of the "Family Jewels"

By Michael Tanji | June 27, 2007

The hue and cry over the release of the CIA’s “family jewels” is predictable, but if not objectively viewed, self-defeating. Those who never met an intelligence program they did not hate are rejoicing in the shame of past establishment near-do-wells and are attempting to paint current national security efforts with the same broad brush. Yet in the rush to view the CIA and our broader intelligence community in the most negative light possible, what is being missed is the recognition of some deeper lessons learned.

Let me start by saying that the activities documented by the CIA are full of clear and flagrant abuses of power and law and call into question the moral compass bearings of both agency leadership and the politicians involved in directing and supporting such activities.

But the papers also describe an agency striving to address a compelling need that was going unfulfilled. Engaged in a war against communism, we were being infiltrated by enemy agents and provocateurs; organizations sympathetic to the communist cause were acting as fronts for our main enemy; and various other radical groups were threatening war from within. Rather than wait around to be exploited and attacked, the government picked a course of action they thought would work. It was not particularly well thought out and execution was spotty, but it was war and in the midst of such turmoil mistakes are bound to be made.

The dangers we faced then are not unlike the dangers we face now. The enemy is different but their strategy and tactics are not dissimilar to those we have fought in the past. And like the days of yore we still lack a formal and effective domestic intelligence capability with which to defeat these enemies. The FBI may claim to fulfill that role, but as various reports, papers and books have addressed previously, a law enforcement agency makes a particularly bad intelligence agency.

The difference is important. Success in law enforcement means reducing crime through arrest and prosecution. Success in intelligence means denying the enemy success by disrupting or degrading their capabilities. Frequent and high profile arrests just lets the bad guys know you are on to them, their tactics will change accordingly, and the game of whack-a-mole continues unabated in perpetuity. Intelligence activities are more discrete, long-term and designed to defeat the enemy wholesale by perpetrating the fraud that we are not on to them.

I am not advocating the unshackling legions of law-breaking orcs who would run roughshod over the rights of citizens, but the design and implementation of a strong, coherent strategy to combat threats that originate domestically, or take advantage of our liberal dispensation of rights and privileges by operating domestically under the guise of political, religious or social causes. Such a strategy would identify the best resources for a domestic intelligence mission and organize them for maximum effect. This means ending the charade that the FBI is the best place for keeping track of and dealing with domestic intelligence problems, as well as recognizing that the same intelligence gathering skills employed by the military or CIA can be useful against domestic as well as foreign threats.

It also means establishing clear and inviolate lanes in the road, seeking new and precise legal authority to address gaps or shortcomings in existing law, and an effective but not overbearing means by which to enforce the rules. It also means recognizing that intelligence activities in general are risky affairs and that those performing honest efforts to accomplish authorized missions cannot be hung out to dry when they fail.

We cannot take the fight to the enemy if we are sitting around waiting to be surprised. Intelligence drives operations and if the war against terrorism is anything it is an intelligence war. This is why efforts like classifying enemy combatants as such and not defendants is so important. Enemy combatants can be held for the duration of hostilities to keep them from doing us harm. They can also be exploited for intelligence to find still more enemies. Prosecuting defendants merely leads to the exposure of intelligence sources and methods to the enemy (via the discovery process). Those who advocate the so-called law enforcement approach to combating terrorism have not thought about the unintended consequences likely to result from such a shift; when faced with the decision of taking a life or taking a prisoner, and knowing that prisoners ultimately contribute to making the war harder to fight, those on the front line of this war are not going to take prisoners.

The more we know about our enemies the more effective we can be in eliminating the threat they pose. Imagining that we will succeed in this epic endeavor by only focusing our massive intelligence community at targets and problems that do not reside on US soil is not merely foolhardy: It is suicidal.

Learning from the mistakes of the past means not only rejecting illegal and immoral practices, but recognizing that we do not live in a fantasy world where decorum is more important than success. A truly reform-minded administration would be training, equipping and employing intelligence community resources against all enemies; foreign and domestic. Congressional oversight should be focused not only on the real misdeeds of those they are watching, but helping solve the problems they face by passing effective laws and providing adequate funding. We would also fare better in this conflict if the judiciary recognized that war is upon us and that the long-ago codified laws of war - not our more recent criminal code - is the best way to deal with those seeking our domination and destruction.

United States of America

3 Comments

Michael: I was hoping that you would take on the subject of the exposure of the "family jewels." Just the publicly known abuses of both the CIA and FBI (and for example, some of the "flubs" of the FBI lab exposed back in the late 90's by whistleblowers like F. Whitehurst) are eye-openers.

While agreeing with the general thread of this argument, that we need to face the enemy with stronger intelligence and more flexible activities, I pause when you equate the fight against Communism to that of our fight against jihad and again when you suggest dusting off the "long-ago codified laws of war" (perhaps I am missing something here).

Essentially, the point lies in my belief that this war is truly unlike anything in the past and that therefore, our "tool kit" to fight this war from an information and Intelligence perspective only started with the initial intent of the Patriot Acts. As we discussed, much of this expanded authority would/could be in the cyber and information areas.

While there continues to be the "outraged" cry over lost rights, my questions include whether our Intelligence Community has enough leeway or flexibility to fight this war that spans the world and includes activities within our borders, and further, if there is an existing Agency to execute the war the way you describe (or does it mean a new organization for domestic intelligence)? Even if what you suggest is implemented by an expanded domestic mission for the IC or specifically the CIA, to what extent do you think the public would cry even more loudly?

Public disclosures of critical information that should remain non-public and sensitive continue unabated.

Mr. Tanji...

You posted, "we were being infiltrated by enemy agents and provocateurs; organizations sympathetic to the communist cause were acting as fronts for our main enemy; and various other radical groups were threatening war from within."

Do you have any evidence for this conclusion? Or were you brought up on reruns of "I Led Three Lives!"

For awhile there I was getting the impression that you were on a tack to be an apologist for the CIA's indiscretions. But you did redeem yourself.

The problem with CIA mistakes and other clandestine operations is that such blunders are literally of historic proportions. Two quick examples; The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran which led to a destabilized Iran eventually resulting in the present theocratic regime. And the overthrow and asssination of Allende in Chile which led to the repressive regime of Pinochet----didn't do the Chileans much good!

So you just can't pooh pooh the errors of the CIA, et al----their mistakes are deadly!!

As for the current terror threat----yes things are different, but we cannot sacrifice the original ideals of this country in this "war" or we become just like them in a way.

Michael,

Excellent points, especially WRT "rules of the road" for any MI5-type organization operating on US soil. Unfortunately I fear our civilian government has decayed to such a level of incompetence that any effort to stand up such an organization would only be good for a Superbowl of political football.

But don't worry, after we let an ex-Soviet nuke or bio warhead go off in NYC or LA, we'll reluctantly get our act together (probably with the military in the lead role). It will just be at the cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Obviously turning 3000 US citizens into smoke on our own soil was not enough of a wake-up call. I wonder if the American giant is sleeping or in a coma?