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August 20, 2005
'Al-Qaeda Brought The Matches'

After getting the silly e-mail responses from Think Progress' readers, most of whom had failed to even read any CQ posts on the subject of Jamie Gorelick or the wall that discouraged any coordination between law enforcement and intelligence operations prior to the Patriot Act, I received a handful from former members of the intel community. One of the more comprehensive came from a CQ reader whom I will call Big Sea. (Anonymity, in this case, is my idea, not the source.)

Big Sea writes about his experiences in several intelligence agencies, which span from the Reagan era to post-9/11. It's long but a must read:

From 1984 until 2002, I worked as a contractor doing mainly threat assessment and projection for most of the USG intelligence services but primarily CIA, DIA, Air Force and ONI. I assert that the main point about the Wall is that it was not a memo or a directive -- it was a culture. There were many walls, throughout the Intelligence Community, as well as between the Intelligence Community and Law Enforcement. Most of these were of long standing and existed for good reasons -- security and protecting civil liberties. But under Clinton, all the walls got taller and new ones were added.

The reason for all this was that the Clinton Adminstration viewed the Intelligence Community much more as a source of potential embarrassment than as a trusted advisor. Lack of a defined national strategy based on a coherent foreign policy -- the "Holiday from History" as it's been called -- coupled with Clinton's personal animosity towards foreign policy in general and the Intelligence Community in particular devalued intelligence. Intelligence is not a magical function that produces answers for any questions posed to it at random, and it works poorly when used in that way. But that is exactly how Clinton used it, or more accurately, let his proxies use it. [Clinton did not even deign to receive the PDB for most of his tenure; Sandy Berger received it and passed along to his Boss whatever he -- Berger -- saw fit.]

Not believing there were critical national security issuses for which the support the Intelligence Community was vital; acutely concerned about the potential for scandals and political embarassements [as only so scandel-plagued an Adminisrtation could be], and having a strong personal distaste for the whole business, Clinton set out to reduce the risk that the Intelligence Community could do him harm by making it as difficult as possible for the Intelligence Community to do anything. He did this thru his appointments, seeing to it that political animals and risk-adverse adminstrators got key postions; by changing the rules by which intelligence could be collected -- for example, banning using people with crimnal associations or "human rights abusers" as HUMINT sources, which meant that no one in the Intelligence Community could talk to a disaffected terrorist; a huge blow that badly hurt our ability to keep tabs on terrorist organiszation after 1998 -- and by building walls.

To give you a concrete example of how far the "Wall" culture went, I offer the following personal anecdote:

In Oct 1999, my group, of which I was lead analyst, was given a task to evaluate threats from about 6-8 different countries. State-sponsored terrorism was one of the threats. In our proposal, we argued that evaluating state-sponsored terrorism without considering the actual terrorists organizations themselves made little sense. We knew this was a bit dicey because terrorists fell under the rubric of "non-state actors" who tended to be dealt with by different organizations than those who dealt with "state actors." The reason for this was that non-state actors [mainly terrorists, drug lords, and mafias] were seen as law-enforcement problems, to be dealt by the FBI, DEA, and such, while hostile states were obviously the concern of the State Dept, the CIA, DIA, and the other intelligence agencies. So terrorists fell in one camp, while the states that sponsored and supported them fell in a another. And of course those two camps were heavily constrained in how they could communicate and cooperate. But our customer, DIA, agreed with us and thought the "wall" issue could be dealt with, and so terrorists were added to the statement of work.

All such projects have a kickoff meeting where we and the customers go over the analysis plan in detail, discussing data issues, security issues, potential problems and limitations, and the scope of the conclusions we expect to be able to produce. Attending our kickoff meeting were us, the DIA team for whom we were doing the analysis, and a CIA rep acting a liaison. Everything went great until the topic of terrorists came up.

At once, the DIA guys explained that maybe theyd been too optimistic about the "wall" issue. Our tasking included suggestions for threat mitigation, and since that was clearly counter-terrorism in this case, that was right out. We cant give any counter-terrorist advice, they flatly said. OK, we said, what about assessment?

That depends, they replied.

So we starting giving them examples of things we thought we might be able to say. No, we cant say that, they would say, it still sounds too much like advice.

Well, what about this? wed ask. Maybe not, theyd say, such-&-such organization vets those kind of conclusions; theyre the experts and we cant step on their charter.

This went on for more than an hour and finally, somewhat exasperated, we asked them exactly what we could say; what type of conclusions we were allowed to draw. At this point, the DIA guys and CIA rep got together and basically gave us a dump on who in the government was doing what with respect to terrorism and what the rules of cooperation [or lack of it] were. At one point, they started talking about an organization we recognized as being in DIA. Wait a minute! we said, those guys are DIA! If they are working that, then we can say this and this and this!

"Yeah," the head DIA guy said, a bit sheepishly, "they are DIA, but theyre a different part of DIA and we cant talk to them." [That's the only quote from the meeting where I recall actual words spoken.]

We blinked a few times, and then all consideration of terrorism was dropped from the task. But not before it was pointed out that we and DIA werent really counter-terrorism experts [although we were threat assessment experts], that the problem was probably being worked by so-&-so and such-&-such, and that they probably had better data, more experience, more resources than we did.

That is what Clinton and Gorelik's Wall culture did. It just didn't just prevent more effective cooperation and data sharing; it prevented the whole question of terrorism being addressed in a coherent fashion at all. No one was working the problem effectively, but I bet they all thought -- just like we were told that someone else was. Thats the "I thought you brought the matches" school of intelligence analysis, and that was the end effect of Clinton's intelligence policy: it turned the whole process of intelligence into one big game of "Who brought the matches?"

And on 9/11 we found out who: Al Qaeda brought the matches.

In a nutshell, the Think Progress assertions on Gorelick suffer from the same problem as the Clinton Administration approach to intelligence work -- a slathering devotion to parsing the meaning of the myriad of rules and regulations and a failure to see their overall effects.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 20, 2005 9:13 AM

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