Saturday, August 19, 2006

Free Radicals

Yesterday I saw a photo of all the top intelligence dogs, and CIA head General Hayden was resplendent in his national uniform with his four big stars on his shoulders. However, rather than assuring, the photo frosted me as I began thinking about how lop-sided our national thinking and policies on terrorism have become.

Gen. Hayden has no background in terrorism, and so is ill-qualified to head the agency. Further, he is part of the DoD structure that can now dominate an agency that should function as an independent intelligent civilian counterbalance to a runaway "War Department". Questions abound: Who does Hayden work for? Who pays his salary? Who decides if he's doing a heck of a job?

Hayden is a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) kind of guy, someone who believes in surgical gathering of factoids to help crack a case. I believe there is currently an over-reliance on this method of intelligence gathering in our terrorism counteraction work, to the detriment of the more gritty Human Intelligence (HUMINT) work.

There has always been a rift between SIGINT and HUMINT advocates. In a terrorism scenario, it would seem that HUMINT should take precedence over SIGINT, as the latter does not focus on the threat, and therefore, is not cost-effective. The net must be cast too wide. The best use of SIGINT is as a adjutant to HUMINT.

Sadly, SIGINT appeals to the quick fix mentality demanded by a cowed populace. It looks good; it's high tech, and clean and flashy. You can't bring many of those working HUMINT into the pressroom and expect them to compete with the clean-cut and tidy General. They don't stick up on a presentation board very well. They probably smell bad from too many days afield.

Recently, our Coalition of the Willing partner, Great Britain, broke up a terror cell which was targetting U.S.-bound commercial aircraft. The Brits used serendipitously presented HUMINT, passed on by a loyal British Muslim citizen who had overheard the plot and was uncomfortable with his knowledge.

Purportedly, he passed this information to a police operative over coffee in a restaurant. NOTE: This was done without the benefit of solitary confinement in a secret prison, and obviously, you can't torture someone in a coffe shop (much beyond an annoying soundtrack, at least.) It was also garnered without the benefit of a $25 million reward. Money can't buy you love. So the intelligence was gathered in a lawful police operation that was highly successful.

I've always advocated realistic threat assessment, and this event is a wonderful illustration of that. You can capture enemy soldiers on the battlefield and torture them for three years, but their knowledge won't prevent another airliner debacle. They are low-level soldiers carrying rifles. Rifleman are scary, but they do not plot terror schemes.

These prisoners are not Ian Fleming/John Clancy-type operatives. The truly "worst of the worst" are not in Gitmo--they are in the street in France, and Germany, and Great Britain. The threat is westernized radicals that can swim with the fish, in Mao's words.

A Taliban rifleman cannot pull off an airliner hijacking. He simply doesn't have the sophistication to negotiate even the simplest functions in our complicated society. He may look shabby and rabid, but he is only a soldier in another man's army. It looks like we're doing something when we incarcerate these soldiers, and we are; we're animating the next generation of Muslim anti-western sentiment. Who runs the Army are the machers...and I'm sure they are also the "mockers" of our foolish reliance on high-tech and good photo-ops.

The down-and-dirty HUMINT of Ian Fleming has been largely superseded by the high-tech SIGINT of John Clancy. The wheels of the giant machine turn much more slowly as a result of the huge and arbitrary processing they must carry out.


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