News & Politics

Bad Intelligence: America's History of Bungled Spying

Fog Facts special: The spectacular intelligence failures of Bush's Iraq invasion and 9/11 are only the most recent installments in the United States' appalling history of spycraft.
On April 1, 2001, Oklahoma State Trooper C. L. Parkins stopped Nawaf Alhazmi, for speeding.

Alhazmi had a California license. Parkins ran it, as cops always do on a traffic stop. Nothing came back. He wrote Alhazmi two tickets totaling $138 and let him continue on his way.

What makes this event striking is that Alhazmi had been identified by the NSA in 1999 as associated with Al Qaeda. He had also been put on a Saudi terror watch list that year. In January 2000, he was photographed and videotaped at an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. A week later, on Jan, 15, he entered the United States. The CIA knew that he had a valid U.S. visa, and though they missed his arrival, they suspected he was here.

Both the NSA and the CIA knew Alhazmi was a terrorist.

But they failed to put him on U.S. terrorist watch lists. Nor did they alert the FBI, Customs and Immigration, and the host of other American police and enforcement agencies. So when Alhazmi flew to Yemen, because he was homesick, and then back to the United States, in June of 2000, no one stopped him. When he moved into the house of an FBI informant in Los Angeles, no one paid particular attention to him.

In May of 2001, he was attacked. He reported it to the police. Once again, his name didn't connect to anything else. On June 30, 2001, he was involved in a minor traffic accident on the George Washington Bridge.

On Aug. 23, 2001, the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, gave the names of 19 men who they suspected would be involved in a terrorist attack to the CIA. Alhazmi's name was among them.

Two and a half weeks later -- five months after the traffic stop in Oklahoma -- on Sept. 11, 2001, Alhazmi got on AA No. 77, the one that was flown into the Pentagon.

The failure to detect and to stop the 9/11 attacks are considered the CIA's greatest failure. Certainly their most visible and spectacular.

There are certain peculiarities about that failure that need to receive a lot of attention. First of all, it hides what the CIA and the other intelligence services were successful at.

They were well aware of Al Qaeda and its intention to hit American targets. They knew many of the players and, as noted, had names and photographs. They were aware that something big was planned for late summer, 2001. They tried very hard to alert the Bush-Cheney administration of the threat.

Yet even where they were right, they were somehow wrong.

That was followed, in rapid order, with their failure to locate and apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden, their complicity in misleading the American public about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction and his ties to Al Qaeda, their failure to predict what would happen after an invasion of Iraq and, once it did happen, who we were fighting and why they were fighting us.

A record like that says that we must ask if these were specific errors -- each a unique, explainable accident -- or are they systemic? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the whole idea?

The CIA and the intelligence community has had many visible and often embarrassing failures before these. They have always been able to say, from beneath their veils of secrecy, "Well, the only things you know are when we fail. If you knew the whole truth, you would know of your many successes! But you can't know because it would threaten our National Security! So there!" So it was not possible to examine the facts and see if that was really the case. That's no longer the case. A file compiled 30 years ago that the CIA called "The Family Jewels" was recently released under the Freedom of Information Act. It can be found at //www.foia.cia.gov/. Even more important is the publication of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the >i>N.Y. Times.

There's enough data in it that we can develop a scorecard.

American intelligence services, the cult of secrecy and the culture of national security all came about after the Second World War.

It keys off two quintessential events. The first is an intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor. The whole idea of having spy agencies was so that would never happen again. That's why 9/11 is such a devastating indictment of the intelligence community. They failed at their most essential and ultimate core mission.

After Pearl Harbor the Japanese marched on. They conquered the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya and parts of Indonesia.

Yamamoto, Japan's leading admiral wanted to draw the remains of the U.S. naval forces into a trap. If he could destroy them, it might be years before the Americans could fight back, giving Japan time to solidify its victories.

Imagine two fleets maneuvering blindly in the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean.

Except that Adm. Nimitz, the U.S. commander, wasn't blind. The Allies had broken the Japanese code. They knew Yamamoto's intentions and even his order of battle. So Nimitz grabbed every ship and plane he could get, even two carriers that were barely cobbled back together, raced to Midway and was waiting when Yamamoto arrived.

The Americans won. Midway is considered the decisive naval engagement of the War in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor is argument for seeking out secrets. Midway is the argument for keeping secrets. They're pretty convincing and damn hard to argue against.


Deep fog: analysis

The intelligence services have two missions.

The first is analysis. Determining who might be an enemy and what they're going to do.

The intelligence community's record of failure in analysis is astonishing.

Here it is:

-- Told President Truman the Soviet Union wouldn't have nuclear weapons for four more years just three days before Truman found out they already had them.
-- Missed the Korean War. Then predicted China would not enter the war just before 300,000 Red Chinese troops crossed the border and almost drove American forces into the sea.
-- Missed the Suez Crises (the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Gamar Abdul Nasser of Egypt, followed by an invasion by Israel, England and France to get it back.)
-- Misjudged Castro in both directions, first in his Communist affiliations, then in his ability to hang on.
-- Failed to predict the collapse of the Dominican Republic. When it happened they told Lyndon Johnson that it was led by Castro's Communist agents. The United States invaded. The accusation against the Cubans turned out to be false, and that's the event that first created LBJ's "crediblity gap."
-- They didn't anticipate Lon Nol's coup in Cambodia
-- Missed the Colonel's coup in Greece.
-- Missed the Greek invasion of Cyprus. It led to a civil war combined with a war between Turkey and Greece.
-- Missed the Yum Kippur War.
-- Predicted that the USSR would never invade Afghanistan, lied that they'd missed it, then failed to know when the Soviets decided to pull out. They didn't even think about what would happen when the Russians left, the rise of the Taliban.
-- They didn't anticipate the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. More importantly, even after that, they failed to understand that renewal of religion as a political force in the world.
-- They didn't believe that Gorbachov wanted to end the Cold War.
-- They completely overestimated the stability, success and prosperity of the Soviet Union. They had no clue that it had rotted from within and that it was going to fall. They didn't predict the collapse of the Eastern Bloc symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
-- They thought Saddam Hussein was too weak from the Iran-Iraq War to invade Kuwait. They believed the dissidents and encouraged revolts against him that failed miserably. They believed the same dissidents when they said democracy would spontaneously arise after Gulf War II. They helped massage the intelligence about WMDs to justify that war. They failed to predict Iraqi resistance to the occupation and even now, barely understand who we're fighting.

There are two known specific successes. They predicted Israel's Six Day War. They tried to tell Johnson he couldn't win in Vietnam. He wouldn't listen (again, even when they were right, it ended up wrong.) A scorecard like that cries out that the failures are not a set of unique mistakes. They are systemic. They arise from the nature of the beast.

Deeper fog: spies and covert action

Since the last two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, have worked out so well, George Bush and Dick Cheney are test marketing a third one against Iran. The ostensible reason is that we have to stop them before they can develop a nuclear weapon. We don't have any ground troops left, so it has to be an air war.

Smart, smarter and smartest bombs and missiles will zip down the chimneys of their facilities and take out their capabilities -- and maybe their conventional forces while we're at it -- creating only the barest minimum of collateral damage. Collateral damage is dead babies, crippled children, burnt mothers and crushed fathers. It is further theorized that Iranians will be so angry at their own leaders that they will rise up and overthrow them! Regime change, that noblest of goals. All of this requires intelligence (information, not smarts). Do they actually have a weapons program? How close are they? Would they really use them? Where are the targets? How are they protected? How will actual Iranians actually react?

So the president picks up the phone and calls the CIA and says, "What do our spies tell us?"

The answer is, "Nothing."

In 2004, someone made a clerical error and sent a batch email to the CIA's network in Iran such that any recipient could identify all the others. One was a double agent. So much for that. No matter. We have our multibillion-dollar NSA super-secret, spy on anyone, don't need no courts or warrants, listening program! Remember Ahmed Chalabi? The Iraqi émigré, convicted of bank fraud, who orchestrated the "information" that Iraq had WMDs, and who was picked to be the Charles DeGaulle of liberated Iraq. He told the Iranians that we had broken the code of their intelligence service. That shut that down.

This is not a unique situation. It is the standard. The archtype. The prototype. The CIA has never been able to penetrate hard targets. Either to get information, to foment unrest, revolutions and coups, and to carry out assassinations. Hard targets refer to stable, authoritarian regimes, usually with an ideological base.

During the Cold War, that meant the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Poland -- Red China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba. Since the Cold War such targets include Iraq under Saddam, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and the nonstate enemy, Al Qaeda. They certainly tried. There was not just one Bay of Pigs. There were many.

Attempts were made in all the countries listed above. All of them failed. Thousands died. The number of successful spies that we recruited or planted, that succeeded and survived, can apparently be counted on one person's fingers and toes.

Still, the CIA has a fearsome reputation. It was acquired in 1953 with the famous coup that overthrew the elected government of Iran and put the Shah in power. This introduces us to the concept of blowback: unanticipated consequences that explode in our face. It can be immediate. The operation fails, we're caught with the our hands in the cookie jar and no "plausible deniability." Examples include the failed coup attempts in Syria and Indonesia in 1957; trading arms for hostages in Iran under Reagan (against U.S. law, and it only returned 3 of 30 hostages) and supporting armed insurrection in Nicaragua (against U.S. law, it failed, and the contras were dealing cocaine).

Or it can succeed, and its very success creates failure. The Iranian coup did attain its goals -- to save British oil interests and put an anti-Communist ally in power. Plus the Shah lasted 22 years. A hell of a run for anyone. However, it brought democracy in Iran to a dead stop. When the revolution finally came, it created an Islamic theocracy that sponsors terrorists and Islamic revolutionaries.

Other examples of blowback include:

-- South Vietnam, 1963: Coup against President Diem (assassinated). His successors were worse and even less able to pull South Vietnam together.
-- Congo, 1961: Coup against Patrice Lumumba (subsequently murdered). Mobutu Sese Seko took power, a corrupt, murderous dictator who looted the country for 32 years. Afterward, the country collapsed into civil war.
-- Cambodia, 1970: Supported Lon Nol after his coup. The CIA became his partners in running the country. A reasonably stable, neutral country devolved into a civil war that the Khmer Rouge won, and then launched one of the more horrific killing campaigns of modern times.
-- Iraq, 1958-68: Supported coup attempts that finally brought the Ba'ath Party to power, bringing the world Saddam Hussein.
-- Afghanistan 1979-89: The CIA's greatest success. Support of the Afghan rebels against the Soviet occupation. That war was Russia's Vietnam, but worse, a significant cause of the collapse of the Soviet system. However, no one gave any thought or attention to what would happen afterward. The rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

There were coups that succeeded in keeping Communists -- or just leftists out of power -- that didn't have particularly bad consequences for the United States, but were terrible for those countries.

Most prominent are:

-- Chile, 1973: Coup against Salvador Allende. Transformed a stable democracy into 16 years of dictatorship under August Pinochet. About 3,000 killed and another 25,000 put in prison for political offenses. His security forces even carried out an assassination in Washington, D.C. -- Guatemala, 1954: A coup against a left-leaning government. Led to "forty years of military rulers, death squads, and armed repression." (Tim Weiner) -- Indonesia, 1965: Sukarno replaced by Suharto, who ran an anti-Communist purge that killed 500,000 to 1,000,000 civilians.

From the '60s to the '80s there were right-wing coups all over South America. Beginning in 1975 the military governments and dictators of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru cooperated in Operation Condor, a program of assassinations, death squads, torture, disappearances and imprisonment of leftists. It's hard to pinpoint the degree of American involvement, but both the coups and the state-sponsored terror certainly received U.S. support and cooperation. The police, security and military forces that carried them out were largely trained by the United States -- often in the United States -- advised by U.S. intelligence, and became close to the U.S. intelligence community. The Cold War was a real war with many dead bodies and ruined lives.

Accepting the premise that it had to be fought around the world, was it won this way? Or could it have been won by supporting democracy and elected governments whichever way they wandered? That's the real question about the past. It was never seriously debated. Because, after all, it was all secrets. Which brings us to the question for the present and for the future: can secrecy -- of this sort -- work at all?

Deepest fog: secrecy corrupts, absolutely

It was a dark and stormy night at sea on Aug. 4, 1964. Off the coast of North Vietnam sailors on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy saw "ghostly blobs." Fearing that they were enemy torpedo boats, they began firing. They also took evasive action. Their sonar read each other's movements but were interpreted as torpedoes in the water. Reports were radioed back to Washington. Told that American forces were being attacked, President Lyndon Johnson ordered air strikes against North Vietnam. Johnson prepared to go to Congress to ask for a war powers act -- very like the one President Bush got for Iraq.

The NSA went to work on the presentation of the proof that the bad guys had shot first. The NSA's careful analysis of North Vietnamese and American signal traffic revealed that the United States had not been attacked. The ghostly blobs were tricks of light and darkness. The NSA did not inform the president of the error. Instead, they doctored the documents and committed a series of small forgeries -- changed some dates and used bad translations -- to turn the mistake into an official lie. Based on their evidence, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 416-0 in the House, 88-22 in the Senate, authorizing the war in Vietnam.

In 2001, NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok wrote it up for Cryptologic Quarterly, a classified publication. The article, "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August, 1964," reveals that Johnson wasn't told about the deception for four years. When he found out, he said, "Hell, those damn stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish." It was kept secret from us, the American public, for 31 years, until Hanyok's article was declassified in 2005.

Secrecy, in the name of National Security, is an invitation to lie. The invitation is frequently accepted.

Informants lie to agents who lie to bureau chiefs who lie to middle management who lie to cabinet officers who lie to the president who lies to us.

They do it to cover up failures:

"For eight years, from 1986 to 1994 [the CIA] knowingly gave the White House information manipulated by Moscow, and concealed the fact. To reveal it would have been too embarrassing. Ninety-five of these tainted reports warped American perception of the major military and political developments in Moscow." Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner

For money:

From the summer of 2002 through June 2004, the United States made secret payments of $335,000 a month to a group run by Ahmad Chalabi for intelligence about Iraq. That's about $8,000,000. "Internal reviews by the United States government have found that much of the information ... was useless, misleading or even fabricated." (Richard A. Oppel, Jr. N.Y. Times, May 18, 2004)

To advance a political agenda:

Chalabi's "useless, misleading ... fabricated" information was spread far and wide by Bush, Cheney, Tenet and Powell to make the case for war. It was also leaked to the N.Y. Times, which printed it as news and helped make the nonsense reputable.

There are a thousand reasons to lie. The impulse is normally kept under control by the threat of exposure. But in a culture of secrecy, it is unchecked. The system necessarily becomes corrupt.

As the Vietnam War went on and on, the Department of Defense commissioned a secret study of the war. It showed that the government had lied about the war. It also made it pretty clear that we didn't have a clue how to win it. Naturally the DOD wanted to keep that information to itself. They feared that if the public knew, they couldn't continue to fight the war they couldn't win.

Daniel Ellsberg made a copy of the Pentagon Papers and gave them to the New York Times who began to publish them. The Nixon administration sued to stop them in the name of National Security. The Pentagon Papers revealed little or nothing the "enemy" didn't know. What the president wanted to hide under the cloak of national security was lies and incompetence.

The first thing we looked at was the intelligence community's record of analysis. Statistically, their predictions rank lower than consulting Maria, the storefront Gypsy fortune-teller on East 101st Street, tossing a coin and asking Bill O'Reilly.

This happened for a reason. And the reason is the culture of secrecy, where lies and incompetence can grow like mold unexposed to sunlight. On those rare occasions when they were right, it didn't help. An administration could choose to ignore them, as Bush/Cheney did upon taking office when they were warned about terrorism generally, and again in the summer of 2001 about an impending attacks.

Or they can put on enough pressure to pervert the analysis, so as to make a case for the war they wanted. They could do so because -- and only because -- the process was hidden under the cover of "national security." Secondly, we took a look at covert actions. By the standards and goals of American policy, there were undoubted successes. Secret funds and assistance helped create stable democracies in Western Europe and Japan.

Others successes established tyrants, torture and death squads. Some that had unintended consequences, notably the rise of militant Islam, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. There were many spectacular blunders -- some very public, some very secret. The disasters -- and the hundreds of thousands, even millions of deaths that ensued -- were enabled because the planning and the execution took place in secret.

There was no debate over whether, for example, it was better to risk a real democracy in Iran back in 1951, rather than put in a complaisant, friendly despot. No debate over letting elected leftist leaders like today's Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales try their experiments, let them run their course, rather than institute coups and support death squads to murder their supporters.

The Cold War was the Golden Age of Spy vs. Spy. The Soviets were much better at it than us. They were better because they were obsessed with secrecy and had a closed society. But those same factors were what brought about their downfall. It's why their economy failed, why they failed to keep up technologically (in spite of their triumphs in big science), and even what at the end of WWII was the greatest army the world had ever known was unable to hold a third-world wasteland like Afghanistan. Secrecy corrupts everything it touches.

The more secret we become, the more inept and incompetent and noncompetitive we become. If an idea, an organization, or a plan is good, it will remain good when it's examined in the light of day. If it's bad, it is more likely to flourish and grow in the darkness of "state secrets."

If we could go back over the last 60 years and throw out all our "secret intelligence" services and redo everything in public, it is likely we would have done better than we have done. Those things we have done most well, we have done mostly in public view. There are things that require secrecy. But even if we go back to the Battle of Midway, it is clear that they are purely tactical.

Yes, it was important that the Japanese didn't know we'd broken their codes. But the argument that it had to be secret that we were trying to break their codes, is false. Of course we were trying to break the codes. They knew that. The sort of things that actually require secrecy are, on an international scale, analogous to the sort of things that we allow the police to keep secret in an open, democratic society. Who we are making a case against. The names of informants. When the raid will take place. How many officers -- or soldiers -- will be involved. Specific operations. And so on.

It is no secret that we look down on the world, in detail, from high flights and satellites. Google Earth does it too. It is no secret that we listen to phone calls, and track emails and financial transactions. There's no reason not to have courts oversee it. Or else we'll be checking up on journalists, activists and politicians the administration doesn't like, as been happening under most of our recent presidents and as -- I hazard a guess -- we are doing now.

It is no secret that we have people wrongly imprisoned and have created a class of people with no rights. It is no secret that we engage in torture and in rendition, which is conspiracy to commit torture, and is banned by the same laws and treaties that ban torture itself. We should also note that the world has changed. War -- especially asymmetrical warfare -- is no longer a matter of two great fleets maneuvering in the vastness of an ocean, blind to each other. Nowadays, we have far more information than we can process.

The 9/11 attacks did not succeed because we did not have enough information. We had the information. They succeeded because the information was not processed. And the information was not processed specifically because of the culture of secrecy. The CIA didn't tell the FBI, the state and local police forces, customs and immigration. The NSA didn't share with the CIA. An attack as clumsy and full of flaws as the 9/11 attack could not happen today because everyone in every law enforcement agency -- and in the public at large -- is awake and watching.

It's possible that some future attempt may be better and more professionally executed. If so, the best hope of thwarting it is more people knowing more, and knowing more accurately, what is going on. We need to be looking for three or four or ten or twenty individuals, walking amongst us millions.

They will be found if millions of eyes are looking for them. If we want to be players all over the world, and we apparently do, we would do better to invest in language programs and foreign studies and spend enough money to make salaries attractive to people who want to understand the world. And do it in public. The final, and most destructive, corruption that results from the culture of secrecy, is that "secret intelligence" trumps public intelligence. It is presumed that our leaders have all the public information which is available to all of us, plus, their superspecial, ultrasecret national security info. Therefore, when they say, "Who you gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?" the media and the public, say, "You, of course. What's obviously true, on the face of it, must be wrong."

This leads to foolish and inept decisions, like the Vietnam War. If we want to be successful players, it would be best to debate what we're doing without the pretense that our leaders of have "secret'"information that is somehow better than public information. Because it isn't. It's worse.

Hopefully that will make it harder for them to sell us actions as stupid as the invasion of Iraq. And afterward use the fog of national security to shroud it all so that no one is responsible for failure.

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Larry Beinhart is the author of "Wag the Dog," "The Librarian," and "Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin." All available at nationbooks.org.