In a recent conversation with a colleague, I remarked the ODNI needed a policy shop, just like the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff or the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Such an office would help steer the Intelligence Community through difficult times, allow it to respond more strategically to a myriad of challenges, and force the ODNI to consider more than a narrow information sharing mission.
To my surprise, I’ve discovered that the ODNI already has a Policy & Strategy (P&S) office, led by an Assistant Director of National Intelligence for Policy and Strategy.
This begs the question—what does this office actually do? And why didn’t I know it existed? Continue Reading
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, this summer CIA released private emails between agents and agency higher-ups about an important internal matter. The emails did not concern potential counterintelligence threats, metadata collection, or terror plots but something far more universal: complaints about the CIA’s cafeteria food. One email complained that there were not enough grapes in the mysteriously named “Jazz Salad,” another opined that the sandwich bread was too hard, and a third griped that Langley’s Burger King franchise did not carry the Dollar Menu. Comedy Central’s The Daily Show dubbed its satirical news story about the emails “Zero Dark Foodie.”
And so it has come to this. In the era of the Wikileaks document dump and the Snowden breach, aggressive reporting and permissive information access laws, America’s once ultra-secretive intelligence apparatus has come into the light. Continue Reading
Is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) currently being used by the National Security Agency to make requests to U.S. companies for data stored outside the United States? I have asked this question to many legal and technical experts over the last year (I have pointedly not asked this of anybody in a position to impart classified knowledge of the 702 program). The responses have varied widely, from “Of course – I’ve always assumed it was used that way,” to “I don’t know, but it could be used that way,” and “No. Why would NSA use 702 when it could collect the same information internationally using E.O. 12333 authorities?”
The answer has big implications for both the national security and tech communities. I am writing here to highlight the three considerations that are important to answering this question.
Last month, White House officials temporarily pivoted rebalanced their attention away from Syria and Iraq and back to Asia, after a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11 fighter conducted a close intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8A reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The U.S. pointed out the Chinese pilot’s dangerous behavior—banking, crossing, and performing a barrel roll over the top of the U.S. plane– while the Chinese denied all charges and called the accusations “groundless.”
To be clear, Chinese fighters engage in dozens of intercepts of U.S. surveillance planes each year. The vast majority are considered “standard,” and are conducted with a basic level of military professionalism. While there is a certain amount of risk involved in any military engagement, for Beijing it is important to communicate a message: we know you’re there, and we can’t stop you—but we don’t like it.
Occasionally, however, an intercept will be “non-standard”—engaging in aggressive or unprofessional actions that dramatically increase the risk of a mid-air collision. Most of these intercepts will never make it to the front page of newspapers or CNN. When they do occur, however, analysts are often asked whether it indicates a new pattern emerging. Let’s consider three possible explanations for this latest episode, along with implications for U.S. security.
A former intelligence analyst colleague once provided me with what he described as “counterterrorism analysis pillars of wisdom.” These were nuggets of truth that he had learned over the course of his career. The pillars are valuable for anyone trying to understand both the business of counterterrorism and the way we talk about counterterrorism in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. I will likely refer to them frequently on Overt Action. Here is a short summary of each.
Aki Peritz recently talked to CNN about what we can learn about the British citizen who appeared in ISIS’ recent murder videos.
Dr. Herbert Lin has an excellent article in Science Magazine this month that teases out the technological fault lines that have emerged over the last year in the debate over digital surveillance. I want to call attention to the section on necessary verse useful data. Herb contends:
“Critics of U.S. collection efforts have argued that information derived from many surveillance programs has not been necessary in thwarting any terrorist plot. Less has been voiced about whether a given piece of information, even if not absolutely necessary, may still be useful. Intelligence analysis does not seek to reach a conclusion that might be possible from a minimal set of information but rather conclusions that are supported as much as possible.”
For those who have not seen it, check out Aki’s provoking essay, Why Obama Will Bomb Syria, and also the rebuttal from Jonah Shepp, Why Intervene in Iraq and Not Syria. In his piece, Aki articulates why, given the current trend line with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Obama Administration will ultimately conduct strikes against ISIL in Syria. I’m uncertain of Aki’s conclusion here, if only because our policy towards Syria has become such a mix of contradictions that it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty where we will end up. I want to use this opportunity, however, to highlight a two themes that may on occasion appear on OvertAction.org and that are apparent in this debate.
Marshall Erwin wrote a very provocative piece in Real Clear Defense earlier this summer entitled “Are National Security Lawyers a National Security Threat?“:
After a year of public debate following the Snowden disclosures and with surveillance reform legislation finally moving forward in Congress, it has become clear that the United States is under threat from within from its own national security law scholars. These legal professionals and their counterparts in the civil liberties community have made compelling arguments for and against NSA surveillance programs. But they serve to distract us from important questions about national security and intelligence community efficacy. Taken in aggregate, this hurts America’s national security bottom line.
Hello. Welcome to OvertAction.org.
Intelligence plays a critical role in safeguarding America’s national security. Despite its pivotal and growing role, relatively few intelligence experts provide their informed perspective in the cut-and-thrust of the public square.
Yet national security and intelligence policy is not crafted in secret—it is debated in the White House, in the halls of Congress, in the 24/7 media, and across the Internet. In this fast-moving discussion, there is a lot of garbage that passes for commentary on intelligence matters.
OvertAction.org is the sharp, nonpartisan tonic for dispelling misinformation and confusion that dog the critical intelligence debates of our time. We have two basic goals—to provide the public with greater insight into the intelligence community and to provide critical analysis of national security issues that are ripe for intelligence insights.