America is about to have the distinction of having not one, but two intelligence officers appear on its currency. With the US Treasury’s announcement last month that Harriet Tubman will be replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, she joins spymaster George Washington on America’s legal tender.
While Tubman is best known for her efforts to help lead escaping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad– Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said she was “not just a historical figure but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy,” she was also a dedicated intelligence officer during the Civil War.
The following is adapted from a six-part series, titled, “The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking At Computers,” which is available in its entirety at alexzfinley.com.
The front line in any country’s national security is its intelligence service. Luckily for us, we’ve got sixteen different intelligence agencies and one Big Daddy agency to make sure all the intelligence kids play nicely with each other. If you measure our security by how big our security apparatus is, we are incredibly secure. But, “effectiveness” is a secondary concern, because it is really hard to fit in a metric.
But in true American fashion, everyone can and does contribute, just by participating. So let’s take a brief tour of some of the more interesting members of our Intelligence Community (IC).
If the IC were a school, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) would be the uncool principal. He makes sure all the kids play nicely together and to break up turf wars.
Sad to say, he has no authority over anyone. So if the math teacher (NSA) and history teacher (State Department) start fighting, he can’t fire either one of them. But he might ask them to write an essay about how they can work better together in the future.
One of Overt Action’s contributing writers, Alex Finley, just published a new novel, Victor in the Rubble: A Satire of the CIA and the War on Terror. It’s about chasing bad guys while working within CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (recently renamed the “Counterterrorism Mission Center”). We recently caught up with Alex and asked her about the challenges she had to face while putting this novel together.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Why did you write this book?
Victor in the Rubble started as a catharsis. It was my way of dealing with the trauma that was forced on the Intelligence Community in the wake of 9/11, Iraq, and the 2004 intelligence reform.
One day, I was at the office when something blew up in Yemen (it is a sign of the times that I no longer recall what, exactly, blew up) and a manager in the office I was in approached a case officer at his desk. On a nearby TV screen, we could see the fire in Yemen burning, people carrying out the dead. The manager asked the case officer—at that point a 12-year veteran of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Center—why he hadn’t yet filled out a survey on Agency employee satisfaction.
I thought the case officer’s head was going to explode. He managed to keep his cool just long enough to say to the manager (loud enough for the entire office to hear), “The terrorists aren’t filling out any [expletive] forms.” Then he walked out.
And I thought: What if terrorists did have to fill out forms? That would be hilarious.
When I left the Agency, I pulled together the bureaucratic ridiculousness I had experienced myself, combined it with some pretty great anecdotes from friends and colleagues, and decided to transpose that bureaucratic system on the terrorists. Indeed, what if terrorists had to fill out forms and go through the same bureaucratic rigmarole our Intelligence Community must go through? And just like that, I had a novel.
What kind of problems did you run into when putting this together?
Mark Twain once said that truth is stranger than fiction. That proved a real challenge for me, making true stories believable, even when they were completely absurd. There were several instances when the editor I was working with commented that a certain episode in the book was so absurd it didn’t seem possible and should be cut. I wanted to scream, “But that part actually happened!”
But of course I couldn’t tell her that.
– Belgium is one of the top nations sending Western European fighters in Syria.
– Days after the Paris attacks the Belgian government announced 18 new counterterrorism measures, though a majority of those steps have not been implemented. One measure would allow 24hr house searches in terrorism investigations. Previously house searches were prohibited between 9pm and 5am.
– Before the Belgian parliament votes on measures like these, it must first be cleared by Belgium’s privacy authority. That said, Belgium is said to have a “completely outdated” procedure for criminal investigations. Once an investigation into a terrorist case begins, Belgian security services are removed from the process, and no information revealed in the investigation is passed to them.
– Currently, Belgian intelligence service are not allowed to surveil the phones of suspected terrorists, nor are they allowed hack suspected terrorist’s phones or computers.
– Belgium has a population of around 11 million, yet they only spend close to 56 million on intelligence services. Staffing issues have been pointed to as part of the problem. Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said that prosecutors opened 315 new terrorism cases in 2015 alone and have already opened 60 new cases this year.
-According to The Guardian, “Belgian security services appeared–despite the quality of many individual officials–overwhelmed. It was revealed that a few hundred agents were supposed to watch over thousands of potential militants. ‘We are simply exhausted,’ one senior security official said in an email.”
– Belgium is “plagued by social rifts and rivalry between jurisdictions.” For example, Brussels has six police forces but each one answers to a different mayor.
Last year I had the opportunity to do something most intelligence professionals never do: I took a year off away from the community, and I studied analysis as an academic subject. In researching the topic, I also got to think a lot about what it means to create strategic intelligence and how well we really do it. Much of that year’s thinking was channeled into a graduate course on analysis that I’ll be teaching this summer through American University.
Looking in-depth at our history and our culture revealed more to me than nine years of working down in the trenches—and that’s telling. Granted, without those trench years, I wouldn’t have the foundation of experience to question or validate outside perspectives. But at the same time, it revealed the degree to which our culture and our processes inside the IC blind us to a honest evaluation of our capabilities, our strengths, and our shortcomings. That blindness is so routine that it has become part of our worldview.
Blindness? Well, more precisely myopia: the condition of being able to see things right in front of you clearly, while not being able to see things farther away. For this reason—and others—I began using “The Eye of Sauron” as a metaphor when I talk with my students about the powers and limitations of US intelligence.
If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies (or read the books), you probably remember the image: a giant, red, lidless eye hovering in the air, casting a searchlight-like beam of baleful maleficence out over the lands of Middle Earth. (An aside: I’ve never managed to get “baleful maleficence” past PDB editors, much to my chagrin.) Like the Eye, we have enormous capability and reach—but we still miss things that could kill us.
In Tolkein’s story, The Eye represents the hidden, oppressive surveillance that threatens to detect any misstep in the journey. (As some have said, one does not simply walk into Mordor.) Like The Eye, the surveillance and detection capabilities of the U.S Intelligence Community today are seemingly omnipotent. While analysts used to have to wait days to obtain collection taken from separate sensors, collection systems, and sources, today we increasingly can see a holistic, near-real time picture using fused collection inputs and sophisticated visualization. At its best, the “Eye” can see through cloud cover, past darkness, around walls—it can sometimes even fill in gaps and see things that aren’t there.
Earlier this year, the Central Intelligence Agency revealed its new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, an intensive three-year push to address some of the Agency’s longstanding diversity shortfalls. No sooner was the strategy announced than several journalists and commentators questioned whether diversity and inclusion merited priority status at an Agency where being right is the only thing that should matter. Was the CIA simply being politically correct, some wondered? After all shouldn’t expertise be the only criteria for hiring and advancement?
Such arguments are outdated and ill-informed. Research over the last ten years is demonstrating that a diverse workforce strongly correlates with better performance for organizations across domains and disciplines. Diversity makes you more right!
Much of this recent research is summarized in a 2014 Scientific American article by Katherine W. Phillips, a senior vice-dean at Columbia Business School: How Diversity Makes us Smarter. She cites the numerous studies that show how companies with diverse management teams routinely outperform companies with homogeneous C-Suites.
But the research I found most compelling and applicable to the Intelligence Community was an effort to understand how racial diversity affected decision-making in small groups. Three-person teams—some homogeneous, some not—were tasked with solving murder mysteries, an exercise not dissimilar from analytic work. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups without.
Yet as an intelligence analyst, I’m not satisfied with this correlation. I need to understand how diversity leads to better analysis and decisions. The new research also sheds light on this question. Phillips notes that it’s not just that people with diverse background bring different perspectives and value other kinds of information.
With the capture of Salah Abdeslam, the last living attacker in ISIS’ horrific attacks in Paris, French and Belgian authorities can now further determine what exactly happened on that terrible night in November. But the police would have never caught up to him had it not been for, well, a lucky break.
As CNN’s Paul Cruickshank noted,
“The trail had gone completely cold until Tuesday when police went to an address in Brussels that they believe was linked to the Paris attacks, but they had no idea that Salah Abdeslam or any other terrorists were inside.
There was a big firefight and two of the terrorists managed to escape. They believe that one of those was probably Salah Abdeslam and then they’ve been working 24/7 since then to try to get him and they have just got him into custody and they have got him alive.”
Taking advantage of good fortune plays a larger role in fighting terrorism than one might first suppose. As I recounted in Find Fix Finish, sheer luck was the reason why authorities in the Philippines were able to crack the infamous “Bojinka” plot—a Ramsi Yousef operation to destroy several US airliners leaving from Asia in midair—during the 1990s:
In the early morning of January 7, 1995, a member of the terrorist group accidentally ignited a chemical fire in the apartment’s kitchenette, forcing the evacuation of the apartment complex.
Here’s what caught our eye in the world of intelligence this week:
The Obama Administration is on the verge of allowing the NSA to share more of its intercepted data with other intelligence agencies without first applying privacy protections. Currently, NSA analysts filter intercepted information for the rest of the government and only pass on the portions of the emails and calls they feel is pertinent to the CIA, or FBI. The new changes would allow analysts from other agencies to evaluate raw information for themselves with the hopes of that they will recognize any possible ounce of value that a different analyst or agency missed.
However, the changes also mean that more people will be looking at private messages, some of which may belong to American citizens. Privacy advocates have criticized the change, but the Administration claims the draft that will permit the sharing will “protect privacy, civil liberties and constitutional rights while enabling the sharing of information that is important to protect national security.”
The ODNI released a second batch of documents confiscated from Osama bin Laden’s compound the night he was killed. In total, another 113 documents were declassified and released; still only a fraction of what was gathered during the raid in May 2011. Most of the material came from the last decade of bin Laden’s life and included letters he wrote to his lieutenants and loved ones.
Though the documents do not offer any major revelations they do show how bin Laden struggled to keep al-Qaeda’s main branch and its offshoots under control. One document is an education syllabus of sorts for new recruits that lists the subjects and skills recommended to be taught. Another document outlines a “chief of staff committee” style of military command intended to possibly be used as a structure for al-Qaeda. A similar structure is used by almost every NATO nation including the United States. Also declassified was a will thought to have been written by bin Laden in the 1990’s in which he mentions he has $29 million in a bank account in Sudan.
Adm. Michael Rodgers spoke at the RSA 2016 convention is San Francisco and discussed the state of cyber security in the United States as well as three things that keep him up at night. He told the crowd of security experts that his greatest fear is a cyber attack against U.S. critical infrastructure; which he claimed was not a matter of if, but when. Rodgers cited the example of the cyber attack on the power grid in Ukraine which left almost 100,000 homes without power and was the first confirmed cyber attack that led to a loss of power. The second thing he claimed he feared was data tampering, which unlike data being stolen or deleted, is much more difficult to detect.
The third thing Adm. Rodgers said keeps him up at night is the potential that non-state terrorist organizations change their use of online resources from that of a recruitment tool and propaganda generator to an offensive weapon. Finally, Rodgers encouraged security experts to bring their talents to the government in partnerships and said the current debate on encryption is harmful to both sides.
photo: U.S. Navy Cryptanalytic Bombe (NSA)
The most secret book in the world has been generating a lot of press lately. Just last year, and to great public fanfare, CIA mostly declassified hundreds of President Daily Briefs (PDBs) served to President Johnson, capsule as well as the President’s Intelligence Checklist that President Kennedy read on a daily basis.
Now, for those intelligence junkies out there, we have perhaps the definitive unclassified history of this secretive daily publication in “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama,” by former CIA analyst and briefer, David Priess.
Why did you decide to write this book?
A few years ago, after a burst of reading on intelligence history, it struck me: no one had yet produced a comprehensive study of the President’s Daily Brief. Here’s this daily product that has informed presidents and their closest advisers for 50 years—how has it remained virtually ignored in books on national security decision-making, and even within intelligence studies?
I quickly discovered that former PDB recipients from the 1960s forward were willing to share their stories involving daily intelligence. Also, digging deep into various archives revealed great context for the PDB’s production and delivery.
A book began to take shape in my mind. My own experience briefing the PDB during the George W. Bush administration showed me how much analytic value the daily product conveys to senior officials, whose schedules allow little time for extraneous information and assessment. That’s a tale worth telling. I hope that The President’s Book of Secrets both offers the public a window into the little-understood world of daily intelligence for the president AND helps intelligence professionals by informing them of their own history.
Why has the PDB become the cornerstone for the US intelligence community? Do other nations have a similar publication, or is it a uniquely American document?
It’s all in the name. First, The PDB is written for the President, tailored to his individual needs and preferences—a channel that naturally becomes a center of gravity for the community. Second, the PDB has gone to press almost daily since 1964, demanding a ritual of production and delivery that’s hard to pull resources away from. Third, it’s brief—rarely more than 20 pages, often much shorter—allowing the president to digest its content more easily than typical government reports running from dozens to hundreds of pages.
My research focused on US presidents and their daily intelligence; I’ll leave it to others to take the next step and tackle a comparative study. One vignette in my book offers a starting point: as one meeting with President George W. Bush ended, Vladimir Putin taunted CIA director George Tenet by claiming that he, too, had a book like the PDB!
Among all the victims of ISIS, here’s one that has gone nearly unnoticed: study abroad.
Don’t worry: “study abroad” itself remains highly popular. The number of Americans studying overseas in 2014 was 5.2% higher than in 2013, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, following a trend that has seen student expats more than tripling over the past two decades. More young Americans than ever before see studying in a foreign country as a necessary part of preparing for a professional career.
Just not in the Muslim world.
304,467 American students studied overseas in 2013-14, and of the top 25 destinations almost half (12) were to Western countries. The top four were the UK, Italy, Spain, and France; China is now at number 5, after a remarkable surge in popularity. More non-Western nations emerge farther down the list: Costa Rica (8), Japan (10), South Africa (11), India (12). Although Europe remains on top, with 53.3% of the total, Latin America is popular (16.2%) and Asia is well represented (11.9%). Even sub-Saharan Africa gets a nod.
But the Middle East and North Africa—the area containing most of the world’s Muslim-majority nations—represent barely 2% of the total. And even this statistic is deceiving, because the single most popular Middle Eastern destination is Israel. There’s nothing wrong with studying in Israel, of course, but last year the tiny country hosted more Americans than all the Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations combined. True, Jordan and the UAE get a substantial number, but 11 out of the remaining 15 Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa had fewer than 30 American students each. That’s .0001%, if you’re counting.
Why does this matter for intelligence? Because a crucial part of doing the job is providing context for understanding what’s going on in the world. We can have the best HUMINT, SIGINT, and IMINT in the world, but as an analyst if you can’t bring a sense of cultural context to what you’re seeing, you can’t help the policymaker see what’s really going on.