The threat of politicized intelligence
If new US National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon needs a reminder of how stark the enemy threat is, he need look no further than today's discovery of printer cartridges rigged like explosive devices aboard UPS airliner cargo holds that left Yemen bound for Jewish Synagogues in the United States. A dry run? You bet. And not just to test the holes in air cargo security systems, but to test the reaction time and responsiveness of our national security apparatus.
The backroom maneuvering that led to Donilon's ascent and the departure of his predecessor, Gen. James L. Jones (USMC Ret), is a dangerous reminder of what happens when politics enters the world of intelligence gathering, analysis and policymaking. Donilon, whose reputation as a backroom Democratic Party wheeler dealer precedes him, would do well now to shed that skin and get down to the serious business at hand in containing and controlling threats that are approaching four-dimensional complexity against American--and global--security interests.
History is replete with bad decisions made by men and women charged with securing America who lamely, selfishly and often purposefully politicized intelligence for narrow political objectives. Those failures should serve as a reminder to Donilon and the team he assembles that America's enemies are lurking and waiting for any sign of weakness to attack us. And attack us they will.
During both the Clinton and Bush presidencies, political machinations repeatedly overtook good judgment in assessing the vast amounts of intelligence gathered by the most formidable surveillance apparatus the world has ever known. Bill Clinton repeatedly ignored warnings and advice from people in and out of government about the storm brewing inside Islam's radical fringe. On September 11, 2001, the hypothetical threat--ignored and politicized for so many years--became a harsh reality. We are living with the consequences of that misjudgment today.
Much of the failure to deal with militant Islam inside the Clinton presidency came from his national security team, which (with the exception of former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke) had little practical experience with military campaigns, counterterrorism strategies, guerrilla warfare tactics or other facets so critical to ensuring modern-day security. They repeatedly, and with increasing stridency, politicized intelligence gathering, analysis and policy responses. Sudan, on which I write from personal knowledge and experience, was a prime example of what America can never afford to allow again.
In February 1996 Sudan's dictator, Omar Hasan El Bashir, pinched by US economic sanctions, offered to trade Osama bin Laden's freedom in return for US economic sanctions on Khartoum being removed to allow development of Sudan's oil riches. President Clinton refused the entreaty, arguing the US did not have any evidence of crimes committed by bin Laden against the United States and therefore had no grounds to arrest him or have him extradited from Sudan to the US. Yet evidence of bin Laden's complicity in attacks against US interests prior to 1996 existed. Unfortunately, the evidence existed only in CIA files that Clinton never bothered to read with any regularity because he did not trust the intelligence community. The CIA had the names of two suspected Somali operatives, one of whom--Abu Talha al-Sudani--was a leading Al Qaeda explosives expert who had helped shoot down Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu in October 1993. Al Sudani was married to a Somali woman. The evidence of al-Sudani's complicity and ties to bin Laden (who had trained him in Sudan) would have led to an indictment of the terror master in a New York minute.
In 1997, the Sudanese offered up their intelligence files on bin Laden, Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups to the FBI and CIA, this time without conditions. In those files, detailed data existed about men (among them Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who traveled frequently to Germany to obtain electronic equipment for Al Qaeda, and Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian trader and Al Qaeda's accountant) who later formed the Hamburg Al Qaeda cell that sheltered Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two of the pilots that slammed US airliners into the World Trade Center on September 11th.
I negotiated that offer and hand-carried Bashir's letter from Khartoum to Washington in April of that year. Six months later, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accepted the offer--only to be overruled a few days later by Samuel R. Berger, Clinton's national security adviser at the time, and Susan E. Rice, then the incoming assistant secretary of state for East Africa. That a decision resulting from an in-depth interagency government process could be overruled by a narrow White House clique (because of personal misgivings about Sudan's veracity, or the agendas of American allies in the region that wanted to break up Sudan, or the political infighting that erupted between Berger and Albright about operational boundaries and limits on authority) clearly showed the dangers of politicizing intelligence and making policy on the basis of feel rather than fact.
In February 2003, a man of no less stature than Gen. Colin Powell got caught in the same trap when he appeared as President George W. Bush's secretary of state in front of the world at the United Nations. He argued that Saddam Hussein was removing Mobile Production Facilities for biological weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, and that as a result of incontrovertible American "evidence", the world had a moral obligation to go in and remove Saddam from power. The trailers were later found to have no trace of biological warfare. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. The narrow clique that ruled White House policymaking at the time (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc) simply bulldozed friend and foe alike into supporting the Iraq invasion because they had a world view, facts be damned to hell. A trillion dollars later, with an Iraqi nation decimated by war and mishandled in its aftermath, America finally decided to leave well enough alone and bring its soldiers home.
Is that the best we can do today with the bright minds we have in America? Internal cohesion and smooth operations of the national security team based on feel-good backhanding is no replacement for hard analysis of facts on the ground. Donilon needs to crack that whip first, not last--and he needs to do it fast. America needs a security apparatus led by men and women who seek truth and are compelled to convert that truth, whatever it may be and wherever it may lead, into a set of rationalized and actionable data that allows the president to make informed decisions.
Politicized intelligence was the Achilles heel of many a past president, with disastrous consequences emerging every single time. President Obama must insure that the principal legacy left by his outgoing national security adviser--integrity of the intelligence analysis and policy-response process, and a strategic vision for securing America against an ever growing array of threats--remains the baseline from which America makes its national-security policy decisions. If he does not, he may find one day soon that the very terrorists he was elected to thwart have come home to roost.
October 29, 2010; 5:47 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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