Friday, December 21, 2007

Intelligence politicized - again?

Recent Congressional calls for yet another investigation, this time into the destruction of CIA terrorist interrogation tapes, highlights another common misunderstanding of the U.S. intelligence community: the difference between the overall intelligence community and the Central Intelligence Agency. While this is understandable for the average citizen not to be clear on that difference, it is puzzling to hear it from a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

The Honorable Peter Hoekstra, one of many seeking an investigation, has been a member of the HPSCI since 2004. So why is he demanding that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) be held responsible and threatening with subpoenas, when it was the deputy director of operations at the CIA who ordered the destruction of the agency's own interrogation tapes. Has he learned so little about intelligence organizations and the activities of the very community he is helping oversee?

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 created the office of the Director of National Intelligence and subordinated the CIA once and for all under a national office, on par with the other intelligence agencies (DIA, NSA, NGA, etc). Whether CIA has accepted this arrangement remains debatable and Hoekstra's description of intelligence community leaders as "arrogant" may well fit the CIA leadership of 2005, when the tapes were destroyed. No doubt certain elements within the agency will continue to consider CIA "first among equals" and act accordingly.

While congressional oversight of the intelligence community mandates that the HPSCI and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) must be notified of significant intelligence activities in a timely manner, it is debatable
whether the destruction of the interrogation tapes actually rose to the level of significance requiring congressional notification. Much depends on how routine such actions are in other cases and if the tapes were destroyed after Congress requested them as evidence. Otherwise much of this latest congressional "outrage" could be viewed as yet another incident of playing politics with intelligence.

Any intelligence professional will view such "operational" documentation as highly sensitive and generally not releasable outside the organization. Consumers of any intelligence resulting from these interrogations, including congressional committees, should be concerned only with the end product, not the operational source information and methodology. The fact that some disagree with suspected methods and are eager to use such suspicions for political gains does not entitle them to this information. When dealing with national security and intelligence issues, there are good reasons for the classification and limited access to this information. This is also why each intelligence agency employs ever increasing legal staffs to review and approve specific activities. Let's not cripple ourselves in the pursuit of political correctness.

The possibility of politicizing intelligence also comes to mind with the release of the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. The 2007 NIE assesses "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
Contrast that with the 2005 NIE assesses "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." What is really behind this reversal? Should we assume an intelligence failure in 2005 or in 2007? Are there elements within CIA who disagree with national security policy and are using the NIE process to pursue political preferences?

Inquiring minds want to know...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Beyond debate - FISA Court ruling

Before citizens become outraged about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's recent refusal to release classified documents - let's take a deep breath and resist the media frenzy. The fact that this is about classified information should be a sufficient indicator. There are good reasons why certain national security-related information is not available to the general public, let alone potential adversaries.

The government is charged with the safety of our citizens and a potential compromise of "sources and methods" must always be a serious consideration when safeguarding intelligence information. Without these safeguards effective intelligence operations are impossible and endanger national security. Forcing the FISA court to reveal its deliberations over the intercept of terrorist communications would enable any adversary to determine how to circumvent U.S. intelligence collection. And if that is too esoteric - let's remember that preserving valuable intelligence resources funded by taxpayers is just as important. Granted, the U.S. intelligence budget, estimated near $40 billion, may not be the most significant portion of the national budget, but it is definitely relevant to the average taxpayer.

Regardless of occasional past transgressions, the U.S. intelligence community does classify sensitive information responsibly. More importantly, all of this is overseen by the two congressional watch dogs: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). Since these committees consist of our elected representatives, citizens' concerns should be adequately addressed. After all, that is what representative government is all about.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, has not released classified information in the past, nor should it now - for whatever reason. Neither is the ACLU in any way entitled to classified information, however much it considers itself a self-appointed citizen watchdog. Use of classified national security and intelligence information for political gains has never been legal or even acceptable and is not so now, despite intensified attempts in recent years.

"Beyond debate!" said U.S. District Judge John Bates. I could not agree more.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Iran NIE: the British weigh in against America...

Just a week after the American intelligence community released a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that reverses the assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, British intelligence officials have stood with their Israeli counterparts in opposition. The Israeli and British services – both professional organizations with excellent sources and reputations – still believe that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. intelligence would be well-advised to listen to their counterparts in London and Tel Aviv. The British have long-standing ties to Iran, as well as an embassy in Tehran – they have much better access than we do. Likewise, Israel has the advantage of its population of Iranian Jews, most of whom arrived in Israel after the 1967 war, with contacts in Iran. If both countries’ services believe Iran still has an active nuclear weapons program, perhaps our intelligence services should listen.

Good idea, right? Not so fast – intelligence services worldwide are reluctant to share information. Well, more accurately, they are reluctant to share their sources. Most of the time, it is not the information that requires protection, it is the need to protect the source that causes services to hoard information. For example, if the British had recruited an Iranian nuclear engineer who could provide information on the problems Iran is experiencing with their uranium enrichment centrifuges and he was easily identifiable as the source, they would be reluctant to provide that information to cooperating services – the Americans and Israelis – since that could lead to his identity.

Source protection is the paramount issue among “case officers” – intelligence operatives who spot, assess, recruit and manage spies. Give too much information away and you run the risk of “losing” your source. “Losing” your source generally means the source is either arrested and imprisoned or executed – you can imagine the treatment in Iran. Take it from an old case officer, we want to make sure we conduct our operations securely so our sources are not “compromised” – spy-speak for discovered and arrested.

On the other side, analysts are concerned about information, not the source. That’s why each report, each piece of information collected is classified at the appropriate level to protect the source. It usually is the source that is sensitive, not always the information itself. If the information could only be derived from a certain source, any compromise of that information places the source in jeopardy.

Because intelligence services jealously guard their sources, they are reluctant to share that information with other services. That’s why the British and the Israelis may have different, complementary, possibly contradictory information – they have different sources, and they may be reluctant to provide information from those sources.

Every country has information they are not willing to share. In the U.S. intelligence system that information is marked NOFORN, the abbreviation of “not releasable to foreign nationals.” The British and the Israelis have similar restrictions. This becomes a problem in combined operations, those military operations involving the forces of more than one country. For example, in Operation Desert Storm, we provided American NOFORN information to intelligence officers of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, our closest allies, but only for those at the headquarters and only for the duration of the operation.

We all have different sources of information on the Iranian program. Maybe we should be listening to the Israelis and British. Of course, they may have to reveal some sources and methods – that may be unlikely.

Rick Francona is a retired USAF intelligence officer with over 25 years of operational assignments with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East. He is an MSNBC military analyst. See

Monday, December 10, 2007

A bad week for the intelligence community....

This article appeared on

A bad week for the intelligence community
First the NIE, now the interrogation tapes

It must have been a long week for senior U.S. intelligence officials. Last Monday, the National Intelligence Council released a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, essentially reversing the community’s earlier assessment that Iran was pursing a nuclear weapon, a position taken in a 2005 estimate.

Before the debris had settled from that bombshell, CIA Director General Mike Hayden announced on Thursday that his agency had destroyed tapes of the interrogations of senior al-Qaida members Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh. Those tapes contained images of CIA officers employing “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s CIA-speak for water boarding. Hayden claimed the tapes were destroyed to prevent retaliation against CIA officers in the tapes if they had somehow leaked.

The long knives have come out on both sides of the Congressional aisle. Republicans are demanding hearings into the intelligence that led to the about-face estimate of Iran’s nuclear program, hinting that they believe the NIE to be politicized. Democrats, on the other hand, are calling for an investigation and possibly a special prosecutor to determine if laws were violated by CIA’s destruction of the interrogation tapes. At least one senator is charging a cover-up of CIA misconduct in the treatment of al-Qaida detainees.

Flash bulletin for Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell (whom I know and respect): At a time when you are trying to rebuild international credibility and shore up the American public’s confidence in the U.S. intelligence community, you don’t need the perception of incompetence these two incidents are going to generate, nor do you need the explosion of bipartisan witch-hunting that has already started.


Granted, Iran is a tough intelligence problem for the United States – I spent years working the Iranian issue in both the signals intelligence (communications intercepts) and human intelligence (source operations) disciplines and can personally vouch for the difficulty in penetrating this target. With no official U.S. presence in Iran, all intelligence must be collected from outside the country or gained from the cooperating intelligence services of other countries (Israel, the United Kingdom, etc). These factors detract from the quality of information we are able to collect and the intelligence we are able to produce.

Intelligence, by its very nature, is normally based on incomplete and often contradictory information. Analysts are called on to make assessments with the scarcest of data. Reliable sources with access to required information in Iran are difficult to develop. The 2007 estimate, supposedly based on new information, has been touted by many as an indication of an earlier intelligence failure. If this latest NIE is accurate, it could be viewed as an intelligence success.

That said, the question for the intelligence community remains: You were wrong in 2003 about Iraq. You were wrong in 2005 about Iran. Why are you right in 2007?

The tapes

There was probably no worse time for the revelations of the 2005 destruction of the interrogations videotapes. While I generally support the decisions of senior intelligence officials in these matters, I have to take issue with General Hayden. Destroying the tapes to protect CIA officers this is important, or course, but you cannot run an intelligence community on the assumption that information will leak. If so, you would not be able retain any source identification information. The tapes would be useful to prove to the Congressional oversight committees that CIA officers were operating within approved guidelines.

The tapes were destroyed in 2005, before Mike Hayden took over at CIA. He did not make that decision, but he now gets to defend it. Good luck.

We need accurate intelligence. We need an independent, nonpolitical intelligence community to produce that intelligence. It is unfortunate that these two events – the NIE reversal and the revelation of the videotape destruction – come at a time when the community needs all the credibility it can get.

Rick Francona is a retired USAF intelligence officer with over 25 years of operational assignments with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East. He is an MSNBC military analyst. See

Israel and the Iran NIE

This article appeared on

Israeli perspective on the NIE
Francona: Israel believes Iran is now the country's own problem to fight

The recently released National Intelligence Estimate – Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities – reverses the American intelligence community’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. The key judgments state that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and likely had not restarted it by mid-2007.

Within a week of the NIE release, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was invited to Tel Aviv to meet with senior Israeli military intelligence officials to hear their contradictory assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. In Israel, the military intelligence service (Aman) is the senior intelligence entity – it is responsible for intelligence estimates. In the United States, estimates are the responsibility of the community-wide National Intelligence Council.

The Israeli perspective

Israel views Iran differently than we do. To Israelis, Iran represents the “existential” threat to the Jewish state. While other countries present threats, only Iran is perceived to be pursuing capabilities that could destroy Israel. I was in Israel recently and every official presented the same position – Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons to complement its existing ballistic missile capabilities. When Iran has acquired the ability to strike Israel with a nuclear warhead, it will. Israeli analysts posit that three well-placed nuclear weapons in the area from Haifa to Tel Aviv, home to about half the world’s Jews, could deliver an unrecoverable blow that would effectively destroy the country.

Iran has topped Israel’s threat list for some time. No wonder when you look at Iranian involvement in Israel’s back yard. To the north, Lebanon is home to probably the world’s most effective irregular army – Hezbollah. Hezbollah is almost completely funded, equipped and trained by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force – the same group that funds, trains and equips the Shia militias that are killing American troops in Iraq. Most of the rockets that landed in northern Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 were made in Iran and funneled into Lebanon via Syria.

To the northeast, Syria is probably Iran’s closest ally. They have had a defense cooperation agreement going back over two decades. Damascus is the gateway for Iranian support to Hezbollah, as well as home to several Palestinian groups opposed to any peace agreement with Israel. Syria and Iran also operate joint intelligence sites intercepting Israeli communications. To the south and east, Israel is faced with terrorism at the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As with Hezbollah, both Palestinian groups are funded, equipped and trained by Iran.

Israel’s outlook

Israel believes that Iran has had an ongoing nuclear weapons development program, one that did not stop in 2007. In fact, Israeli intelligence analysts believe Iran could develop a weapon by 2010. Given the estimate just been released by the U.S. intelligence community, there is almost no chance there will be any American military action against the Iranian nuclear program. To Israel, that means what they believe to be a world problem will no longer have a world solution. It now falls on their shoulders to solve the Iranian problem.

While the recent NIE probably eliminated the possibility of American military action against Iran, it may have actually increased the likelihood of an Israeli attack.