I stand by my last post

I am sticking with my compliments to the FBI, despite what a number of idiots on Capitol Hill have to say about the organization’s performance in Boston. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) recently commented that 12 years after 9/11, we are still unable to connect the dots and that the system “is still not working.”

He is right that it is not working, but not because no one can connect the dots. It’s because Congress has overburdened both the FBI and CIA with so much unnecessary process that it is impossible to keep up with the volume of boxes that need to be checked and at the same time to find anything meaningful in the information. 

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was included in three different databases, all of which were created in the flurry of post-9/11 intelligence reforms: a Guardian file, maintained by the FBI; the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), maintained by the Department of Homeland Security; and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Enviroment system, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center. 

Each database contained a different spelling of Tsarnaev’s name. And they each contain way too many names to make any of them meaningful.

These databases are only one example of the redundancies that have been put in place since 9/11. 

The FBI and CIA officers involved in this case didn’t drop the ball. They knew who Tsarnaev was. My guess is that officers from both organizations feel angry that they couldn’t do more because they were so busy filling out required forms in triplicate and reporting through various different channels exactly what they were up to and waiting for permission to proceed from a 30-person operational committee (some of whose members were on flex-time, thus precluding the quorum necessary to take a final vote). They were probably also told by management that chasing a radical Chechen wouldn’t get anyone promoted.

Some redundancy is good. But when FBI and CIA officers become so entrenched responding to Congressional mandates (usually written, by the way, in a manner that demonstrates how little members understand about the collection of intelligence), such redundancy becomes not just bad, but a liability. 

I hope Congress does not overreact and add ever more regulations after the Boston experience. We can and should always look for ways to improve, but additional bureaucracy is not the answer.

What do you think?? Send me a comment!

Applause for Massachusetts Law Enforcement

Kudos to the Boston Police Department, Massachusetts State Police, and the FBI. To identify the Boston marathon bombing suspects in the thousands and thousands of pictures, and with such a large crime scene, in only three days, is remarkable. My hat goes off to all the officers and investigators.

According to CNN (admittedly, not the most reliable source, as we have seen over the past few days), Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers and the one who was killed this morning in a shootout with police, once posted on social media, “I don’t have a single American friend.” 

I’m no Emily Post, but blowing up a beloved event and maiming and killing people doesn’t seem like the best way to make friends. Maybe try buying a round of beers next time. In a place like Boston, you will instantly have an entourage.

And now we find out that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, has been tweeting while on the lam. Are young people really so addicted to Twitter? Didn’t he have other things to do this week?

I find the concept of tweeting terrorists funny, which is why I put some in my forthcoming book, Victor in the Rubble. (This last part of this post is bald promotion, nothing else. At least I admit it.)


Sneak Peek

A big thank you to everyone who helped tweet my first blog post around, and a special shout out to Sage Sweetwater for her editing contributions to my manuscript!

Let’s start getting even more involved. Send me comments! I will reply! We’ll laugh. We’ll cry. We’ll emoji…

Do you love The Onion? I do. And I was thrilled to see this article the other day. The concept of al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri delivering a TEDtalk is hilarious.

If you like that kind of humor, you’ll love my upcoming book, Victor in the Rubble. Let’s face it: terrorists can be funny. A terrorist in an IKEA store shopping for FJELLESE and VARMLUFT furniture is funny (that’s in my book!). Also funny (and also in my book) is the concept of a terrorist group acting like a corporation.

So in the same vein as the above article from The Onion, here is a sneak peak at a snippet from my book. Just as a lead-in: Omar is a terrorist from the West African country of Pigallo. He is attending a terrorist convention in Las Vegas…


This morning’s lecture was of particular interest to Omar and he opened his notebook and readied his pen as the speaker approached the stage and flashed up the first slide in his presentation, titled: “Leading Generation Y: Making mission count with the Me Generation.”

“Welcome, everyone,” said the presenter. He took a sip of his latte. “I’m here to talk to you about the next generation of terrorists. The Me Generation of terrorists. The first thing you need to know about our future terrorist leaders is: They need constant praise and feedback.” He switched to the next slide, which showed the words “PRAISE” and “FEEDBACK” next to large dots, and which had a picture of a very cute puppy up in the corner. “Tell them how they are doing and how they can improve. Here are a few examples of how we can turn a critique into positive feedback that will really resonate with today’s youth.” He jumped to the next slide and read aloud the phrases that were boldly printed on the screen.

“Leaving all your keys in the lock of the car trunk was not the best move, considering the car did not blow up and the police were able to use the keys to find your apartment. But on the bright side, Times Square remains a valid target.” He looked briefly at the audience, who nodded and jotted down notes, then read the next one. “I’m sorry it made you feel sad when I didn’t pick you for the Germany plot. However, your help getting tea for the planning team was a very positive contribution.” He switched to the next slide and read, “No, that vest does not make you look fat.” The slide clicked again.

“While the loss of your right hand could have been avoided had you been a little more cautious, you did an excellent job with the circuitry on this bomb.” The presenter turned to the audience. “This one actually brings us to another point. This is a real example, based on a situation I was in with a young terrorist. He had been texting, and therefore not paying full attention to what he was doing. Indeed, this young generation is incredibly wired. And I don’t mean wired the way you think I mean it. I’m not talking about bombs here. I mean wired, as in, constantly plugged in to the Internet, social networking, that kind of thing.” He went to the next slide. “This is my Facebook page.”

Omar had heard about this phenomenon, but he had never seen it. He looked up at the screen with wide eyes. The presenter had 486 friends. Omar looked at the list and the accompanying photos. Fatima wore a full veil, only her lovely eyes showing. Yasmine’s profile photo looked exactly the same. So did Raya’s, Rana’s and Jada’s. Several of the presenter’s friends were named Mohamed. They had no profile picture at all.

“Today’s young terrorists aren’t content receiving orders by mule,” the presenter went on. “They want, they expect, communications to come to them anytime, anywhere, through text, through Facebook, through instant messages, through Wii and Playstation.”

Omar looked more carefully at the Facebook page. It was amazing, he thought. They could communicate everything right there, from their mobile phones if they wanted. He read several of the status updates. Fatima was “shopping for lingerie.” Yasmine was “separating my husband’s liquids into dozens of 3oz. bottles for his trip tomorrow.”  Hamid said, “Just got body scanned. Is it bad if I like it when they touch my junk?” Ahmed had written, “Riding the metro, marking the exact time.” Abed had “just signed up for the 3 River nuclear plant tour. Woohoo!” Asim was “trying to finish my student visa application. What’s another way of saying Explosive Personality?” Yusef had “just reported something suspicious to a Wal-Mart employee.” Terrence was “connecting wires. Does the blue go to the red or gree….” His status update ended there.

Let’s get this party started

A recent article in the Washington Post (“Secret report raises alarms on intelligence blind spots because of AQ focus”) highlights one of the themes I tackle in my upcoming book, Victor in the Rubble (see The Book section for more). Namely, that the CIA’s operational side, the National Clandestine Service, has moved away from traditional collection toward a more paramilitary role. To an extent, this was an inevitable transformation in a post-9/11 world. But it was also shortsighted and correcting it is long overdue.

When the Bush administration opted, in 2004, to reform the intelligence community, the Agency began a hiring spree aimed at increasing its personnel by 50 percent. These new employees were rushed through ever-shorter training courses and quickly deployed to fill the growing number of empty slots in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At first, volunteering for these positions was a matter of duty and pride, a way to contribute to the war effort and fulfill a righteous mission. NCS officers began returning to the war zones for two, three, four or more tours. Training became more focused on how to handle a weapon and interrogate a detainee than on how to evade detection or recruit an asset.

The analogy I often heard was that being in Islamabad post-9/11 was like being in Berlin during the Cold War. Nobody wanted to be that guy, the one who hadn’t gone to a war zone. Pity the officer who couldn’t recount his or her first time sleeping in a freight container listening to mortars rain down on a base, even if that officer was fluent in Mandarin and had studied and/or worked in China for years before joining the Agency. A war zone tour was a badge of honor.

And I agree that it should be. Most of the people I know who went to those damaged places (many of whom came back damaged themselves) were honorable and hard-working officers who went with the right intentions.

But as the wars dragged on and mission creep set in, service in a war zone started to become more of an obligation, a box to check in order to be promoted, and heck, if it helped pay off the mortgage on a new house in Northern Virginia, then why not?

And unlike tours in Berlin during the Cold War, tours in the war zones have no basis in traditional tradecraft. As the Post article points out, officers tend to support military missions, not gather intelligence. The security situation makes it nearly impossible to leave base. Assets are met in armored cars with military escorts.

Many of the NCS’s officers only know this operational environment. They have never operated in a busy city, where they had to evade local security services and carry out operations in the open, completely unnoticed.

This puts us on shaky footing as the war efforts wind down and we come to realize the other threats that have been steadily rising around us over the past decade. These new threats, from China, Iran, and others, will not be countered in war zones, but in theaters much more similar to Cold War Berlin. Strikes between enemies will be played out in the shadows and adversaries will aim to outmaneuver, rather than shoot, one another.

Let me know what you think. Is our intelligence community prepared for future challenges? If not, what can we do about it? Leave me a comment!