Belmont Club

Nothing Toulouse

The Telegraph notes that French intelligence may have missed a few indications that Mohammed Merah was not the average guy. He was on the US no-fly list, apart from having been ejected from Afghanistan in 2008 by US forces. French intelligence itself apparently had orders to watch him and had interviewed him on the occasion of his return from Afghanistan, which he described as being a tourist trip. But this particular anecdote in the Telegraph stands out.

Reports yesterday that in 2010 Mr Merah forced a teenager to watch videos of Al-Qaeda hostage beheadings and executions. When the boy’s mother filed a legal complaint, Mr Merah allegedly appeared with a sword shouting “al Qaeda” and attacked her, putting her in hospital for several days. She insisted the police did nothing.

There was, as one French politician put it, altogether “too many arms, too many trips, too much money” — and too much pull for Merah to be your typical lone gunman next door. The natural thing for conspiracy theorists to suspect was that he was somebody’s asset — just whose and on which side of the fence — is fertile ground for speculation. But there is one depressing alternative. Everybody just screwed up.

Take the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. If ever a man wore a neon sign proclaiming that he was a potential aviation threat, Abdulmutallab would be it. He was president of the Britain’s University Colleges Islamic Society, “the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years”.

In May 2009, Abdulmutallab tried to return to Britain, ostensibly for a six-month “life coaching” program at what the British authorities concluded was a fictitious school; accordingly, his visa application was denied by the United Kingdom Border Agency….

[after] … Abdulmutallab traveled to the mountainous Shabwah Province to meet with “al-Qaeda elements” before leaving Yemen … Abdulmutallab’s father made a report to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19 regarding his son’s “extreme religious views”

And still they let him on the plane. The reasons given may eventually be echoed — in French of course — by the secret services in that country. “U.S. State Department officials said in Congressional testimony that the State Department had wanted to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, but U.S. intelligence officials requested that his visa not be revoked. The intelligence officials’ stated reason was that revoking Abdulmutallab’s visa could have foiled a larger investigation into al-Qaeda.”

The dangers of figuring out just who is working for whom was illustrated by the Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, when an entire CIA cell was blown up by their prize agent, who as it turned out, was working for the other side.

The Camp Chapman attack was a suicide attack against Forward Operating Base Chapman, a key facility of the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan, on December 30, 2009. The base is located near the eastern Afghan city of Khost, in a stronghold of the Taliban movement. One of the main tasks of the CIA operatives stationed at the base was to provide information for drone attacks against targets in Pakistan. Seven CIA operatives, including the chief of the base, and an officer of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate were killed, and six others were seriously wounded when the attacker detonated a bomb he was carrying. The bombing was the most lethal attack against the CIA in more than 25 years. Only the 1983 United States embassy bombing surpasses the Chapman attack in number of CIA officers killed.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and western intelligence officials identified the attacker as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor. While the CIA thought that al-Balawi would be an important informant who could help the intelligence agency to capture top leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he actually was loyal to insurgents fighting against the U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan.

Intelligence operations are by their very nature a high-risk business. But as a CIA study remarked, the biggest intelligence failures are marked by two characteristics: a failure of fusion of knowledge and a lack of objectivity. The absence of fusion recalls that old medical chestnut. “The surgeon knows nothing but does everything. The internist knows everything and does nothing. The pathologist knows everything and does everything, but does it too late.” Everything is always clear on Monday morning to the intelligence pathologist. But everyone who died in the Sunday game is still dead.

Organizationally, we are not set up to cull critical facts and fuse them into analytic products that respond directly to our consumers’ needs. This stems from a glut of information, substantial personnel cutbacks that occurred at the end of the Cold War, the retention of Cold War structure in the face of those cuts, and, most important, the division of labor that occurred partly in response to these factors and to Congressional pressure.

The translation of the CIA paragraph above is that somebody has the missing piece and never knew he had it. But Lack of Objectivity is even more damaging to the intelligence cause. Here’s what the CIA says.

The second and related problem has to do with our decreasing ability to ensure objectivity. We have inadvertently built a high potential for bias into the system, striking at our integrity and at the core of the IC.

In other words people have agendas. They want to see the world in certain ways — whether the world is really like that or not — because their political masters want to view the world in that way. So you distort intelligence and if you want a world in which there are no jihadis, only right wing Neo-Nazis, then you get a world with only right wing Neo-Nazis.

The result of course, is that bad stuff happens. And here’s the third rule of intelligence failure which the CIA document omits. The really useful thing about post-mortems on failures is not what you learn, but who you can blame. The entire purpose of a post-mortem is to protect bias in the system. The result in these cases is that the least powerful bias is sacrificed to the gods. Such a sacrificial victim becomes the designated Fall Guy.

And life goes on.

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