Gulliver Tied Down by Lilliputians
One in five applicants for jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency have ties to Muslim terrorist organizations, according to the latest round of Snowden leaks. And Israel is a major target of American counterintelligence. Washington is insane.
Three years ago, the Washington Post sketched the elephantiasis in the U.S. intelligence establishment without, of course, access to the detailed numbers leaked by Edward Snowden last week. It doesn't matter how much money you spend if you can't hire people you can trust. If you spend $52 billion in the "black budget," you create so many conflicting bureaucratic interest groups as to cancel out any possible signal with a wave of noise.
As I pointed out in a 2010 post at First Things, reproduced after the page break, at last count there were fewer than 2,500 Americans studying Arabic at advanced university courses (not counting, of course, the internal training of the U.S. military). Fewer than 250 were studying Farsi. The total pool of truly competent Arab speakers coming out of American universities per year probably is in the low hundreds. How many of these can U.S. intelligence agencies recruit? If we can't recruit translators among Americans whose background is verifiable, we rely on first- and second-generation immigrants from Arab countries whose background is not verifiable. We should assume that our intelligence services are riddled with hostiles. We are Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians.
Israel, by contrast, has a surfeit of Arabic translators -- the language is taught in every Israeli high school, and is easy for Hebrew-speakers to master. Israeli friends of mine who were trained as Arabic translators for intelligence work were sent to guard duty in the Negev because the military had too many skilled linguists.
The U.S. has relied extensively on friendly Arab intelligence services, above all the Egyptians, to fill the gap -- except that the Obama administration did its best to bring down the Egyptian military in 2011 and install the Muslim Brotherhood. The Israelis have plenty to tell, but little that Washington wants to hear: Israel never fell victim to the mass delusion about the so-called Arab Spring, and has warned throughout (along with Saudi Arabia) that Iran's nuclear ambitions must be crushed. Israel therefore is treated as an intelligence target rather than as a collaborator, while the Arab intelligence services who most might help us -- Egyptian and Saudi -- must regard us with skepticism in the best of cases and hostility in the worst.
America is flying blind into a hurricane. Americans who write about the Middle East now depend on what other countries choose to leak to us. Washington isn't in the loop any longer.
American Culture and American Intelligence
“Intelligence,” both in the national security as well as the ordinary sense of the term, is limited by the culture from whence it stems. Dana Priest’s and William Arkin’s Washington Post account of chaos in the American intelligence community, “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” has prompted a round of finger-wagging at both the Bush and Obama administrations. But the glaring problems in America’s intelligence services stem from an underlying failing in American culture, exacerbated by massive over-resourcing and duplication of effort in response to 9/11.
According to Priest and Arkin, “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don’t dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency’s analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.” They report:
Among the most important people inside the [intelligence installations] are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.
At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.
Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.
But where is the intelligence community likely to find personnel qualified for foreign intelligence? A rough but useful gauge is the number of university students studying the languages terrorists typically speak.