Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: Senate staffers are scurrying along the dark corridors of the nation’s capital this week trying to find the answer to the single question asked of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee and interestingly, Dianne Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee. The question is this: did the US intelligence goof over the Benghazi attack?
Two days before the attack, an intelligence warning was sent from Washington to the embassy in Cairo. It had no specific warning of attack. It reported that something was stirring.
The fact that US intelligence was caught out must be a vital piece of information now in the hands of Feinstein’s committee: the warning however vague was not sent to the US embassy in Tripoli and therefore never reached Benghazi. Although the visit to the Benghazi consulate by ambassador Chris Stevens was meant to be secret, Washington did not circulate a ‘lock-down’ order on Middle Eastern diplomatic offices and there was no US Marine Corps detail for protection on the day at the consulate – which would have been routine if they had had information of a possible attack.
This suggests that the US State Department had no warning, otherwise it would have been acted upon. However, there is one likely explanation so far not explored. US intelligence may have had a warning from an outside source but it never got into the system and certainly did not reach the duty and desk officers in the CIA and Department of Defence.
There is, inevitably, worse to come. The consulate raiders appear to have escaped with documents containing names of Libyans working for American intelligence. Apart from personal dangers, this one breach could blow a whole section of US intelligence gathering not just in Libya but in the whole region.
There are some 14 different intelligence agencies in Washington ranging from satellite and near-earth observation to electronic intelligence and on the ground agent running. All sounds good but America’s problem is that each agency jealously guards its territory and utterly mistrusts the motives and competence of the others. Not surprising therefore that no successful means of drawing them together or, importantly, pooling their assets has been discovered. There is a co-ordinating chairman, but it’s virtually a token job. Little wonder Washington gets it wrong.
Intelligence gathering in the Middle East is notoriously confusing. The two best snoopers are France and Israel. Both have long and nervous histories and good reason to know what’s going on – in Israel’s case it is potentially a matter of its very survival. The Russians and Americans have the most comprehensive near earth observation with 90 minute pass satellites and high geostationary craft with real time to ground station transmissions. The Americans also have and use manned and drone gathered Intelligence. They all use ground-based electronic eavesdropping including the British comprehensive electronic listening posts in Cyprus.
The trickiest gathering comes from agents on the ground getting what the trade calls Humint – Human Intelligence. Maybe the Israelis are the best at this not only with their own officers but even more through their handling of local agents. The weakness here is the ability to run agents and to assess the motives of agents who may be telling against their own kind. If it’s all about ideology, then it is a dangerous and unreliable game. If the agent is doing it for the money, then the ground is surer. But particularly difficult to assess is the fact that an Intelligence handler has to decide if the information is true as the agent understands it, or is she or he simply telling you what they think you want to hear. Or worse, is the agent passing on dud stuff because he’s working for the other side or even three or four handlers.
The overall task is to know what has happened, what is happening and what is going to happen.
Knowing what has happened is what’s going on now. It fingers the culprits and if possible says who was behind the raid or whatever. This becomes amazingly important, not for retribution but to see if there’s to be follow up action that this time could be stopped. The what is happening Intelligence is the quick analysis of the reaction among other groups and the reliability of sources. What is going to happen is obviously crucial and often comes from the first two forms.
There is an obvious weakness in this at first sight, comprehensive Intelligence gathering arrangement. The weakness of it all is in the analysis of information. Often it is overwhelming, especially after an operation. If the analysis is not thorough and expert, then the vulnerability of a whole nation is exposed.
One intelligence operation is missing here. If you really want to know what is going on in, say, the Gulf, then the best people to go to are the oil companies. They have the best eyes and ears in the region. They pay a lot to protect their assets.
Looking at this picture of the Middle East intelligence tapestry it is easy to see why a desk officer at the State Department, say, might never be quite sure of what’s on the screen. When the officer is reporting to the top man or woman who is the busiest person in the world that day, then the temptation is not to pass on the analysis, or even for it not to be read. On those occasions, the law of Murphy reigns. The consequences could be catastrophic.
That’s the size of the problem on Dianne Feinstein’s desk this week which is why she will say that the next stage will be a full-scale congressional inquiry without letting in Washington’s carpet sweepers. All sounds good, but there’s probably a hack garage movie maker at the corner of Hollywood and Vine even now doing a copy-cat movie. Which is a reminder that YouTube has become an intelligence source for everyone.