Are We Safe Enough?

by on July 25th, 2004

I am not entirely sure what to make of this story.

It would seem to me that if you were having some success in infiltrating Al Qaeda, the last thing you would want to do is publicize the fact in in the media.

WASHINGTON — The CIA has intelligence agents inside Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network — as it did before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — but they are not within the terrorist leader’s inner circle where key information about any future attack would be discussed, a senior intelligence official said yesterday.

Why would the CIA do this? The story says:

They made the revelations as part of a response to the stern criticism of the agency this week by the Sept. 11 commission.

I don’t buy that, any more than I buy the absent minded idiot stories being peddled about Sandy Berger. You just don’t announce to an organization that is an enemy in a global war that you have spies in their ranks without a reason. I can think of only three possible explanations.

The first is cover. Either we are providing cover to a network of lower level operatives or we do have someone in the “inner circle.” Of course it is possible that we are providing cover for precisely the people the story “outs.” Its a case of we assume that they will assume the story is an attempt at misdirection. It seems like a risky strategy in any case, but the truth is that every success we have against them probably puts people working for us in increased risk. If we can throw bin Laden and his inner circle off the scent just a little, that would be a good thing.

The second is just plain old head games. Simply put, we’ve got nothing. Maybe there’s a few guys cleaning toilets at a training camp somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan but beyond that and the occasional communications intercept we’re nowhere. But we’ve had some success against against them, so why not make them think that we’ve got a network of people feeding us their secrets. Ratchet up the level of distrust and suspicion within the organization and you could hamper their effectiveness by restricting the flow of information. If you’re lucky, they might actually take out a few of their own for us.

The third is the least pleasant scenario. There are some “Senior Intelligence Officials” who would like to limit our effectiveness in dealing with al Qaeda.

The 9/11 Commission report says that we are safer but not safe. A lot of recent news does not inspire a great deal of confidence in that conclusion.

A former National Security Advisor walks out of a security facility with national security secrets stuffed in his pants – on more than one occasion. If you believe the spin that this was inadvertent, as was the subsequent destruction of some of those documents, then it really wouldn’t take much improvement to make the commission’s conclusion technically accurate. But our being safer would not be a matter of any measures we have taken but merely due to the fact that Berger is no longer responsible for it. If, as is more likely, Berger took the documents, and destroyed some of them with intent, it does not say a lot for the state of our security.

A band of 14 Syrians with expired visas get on board a cross country flight and behave very suspiciously. A passenger who is alarmed enough by this to raise concerns publicly is ridiculed as being hysterical and over-reacting. The 14 were interviewed when the plane landed and allowed to take their expired visas and go on their merry way. I’m not sure how this story supports the contention that we are safer. Even if the 14 were just a harmless troupe of musicians and their weird behavior can just be attributed to them being weird, the expired visa part of the story is troubling in the least.

Now we have unnamed intelligence officials briefing reporters on the progress of intelligence efforts against al Qaeda. If they are doing this as part of strategy designed to advance our efforts, great. If they are doing it for their stated reason of countering criticism of the Agency by the 9/11 Commission, this would be bad. This would be compromising our security to play politics and cover their asses. This would be a level of childishness that should have been left behind on the third grade playground. This does nothing to make me think we are in any way safer.

Do I agree with the commissions assessment that we are safer but not safe? Yes, I do. But I also read a lot of news and analysis. I do not think we are safer enough.

Stephen Macklin