Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraqi Crisis: A Case of Intel Failure

Have the US intelligence agencies failed to assess the situation in Iraq? Is it time for the CIA and other agencies to revert to their traditional role and focus on intelligence collection and analysis?

The ongoing crisis in Iraq seems to have caught US intelligence agencies napping. It seems to be so considering the Obama Administration’s lack of a robust response to the ISIS, which has gone on an uncontrolled rampage through the towns and villages of Iraq.  It is increasingly clear that the intelligence gathering capabilities of the US spy agencies in the Middle East in general have been severely dented after the departure of the US troops from Iraq in December 2011. The spy agencies appear to have been surprised by the sudden move by the ISIS to seize Mosul and other cities. The Senate Intelligence Committee is reviewing data from the past six months to determine the extent of intelligence available to the various agencies and about the possibility of a major offensive.

According to Shane Harris “The speed and ease with which well-armed and highly trained ISIS fighters took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, have raised significant doubts about the ability of American intelligence agencies to know when ISIS might strike next, a troubling sign as the Islamist group advances steadily closer to Baghdad. And it harked back to another recent intelligence miscue, in February, when U.S. spy agencies failed to predict the Russian invasion of Crimea. Both events are likely to raise questions about whether the tens of billions of dollars spent every year on monitoring the world's hot spots is paying off -- and what else the spies might be missing.”

“The CIA maintains a presence at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the agency has largely stopped running networks of spies inside the country since U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011, current and former U.S. officials said. That's in part because the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command had actually taken the lead on hunting down Iraq's militants. With the JSOC commandos gone, the intelligence agencies have been forced to try to track groups like ISIS through satellite imagery and communications intercepts -- methods that have proven practically useless because the militants relay messages using human couriers, rather than phone and email conversations, and move around in such small groups that they easily blend into the civilian population.”

One hurdle is that much of the intelligence network the U.S. built up during eight years of fighting in Iraq has been dismantled, including a network of CIA and Pentagon sources and an NSA system that made available the details of every Iraqi insurgent email, text message and phone-location signals in real time, said John "Chris" Inglis, who recently retired as the NSA's top civilian.

Yet according to some US officials, there was some warning. Lt. Gen Mike Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had informed Congress in February that the ISIL "probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group's ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria."

Behind the scenes, intelligence analysts warned about the increasing difficulties Iraq's security forces faced in combating the ISIL, and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq's declining stability, a senior intelligence official said. They reported on the ISIL's efforts to spark uprisings in areas with substantial Sunni populations and how the Iraqi military's failure to counter ISIL gains in Mosul allowed the group to deepen its influence there, the official said.

Few US officials have admitted that the intelligence agencies’ assessment of the ISIS has been devoid of specifics that could have helped the Iraqis know when and where an attack could take place and prepare them to counter it.

Intelligence failure or failure of assessment is not a problem that happened overnight. The decay set in over a period of time post 9/11. The effect of 9/11 on the US Government was to make the CIA and the Pentagon shift primacy away from their traditional functions and towards black ops. At the CIA, this meant less attention being devoted to traditional intelligence gathering and more to targeted killings being conducted from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre (CTC). At the Pentagon, it resulted in the rapid rise of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As the War on Terror got underway, it became evident—or at least seemed evident to those formulating policy—that traditional lines demarcating military action from intelligence collection were no longer relevant. The entire world became a battlefield, and the US needed to collect intelligence on threats and eliminate them quickly and fluidly, unconstrained by bureaucratic shackles. The CIA, from a traditional intelligence gathering agency evolved into a paramilitary organization. According to Philip Giraldi, a former CIA case officer “I would not say that CIA has been taken over by the military, but I would say that the CIA has become more militarized. A considerable part of the CIA budget is now no longer spying; it’s supporting paramilitaries who work closely with JSOC to kill terrorists, and to run the drone program.”

Former CIA Director General Michael Hayden (ret.) had opined in the wake of Petraeus’ resignation that the Agency was presented with the opportunity to return to its operational roots. Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said that the Agency has been “laser-focused on terrorism” for many years. Consequently, much of its operational output “looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence”, he said. According to CIA’s former Acting Director, John McLaughlin, the most significant challenge for the post-Petraeus CIA “may be the sheer volume of problems that require [good old-fashioned] intelligence input”. For over a decade, argues Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, the CIA’s focus has been to fulfill covert-action tasks in the context of Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism”. But through this process, the Agency “has become too much of a paramilitary organization” and has neglected its primary institutional role, which is to be “the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources”. 

It may be argued that the ISIS being a progeny of the al Qaeda, it would have been anyway under the scanner of the CIA’s War on Terror. However, the ISIS is not alone in the offensive; it has the backing of several Sunni jihadi groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils. The sectarian divide, the Syrian imbroglio and the Iranian influence on Baghdad and al-Maliki’s policies were largely responsible for strengthening and emboldening the ISIS. The ISIS, today, is seen more as an insurgent group fighting for a cause rather than as a terrorist group. Shia Iran on one hand and the Sunni Arab states on the other had turned Iraq into a proxy battleground. Had the CIA and other agencies focused on their traditional role, the Obama Administration would have been better placed to tackle the Iraqi crisis. It is high time that the CIA reverted to its role of intelligence collection and analysis.


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

As with the Intelnews article I ran on my blog there always seems to be a US cottage industry on what the CIA should be doing, should have done.

The CIA and its army of former CIA officer-commentators might always run public relations and disinformation-misinformation campaigns to persuade US Governments to re-allocate or boost money to align with the CIA's preferred operational mix.

But I agree it is quite conceivable that ISIS is more security conscious which would make ISIS rely on couriers more than NSA vulnerable communications. Also the very extremism of ISIS would make it particularly dangerous for any informants.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
The purpose of my post was only to emphasise on the point that CIA after 9/11 had become a paramilitary organisation and the agency's role whose primary task was to collect intelligence changed to Black Ops/targetted killing. Focus of intelligence today is more focussed on eliminating terror leaders and neutralising terror bases. Had the concentration been on the state of affairs of Iraq, its sectarian divided and marginalising of the Sunnis from the Iraqi polity, US would have a better idea of the ground realities. Today, it is again being pushed only to counter ISIS. This is like treating the symptom rather than the disease.