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assessments

Jul 12, 2007 | 15:33 GMT

6 mins read

Intelligence Guidance: Al Qaeda

There have been many warnings by the government of potential and impending attacks in the past six years in the United States. None have come to pass. The credibility of these warnings has to be judged on this basis. When you have a source that has consistently claimed knowledge of an impending event of the same class and the event has consistently not occurred — and this has happened over the course of years — you have difficulty taking any claim seriously. In fact, according to the craft, given this track record the best thing to do is rigorously avoid listening to the claim and, well before this point, start looking at the motive for a trail of erroneous calls. It is always possible that this time the government has better intelligence than before, but that is not the most likely explanation. Warnings by the government on potential attacks are always suspect for the following reason: If you have penetrated an organization sufficiently that you are aware of its intentions, the last thing you want to give away is that you have penetrated. You keep it secret for exploitation. Your mission is to find and kill the enemy, and telling the world that you know what they are up to tells them that they are penetrated and tells them to shut the leak. You do not want that. So in one sense, an announcement like this rests on a dubious pedigree, and in addition, the question has to be asked: Why would an intelligence organization tip off an enemy that it has been penetrated by humint or electronic means? Why warn them that you are on to them? The warning gives away a huge advantage. From these two facts, it is very difficult to take this seriously. So, since U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is no fool, we have to look for other reasons: 1. We are attempting to abort a potential and poorly understood operation. We do not really know very much, but there has been chatter about an attack. Since the attackers will not chatter, this is a dubious pedigree but again, it is one that has to be reacted to. By issuing a non-specific warning, all potential groups, if they are out there, will hopefully reassess and abort. This is not bad strategy, but it is used only when your intelligence is of a relatively poor quality and not actionable, and you want to put the other side off balance. You do not do this when you have really good penetration. 2. There is currently a collapse in the Bush administration's political position in the Republican Party. A warning like this coincides precisely with such a situation. A warning at this time reminds everyone that the main enemy is out there, and puts those who oppose the Iraq war on the defensive. The administration has used warnings for political purposes in the past, but this particular warning is so blatant it is hard to take seriously. 3. The warning takes place at the same time as events in Pakistan. There is a warning of a reconstituted al Qaeda, the leak of the 2005 incursion, the Red Mosque, and three carrier battle groups are about to be in the region. The warning can be taken as a prelude for military action in Pakistan. Certainly, we have established just cause with the warning. 4. There is a semantic issue. The administration has historically mulched together al Qaeda as a strategic terrorist organization, with al Qaeda as a paramilitary force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have also confused Taliban and Al Qaeda. The reconstitution of the Taliban is a known fact. They undoubtedly have extensive paramilitary training facilities. Given past administration usage, these camps (the 10,000 terrorists al Qaeda was training in 2001) could be what they are seeing and the finding is being deliberately used in the way it was in 2001 — conflating poorly trained Taliban fights with al Qaeda prime. Please note finally that if al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in Pakistan, this is an admission of a massive failure in the intelligence community. Given the resources spent to prevent such a reconstitution, the community is saying it has again been outthought and outmaneuvered by al Qaeda. It has managed to rebuild in spite of the intense operations conducted to stop them from doing so. Not only have we not captured Osama bin Laden, but we have not even been able to interfere with al Qaeda's activities. Interestingly, the government seems to be saying that we have penetrated the organization well enough to know its status, but are impotent to have prevented it. Given the government's track record and its warning, it is difficult to take this seriously. If the government indeed had deeply penetrated al Qaeda, announcing it publicly would make no sense, when no meaningful defensive measures could be taken and it would undermine the penetration. In addition, the claim of knowledge coupled with the admission of impotence makes no sense. It could be that this warning should be taken more seriously than prior warnings that never amounted to anything. But we have been at this for six years, with prior warnings about actions in the continental United States that never came to fruition. Six years is a long time to generate false positives. But they have done this much. For the moment, the conversation has shifted from Iraq to al Qaeda. And if something does happen — and who knows? It may — the government has protected itself. If nothing happens, it will be forgotten. We know there have been no attacks in the United States since Sept. 11. We know there have been numerous alerts. It would be interesting for pure academic reasons to count the number. This is our net assessment pending good factual and analytic counter-attack. Let it begin.

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