Terror's Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone
A recent exposé in the Washington Post shows that if you have a security clearance and are comfortable being part of a lucrative “self-licking ice cream cone” – a process that offers few if any benefits while perpetuating its own existence – then the “war on terror” is definitely for you!
The conclusion that the Long War against Islamic militants abroad can be enriching for a host of “counter-terror” contractors at home leaps out of the Post’s “Top Secret America,” a comprehensive three-part series by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin on July 19, 20 and 21.
The series presents a graphic account of how lawmakers afraid to be seen as laggards in the “war on terror” threw billions of dollars willy-nilly at a profusion of intelligence and security contractors after 9/11.
The U.S. intelligence budget has grown to a publicly announced $75 billion last year — two and a half times its $30 billion figure on Sept. 10, 2001. Even so, the figure doesn’t include the cost of many military and domestic counterterrorism programs.
You don’t have to be an economist to marvel at – and bemoan – the “opportunity costs” of such an investment, at a time when so many Americans are losing jobs, homes and dreams for retirement.
The Post shows clearly that the post-9/11 environment has been a boon for defense and intelligence contractors who fattened up at the government feeding trough before trying to show their worth in the mission of “defeating transnational violent extremists,” like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and others too many to mention.
And the feeding trough won’t disappear anytime soon, if ever. We are told that this “war” will not end like World War II with a surrender ceremony on the battleship Missouri; indeed, it will be impossible to tell when (or if) it is over – since the “war” is so vaguely defined as to guarantee its continuation in perpetuity as long as there are some angry Islamists out there, enflamed over all the people the U.S. government has been killing.
With the Afghan War alone, corporate strategic planning can count on the budget as reasonably secure for at least four more years in view of the low-key announcement this week of a withdrawal target date sliding to 2014, though even that was caveated with the familiar adjective “conditions-based.”
Arguably, contractors have never had it so good. Not only is the traditional military-industrial complex still well-fed and healthy, but oodles of new money has been made available for a new generation of “counter-terror” specialists, profiting off “expertise” on everything from interrogations and surveillance to analysis and security.
Each sub-group has found a comfortable niche. Some have found several. But the Washington Post study concluded that it is much less clear whether all the expensive busywork is actually making the American people safer.
Contractors commonly are big on acronym labels. For this particular self-licking ice cream cone, FICKLE could be the generic acronym:
“F” for the crucial task of FINDING the militants/insurgents/terrorists (let’s call them MITs). The contractors use everything from aerial imagery and intercepted communications to local villagers paid to mark (for whatever reason — valid or vengeful) the houses of “suspect” MITs;
“I” for IDENTIFYING the MITs by searching, or “populating,” mammoth databases;
“C” for CLOSING in on the MIT targets using the whole panoply of high- and low-tech search-and-find mechanisms, especially drones;
“K” for KILLING “suspect” MITs along with those unfortunate enough to be with or near them — the latter being “collateral” casualties of fire from high-tech drones or lower-tech, but well-equipped Special Operations forces;
“L” for LOOKING in search of those who are lucky enough to avoid becoming collateral casualties but become new “suspect” MITs, guilty by geographic association or because they got angry over the violence inflicted on their neighbors or fellow Muslims;
“E” for entering them into one of the giant databases put together by IT contractors; and then starting the cycle all over again at “F.” Your tax dollars at work and huge profits for the contractors.
Commenting on the Post article, Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute drew attention to some of the problems that come with “outsourcing.”
Privatization usually is good, said Sanchez, assuming there is appropriate oversight. But he added that adequate scrutiny is almost impossible with agencies in which budgets and activities are secret.
Simply throwing more money and people at national security tasks, he said, is “like trying to find a needle in a haystack by piling on more hay.”
How Not to Fight Terrorism
We Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) have been addressing this problem for years. See, for example, our Memorandum of June 2007, “How Not To Counter Terrorism.”
Last Jan. 5, in “Why Counter-Terrorism Is In Shambles,” former FBI special agent/attorney Coleen Rowley labeled the surging “Surveillance-Security Complex” with its “total information awareness”-type programs a “sales trick that brings dividends only to the contractor/creators.”
Rowley added that projects like those involving billions of private conversations vacuumed up and put into newly created databases were “a fool’s errand.” She continued:
“No matter how sophisticated or exotic, they are not likely to succeed in helping find needles in haystacks that are constantly fed more hay.”
The highly embarrassing case of the Christmas-over-Detroit-underpants-bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is just one example proving this point as the $75 billion intelligence network generated so much irrelevant data that it couldn’t fit together some clearly relevant clues of a genuine threat.
Rowley made an even more salient point in noting, “It is much harder for the counter-terrorist experts to prevent terrorist plots when U.S. foreign policy contributes to a marked increase in the number of potential terrorists — as it undoubtedly has.”
Outsourcing Intelligence Analysis
There may be no alternative for the government when it hires contractors to build sophisticated satellites or some other technical collection devices. But some functions belong inherently to government.
One would, I hope, be reluctant to outsource the work of the Supreme Court, for instance. We expect the Justices to make their decisions on the basis of fact, legal precedent and the Constitution, with no consideration to a business bottom line.
The same holds with respect to intelligence analysts whose judgments must be made on the basis of fact, experience and often inference without reference to any prospect of profit or hope of contract renewal.
In the Post article, CIA Director Leon Panetta is quoted as expressing specific concern on the question of possible conflicts of interest in contracting with corporations which after all have a fiduciary -- or profit-making -- responsibility “to their shareholders.”
(Despite this concern, Panetta still gave the infamous contractor Blackwater – “rebranded” as Xe Services LLC – a new $100-million global contract.)
Under fire in the wake of the Post series, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a defensive-toned paper. It nods in the direction of the “prohibition on the use of contract personnel to perform inherently governmental activities,” but then waxes eloquent — several times — on how well contractors are performing intelligence analysis.
The paper then squares the circle, insisting that the “inherently governmental function” is not the analysis per se, but “critical decisions” regarding “what you do with that analysis.”
In the paper, “KEY FACTS ABOUT CONTRACTORS,” the Office of the DNI bragged:
“The growth in contractors … allowed the intelligence community to fill the need for seasoned analysts and collectors while rebuilding the permanent, civilian workforce. …
“Core contractors, who perform functions like collection and analysis, and have access to the same facilities [as the permanent workforce], should not be confused with individuals producing commodities or products (e.g., satellites), or performing administrative or IT services.” (Emphasis in original)
Shopping the Right Study
In the Post series, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is quoted as describing national security spending since 9/11 as a “gusher,” and confessing that he could not even “get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”
That, I gather, is supposed to be disarmingly funny?
With so much to spend, “everyone does their own study,” according to Elena Masters, who headed a team investigating the al-Qaeda leadership for the Pentagon. In other words, redundancy and waste is surely a problem.
But there is also ample potential for serious mischief. Let’s say, for example, the head of an agency wants a study “proving” that Iran has restarted the weapons part of its nuclear program and is closer to an operational nuclear weapons capability than most intelligence analysts have assessed.
A contracting officer dutifully puts out a Request for Proposal and gives a broad hint as to what kind of answer would be most welcome. It is a safe bet that the government officer will have no trouble finding someone to come up with the “correct” answer — and in the process not only make a tidy profit, but also help ensure contract renewal.
The fact that an unnecessary war might result could be more collateral damage, but that, in turn, would help generate more spending.
And, as more and more innocents die, more contractors could be hired to address other delicate issues like: WHY DO THEY HATE US?
So far, it is does not appear that even a bought-and-paid-for analyst has produced a report supporting President George W. Bush’s favorite explanation that “they” hate us for our freedoms, or for our democracy. However, on second thought, perhaps this is just because they haven’t been asked.
Or perhaps a corporation like CACI has tried to serve up desired “analysis,” but the government contracting officer chose to bury the result lest he be laughed to scorn by some professionals who remain in the ranks of the CIA and other government intelligence agencies.
Why single out CACI? The Washington Post article refers in passing to “contractor misdeeds” in Iraq and Afghanistan damaging U.S. “credibility” in the Middle East. “Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today,” the Post said.
The Post stopped short of including reports that it was an interrogator working for CACI who showed the troops at Abu Ghraib how to abuse prisoners — and escaped any reprimand. Nor does the Post mention that CACI is advertising widely to fill several positions like the following:
Iran Intelligence Analyst, TS/SCI — i.e., with TOP SECRET/Special Compartmented Information clearances — responsible for producing high-quality, timely, and strategic analytic products in a collaborative environment for U.S. policymakers. Requirements include: Prior experience as an all-source analyst; Must be able to deploy for six months to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Based on its record, I would wager that CACI would be capable of cooking to order the kind of analytic piece that would grease the skids to war with Iran, should a government contractor suggest something along those lines. Nor is it likely that CACI would be the only such willing accomplice.
Why Do They Really Hate Us
Neither contractor nor intelligence agency staffers seem to see much incentive in touching the third-rail issue with which even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld openly wrestled — what motivates these incorrigible terrorists to attack the United States and U.S. targets?
Not even his Princeton pedigree seemed of much help to him in figuring this out, so he opted for torture. Yet, there is zero appetite to address what effect U.S. invasions and occupation of Muslim countries and our Siamese-twin relationship with Israel might be having among young Muslim men.
The allergic reaction to even the thought of balanced analysis on these key issues leaves policymakers to fend for themselves. Grasping at straws, they may conclude that it’s something in the water that young Muslim men drink as they grow up in Afghanistan or across the Middle East or even in Europe and the United States.
Almost as strange an explanation is the novel theory adopted by our most senior intelligence officials regarding “self-radicalization.”
This bedeviling concept was advanced on Tuesday by James Clapper, the nominee for the most senior post in U.S. intelligence, that of Director of National Intelligence. It quickly became clear that neither his long years of experience in intelligence nor his honorary doctorate from the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington have equipped him to deal with this sinister syndrome or to formulate some more sensible explanation.
At his nomination hearing Clapper was asked by Sen. Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, about lessons drawn from the investigation of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last November.
Clapper responded that “self-radicalization” is a “daunting challenge. … I don’t have the answer to the challenge; identification of self-radicalization may not lend itself to detection by intelligence agencies. … It’s almost like detecting tendencies for suicide ahead of time.”
I’ll say this for Clapper; he had done his homework, or at least had copied off the work of others.
A week after the shooting at Fort Hood, Georgetown University’s Professor Bruce Hoffman, another “specialist” on terrorism, told the New York Times, “Maj. Hasan may be the most recent example of an increasingly common type of terrorist; he may have become self-radicalized with the aid of the Internet.”
Early this year, Defense Secretary Gates and Join Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen also addressed the issue of “self-radicalization,” with pointed warnings to commanders to be alert to the threat.
Christmas Day Bomber
In January, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano even offered a fix for “self-radicalization.” It is called, you guessed it, “counter-radicalization.” Napolitano described the concept:
“How do we identify someone before they become radicalized to the point where they’re ready to blow themselves up with others on a plane? And how do we communicate better American values and so forth … around the globe?”
Has no one told Napolitano, Mullen, Gates and Clapper what can be gleaned from the ample reporting on what was driving Hasan, including his anger over U.S. military interventions in Muslim lands?
And what about the motives of the Christmas bomber, 23 year-old Nigerian Abdulmutallab? His friends in Yemen described him as “not overly extremist,” but very angry, nonetheless, over Israel’s actions in Gaza. Does that fit under the rubric of “self-radicalization?”
Have our senior officials learned nothing from reports on the motivation of Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the 32-year-old Jordanian physician of Palestinian origin who used a suicide bomb to kill seven CIA operatives and one Jordanian intelligence officer in eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 30?
Al-Balawi’s widow said her husband “started to change” after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His brother added that al-Balawi “changed” during the three-week-long Israeli attack on Gaza, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, an attack defended by Washington as justifiable self-defense.
John Brennan: Point Man
Where is journalist Helen Thomas when we need her? She had the temerity to ask National Security Council guru for counterterrorism, John Brennan, why Abdulmutallab did what he did. “What is the motivation?” she asked.
Brennan: “Al-Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents … [with] an agenda of destruction and death. … Al-Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”
Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”
Oh, well. At least he didn’t say it was “self-radicalization.”
But what Brennan didn’t acknowledge was his own role in the why.
In the past, he strongly defended CIA abuses like “extraordinary rendition” — kidnapping suspects and delivering them to regimes that practice brutal methods of interrogation – and he was a clone of the premier torture outsourcer, the former, now disgraced, CIA Director George Tenet.
More recently, after the White House made clear that it had decided to act as judge jury and executioner of an American citizen – preacher of jihad Anwar al-Awlaki – Brennan made clear that Awlaki wasn’t alone on the death list.
In an interview with the Washington Times on June 24, Brennan referred to “dozens of Americans [who] have joined terrorist groups and are posing a threat to the United States.” In a take-off-the-gloves mood, Brennan added:
“To me, terrorists should not be able to hide behind their passports and their citizenship, and that includes U.S. citizens, whether they are overseas or whether they are here in the United States. What we need to do is to apply the appropriate tool and the appropriate response.”
Even Fox News ran a piece entitled “It’s a Mistake to Assassinate Anwar Al-Awlaki.” But here was a senior U.S. official advocating “the appropriate response” to suspected terrorists even inside the United States -- and there was hardly a peep of outrage from any political leader.
In sum, what should one think of senators willing to approve a candidate like Clapper to take the reins for U.S. intelligence, or of President Obama for relying on someone like Brennan for intelligence advice?
Or of a political process that has added on top of the gigantic U.S. military-industrial complex a new and expensive “counter-terror” contracting complex, which is more likely to perpetuate terrorism than to eliminate the reasons for it?
Perhaps we all should practice running for cover when we hear the buzz of drones overhead or the sound of helicopter gunships.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. After serving as an Infantry-Intelligence officer, he was a CIA analyst for 27 years, working in each of the agency’s main directorates. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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