Bill Gertz, defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times, describes a growing threat posed by foreign agents and terrorists who exploit U.S. weaknesses in this third of three excerpts from his new book, “Enemies: How America’s Foes Steal Our Vital Secrets — And How We Let It Happen” (Crown Forum), out this week. Read Part I here and Part II here.
The FBI, the CIA and other intelligence agencies continue to struggle to plant agents in, or recruit them from, deadly Islamist terror organizations here and abroad.
The FBI, for example, did not have under way a single active investigation this past spring of al Qaeda or any Islamist group anywhere in the United States.
Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network is not alone in posing a threat of new attacks. The FBI believes that Lebanon-based Hezbollah has set up terrorist cells in at least 10 U.S. cities.
The Iranian government has backed Hezbollah to the tune of $100 million. FBI officials worry that Iran could activate a network of Hezbollah terrorists here if the international community acts to stop the Islamic regime’s nuclear program.
President Bush expects the FBI to help counter such terror threats through its new National Security Branch (NSB), a major reform he announced over internal opposition in summer 2005.
“The focus of what we’re doing has changed over our history,” said Gary M. Bald, the 28-year FBI veteran chosen to direct the NSB, which combined counterterrorism, counterintelligence and intelligence-analysis divisions. “This is the most significant [change], no doubt. But it’s just the latest.
“It’s not the embracing or the understanding of the need to do it,” Bald said in an interview. “It’s getting us efficient at something that we’ve not had a long experience at doing.”
The FBI and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community was woefully unprepared after September 11 to track down terrorists by penetrating the dark world of al Qaeda.
The nation had extremely limited capabilities in human intelligence-gathering — the real stuff of spying. These shortcomings remain five years later.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argues that many problems facing U.S. intelligence are a legacy of the Clinton administration.
“It’s ineffective in 2006 because it was gutted in 1996,” Mr. Hoekstra said, pointing to the severe depletion of human spying capabilities in the 1990s.
Left largely unsaid in this year’s debate about the president’s authorizing the National Security Agency to intercept suspected terrorists’ communications: The administration might not have needed to rely on the program so heavily, and risk infringing on civil liberties, were American counterintelligence not so weak.
The government needed to take extraordinary measures to track down al Qaeda cells. And despite the terrorist surveillance program and stepped-up FBI activity, U.S. intelligence has not found any al Qaeda cells inside this country.
‘Work in progress’
A presidential commission organized in 2004 revealed the FBI’s ineptness in conducting counterintelligence and counterterrorism programs.
The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (commonly referred to as the WMD commission) examined how and why the intelligence community failed to properly assess Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile weapons programs.
The WMD commission, headed by federal appeals Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Charles S. Robb, Virginia Democrat, also explored the overall capabilities of U.S. spy agencies.
A section on “intelligence at home,” included in the panel’s report issued in March 2005, said the FBI had made strides in collecting and analyzing intelligence but had “a long way to go.” The bureau, it said, acknowledged that domestic intelligence gathering “will be a work in progress until at least 2010.”
The biggest challenge, the report found, was integrating FBI operations into a command structure that is subject to orders from the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, whose recently created job is to oversee the nation’s 15 spy agencies.
The commission called for creation of a National Security Service to manage, direct and control all FBI resources used in countering terrorists, spies and other threats to national security.
The panel said the FBI needed to move past decades of bitter rivalry with the CIA that prevented the agencies from complementing each other’s efforts in the war on terror.
A bigger-picture problem remained, the WMD commission noted: an FBI culture that resisted reform.
“Past efforts to build a strong intelligence capability within the FBI have foundered on this resistance,” the report said. “In 1998 and 1999, similar reforms failed in quick succession as a result of strong resistance from the FBI’s operational divisions and an intelligence architecture that could not defend itself inside the bureaucracy.”
Law-enforcement investigators did not want to become spies. And bin Laden, they argued, “is never going to Des Moines.”
Mr. Bush overruled internal opposition and announced creation of a national-security section within the FBI on June 29, 2005, and chose to highlight the change during a July 11 speech at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
The president said the reform, among 70 recommendations from the WMD commission that he backed, would make the FBI “more capable to stop the terrorist acts before they happen.”
The next month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III appointed Bald, a career law-enforcement investigator with little experience in intelligence, as director of the redubbed National Security Branch.
Although Bald was the FBI executive for counterterrorism and counterintelligence, close observers saw his selection as a clear sign that the bureau would continue to oppose building an aggressive counterterrorism and counterspy capability.
Bald, though, bristles at the suggestion that the FBI had a cultural aversion to improving intelligence-gathering.
“It’s a culture of complete dedication to our mission, working around the clock, being called in on weekends and nights and not getting paid extra, and really doing everything you can to protect our nation,” Bald said.
He said a substantial number of 12,000 special agents work for his new branch, although the actual number is classified. All of the bureau’s 1,720 intelligence analysts are part of the NSB.
The FBI hasn’t found it easy to change an institutional viewpoint of being its own “primary customer of information,” Bald said. He said he worries that leaks of sensitive information could wrongly damage the reputations of those under investigation.
“Now what we’re in is a realization that not only are there other services that benefit from our intelligence, but other services can provide value to our investigations as well,” Bald said. “We understand that. The challenge is developing the processes that make that efficient.”
‘Safe from scrutiny’
Even as adversaries and friends alike ramp up intelligence activities against the United States, the WMD commission’s final report warned, “our counterintelligence efforts remain fractured, myopic and marginally effective.”
The report stated bluntly: “Our counterintelligence philosophy and practices need dramatic change, starting with centralizing counterintelligence leadership, bringing order to bureaucratic disarray and taking [the CIA’s] counterintelligence fight overseas to adversaries currently safe from scrutiny.”
Counterintelligence, the panel concluded, remains a “second-class citizen in the intelligence profession.”
Since the 1970s, some 15 agencies have been severely restricted in trying to stop foreign spies and, increasingly, terrorists. Multiple special commissions and reports, many before September 11, identified the problems.
Taking advantage of these severe deficiencies, spies — among them John A. Walker, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Ana Montes and Katrina Leung — have significantly weakened U.S. intelligence and defense capabilities.
China and Russia have stolen sensitive technology on a massive scale. Enemies have penetrated every single U.S. national-security agency except the Coast Guard. They have purloined nuclear weapons data, cryptographic codes and procedures, intelligence sources and methods, war plans and more.
The continuing threats include Cuba and North Korea as well as the traditional intelligence powers, China and Russia, which use official and nonofficial cover officers to target American interests.
And then there are the nonstate actors that could well pose an even greater danger: al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terror organizations. The CIA and other U.S. agencies have almost no knowledge of terrorists’ intelligence practices here.
Richard Haver, former special assistant for intelligence to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, helped assess the damage in major spy cases since the 1980s. He points to widespread resistance within government to making the necessary reforms.
“We do the things that are easy, we do the things that are cosmetically appealing, that make the system feel better,” Haver said in an interview, “and that perhaps satiate the critics in Congress and placate the media and make it look as though we’re really changing.”
Haver argues that true reforms are not about more money or agency-wiring diagrams.
“They have to do with culture,” he said. “They have to do with the way these bureaucracies view themselves, the way they work with each other.”
In the infamous case of Hanssen, the spy for Moscow, the FBI was unwilling even to look for a spy in its midst, and so he operated for years without being caught.
“The best defense is a good offense,” Haver said. “If you are sitting back, waiting for the enemy to attack you, it will happen. If you want effective counterintelligence, the principal element of that is the capability of your system to attack the adversary intelligence service before they attack you.”