Redacted for Your Protection

America's unassailable intelligence effort


While most of the world spent last week trying to decode the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on prewar intelligence about Iraq, a more telling official document got lost in the shuffle. The top secret Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities was released in declassified form July 9th, revealing that political shadings of intelligence findings fade in significance compared to a fundamental lack of accountability among U.S. shadow warriors.

When it comes to the single most important public policy aspect of War on Terror—the performance of America's intelligence/early warning system—the Joint Committee report is a yawning void; a long-winded Mad-Lib that Tom Clancy fans might enjoy while waiting for the Viagra to kick in. The very notion of self-government is mocked with every ____________________ readers confront like so many _____________ ___________.

Originally filed in classified form in December 2002—Shaq was still in LA and an annoying new blog had just debuted—the report should represent a good mix of immediate debrief and some de-tuned perspective. But the ever-ready secrecy cudgel beats back most attempts at meaningful disclosure of just went—or still goes—so terribly wrong with the American intelligence effort.

Entire pages of the report are redacted and many more are rendered almost meaningless. Especially poignant is a four-column table on the National Security Agency efforts devoid of everything but the headings. Passages like this are common:

One area of increased attention is ________________________ , an area in which NSA has made only limited progress. __________________________________________________. Unfortunately, NSA's selection capabilities suffer from a critical deficiency, ______________ . The solution to this deficiency is well understood and estimated to cost less than $1 million to implement. However, the Joint Inquiry learned in interviews that even though _______ have been available for many years, and even though NSA has had recent significant funding increases, the program manager is still "scrounging" for funds to pay for this upgrade that would not be completed until 2004.

As a result, the committee report tells the American public almost nothing about how its most vital intelligence agency is managed. Instead we get almost-anecdotes about how far behind the curve NSA remains. When NSA analysts realized they did not have the right software to complete their jobs, the committee report advises, they could've bought commercially available software had it been approved for the job by agency officials. What did NSA staffers need? Mapping software? Translation help? A copy of the The Sims?

Letting the world know about this deficiency might lead terrorists to try to exploit it—although it is difficult to see how—but continuing to shield such embarrassments behind official secrecy guarantees that virtually no public pressure can be brought to bear to correct the problems.

In many ways author James Bamford tells us more in his look at pre-war intelligence, A Pretext for War than the official account does. Bamford relates that as the pointy tip of the U.S intelligence-gathering system, the NSA had for years been playing catch up. The kind of things the NSA was expert at, capturing satellite signals and tapping international communication lines, were carrying less and less of the world's communications traffic by the late 1990s. Most importantly the NSA was not well-equipped to listen in on the world's digital traffic as analog was fast going the way of the 8-track and the NSA was not prepared for the MP3 age.

"You could tell a fax from a teleprinter just by the sound. The ear could tell you the mode of transmission. Everything we had learned in the analog world in the way to approach a problem didn't work in the digital world," one unnamed NSA official tells Bamford.

And although Bamford is hard-wired into the snoop community, as his previous books attest, and is very sympathetic to the NSA line that budget shortfalls are to blame, even he does not suggest that money is the primary cause of intelligence shortcomings. He recounts several decisions, primarily involving sharing info or requesting help, both hallmarks of the turf war-syndrome that still plague U.S. intelligence, that might have—with perfect hindsight—uncovered the 9/11 plot.

Bamford also discloses that despite untold billions in hardware and software, the NSA of 2001 had sixty-eight separate email systems and no way to communicate to all 38,000 employees electronically. And this sorry condition tracks with one Committee report observation that, once decoded, suggests the NSA still relies on command-line UNIX workstations that cannot present a windowing interface. That would put the feds more than a decade behind most corporate computing solutions and an epoch behind Wal-Mart's data center.

Meanwhile, intelligence officials fixate on those overall budget numbers. NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden lamented to the Joint Committee that the terrorists have access to the $3 trillion-a-year communications industry, as if Washington could just rope off the industry from the bad guys, or at least bump the NSA's budget to a lousy $2 trillion.

But most telling of all is the report's disclosure that it took until 2001, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, eight years after the initial attack on the World Trade Center by foreign terrorists and months after the attack on the USS Cole, for the NSA to change its approach to intelligence gathering. As the report explains:

In spring 2001, NSA began to change direction: rather than analyzing what was collected, NSA would dissect its targets' communications practices to determine what to collect. This is commonly referred to at NSA as hunting rather than gathering. This procedure was in its infancy when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred.

NSA's Hayden further explained that the change is in response to that fact that international terrorists are "in many respects different from NSA's typical SIGINT targets of the past 50 years."

Finally a secret laid bare. America's spooks adapt to threats every half-century or so. No wonder they are so worried about the imminent political conventions and the election. To them, 9/11 was about 15 minutes ago.