Obama Misses Chance to Revolutionize US Intelligence

On Friday, President Obama spoke to the nation on the matter of intelligence gathering and its effects on privacy and freedom. As usual, it was a well-delivered speech, and it did address the concerns many have. While it marks a small step toward reigning in the excessive information gathering done at the National Security Agency, the president missed a chance to change the way America does intelligence. For too long, the US has relied on signal intelligence, that is the gathering of information by intercepting electronic communications, at the expense of human intelligence, using people to do the job. The US will continue to waste money and miss chances to enhance its security as a result.

The most significant part of the president’s address centered on Section 215 of the misnamed Patriot Act. It is the section under which the NSA is gathering up all the metadata on telephone conversations, and it is this practice that has the civil libertarians up in arms. To calm their fears, Mr. Obama ordered, “Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.” And then, there is a review panel that is supposed to report by March 28 with more ideas.

The idea of mapping the phone calls made by known terrorists is not a bad one, but if American intelligence already knows that an individual is contemplating harm to the US and its allies, why focus on phone calls and emails? Getting agents and intelligence officers as close as possible to the individual creates vastly greater flexibility in handling any plot. Moreover, it creates the conditions necessary to disrupt any plans and do severe damage to any organization. It allows one to play offense rather than just defense.

This journal has long maintained that the military approach to dealing with terrorism of any kind, and of the Fascislamic kind in particular, is inappropriate. Taking these organizations, networks and individuals down is better done in the same way organized crime is undone. There is a place for monitoring communications, of course, but penetrating such circles with American intelligence personnel or turning individuals within such groups to America’s side is exponentially more powerful.

So why doesn’t America do that? First, the Pentagon has hijacked American foreign policy, and has been the lead body since 1942. There are more members of military bands in the armed forces of the US than there are diplomats at the State department. The American military likes gadgets and high-tech weapons systems. Personnel is less valued. While the Defense Department will argue vociferously with that, one only needs to see how America treats its veterans to see that a new weapons platform is more important than an old soldier.

The second reason for preferring equipment to people is cost. Capital equipment is not all that expensive, especially when an American company can provide it at cost +10%. It’s a way of creating profits. People, on the other hand, even those who speak Farsi, Arabic and Pashto, are a cost. And they get sick, and they want time with their families, and they insist on fair treatment, and well . . . . Machines are just easier.

However, people are more effective than machines. The president said, “One of the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar — made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis.”

Of course, a US intelligence operative right next to Khalid al-Mihdhar could have stopped the whole thing. America’s greatest shortcoming is its unwillingness to invest in people, and that is especially true in the intelligence business.