I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to my keister with “wake-up calls” and “lessons learned.” We keep talking about our intelligence failures like they’re feckless college students. One day their screw-ups are gonna get us killed. (Oh wait, that’s happened already.)
The latest kick in the butt came Wednesday courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, which revealed that on Jan. 5, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis sent a situation report to law enforcement across the country saying, “Nothing significant to report.”
Let that sink in. The Journal pointed out without snark that “the office is responsible for monitoring threats online.”
Nobody here needs to be reminded that far-right fringe groups and untold tens of thousands of delusional pro-Trump fans had been lighting up their social-media redoubts and chat-room hideouts for weeks with excited talk of marching on Washington to reverse the election results. The red lights were screaming, as the all too common saying goes. Just days before the Jan. 6 insurrection calamity, I talked to a regional D.C. intelligence official who claimed with quiet confidence to be on top of it all. In retrospect, it reminds me of the walk I took with a CIA friend in August 2001, when he told me the agency was expecting Osama bin Laden to hit us big time any day.
And then… bang.
Now we know that reports about the threat of mobs and armed groups to storm Washington had been popping up at regional FBI offices around the U.S. for weeks. President Donald Trump had been whipping them up since Nov. 7 with false claims that the election was stolen.
“There’s no explanation that I can give for the failure to produce analytical products that would have predicted what was going to happen. You could see it building,” Frank Taylor, a retired Air Force brigadier general who led DHS’s intelligence wing from 2014 to 2017, told the Journal. “And the fact that we didn’t means that we failed, along with several other agencies. This was a systemic failure.”
Sounds familiar. Sept. 11, and on and on. We’ve been “surprised” for over a half-century now, from Oklahoma City to the New York island, from Tehran to Beirut and Egypt and Libya to East Africa and, now, right here at home again, with Russian and Chinese hackers rifling through our computers and Christian nationalists ransacking the Capitol to make white power our official religion.
Seems we’re always surprised.
Can’t anyone here play this game? I’ve slapped my forehead so many times I look like a Muslim with a prayer bump.
Sure, our spy agencies humble brag that they can’t talk about all their successes—although they seem to find a way often enough. I propose that the congressional intelligence committees assemble a task force to publish a carefully redacted list of their unsung triumphs.
But back to “systemic” failures, as the general put it.
Some of these system failures have been known about for decades and never adequately addressed. One that has come up again and again in my own reporting going back almost 20 years is that intelligence work in the FBI, our principal counterterrorism force, is just not rewarded enough. To get ahead, to win promotions and bigger budgets, agents and field offices have to cuff people. The murky world of tracking domestic terrorist threats, even when there’s a foreign connection, doesn’t ring the bell often enough among the bean-counters in the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
That just has to be fixed. Give the FBI’s spy chasers and extremist hunters more money and prestige. Honor them in secret, if you have to, as the CIA does.
As former FBI agent Harry Gossett told me a few weeks ago, investigative resources are “doled out based on statistical accomplishments,” such as the number of “subjects identified, indictments, arrests, convictions, fines, savings, recoveries, etc.” If the squad investigating bank embezzlements, for example, can show hard numbers on money saved, it’s going to get a bigger budget. In contrast, Gossett said, “counterintelligence squads were measured by defections, recruitments, and intelligence take. Their cases rarely went to court.” Can’t show money saved there.
Tom O’Connor, who worked domestic terrorism for most of his 23-year FBI career, agreed. “It was clearly held as a second-tier priority,” he told me. “The evaluation of DT squads was never fair, as the metrics are not designed to evaluate a squad working” on such a hard-to-pin-down crime.
Maybe it’ll get more attention as the new administration hoovers up all the dots showing increasing ties between far-right militants here and their white Christian nationalist and fascist cohorts in Russia and Europe. That so many Christian extremists here admire Vladimir Putin should be enough to get Joe Biden riled up.
Alas, by many accounts, Team Biden has inherited a demoralized and hollowed-out intelligence workforce.
One outright scary example is the National Counterterrorism Agency, which is responsible for coordinating the protection of the homeland but was run down and “starved of resources” by the Trump administration, according to an alarming report in December by veteran national-security journalist David Ignatius in The Washington Post.
The former acting director of the NCTC, Russell Travers, told him the agency was so “weakened by budget and personnel shortages that it couldn’t adequately collate information into what’s known as its Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, leaving the country potentially vulnerable to undetected attackers. Travers and other experts said this data analytics problem could be handled by private companies with adequate resources that are lacking at the NCTC.”
“I was ostensibly the ‘mission manager’ for terrorism, but I had no authority to compel anyone outside of NCTC to do anything,” Travers told Ignatius. When he told his bosses he had reported his concerns to an inspector general, he was fired.
The good news is that Travers, a longtime distinguished public servant, is returning to the White House as deputy Homeland Security adviser. Biden’s nat sec team is so stacked with stars it’s like batting Anthony Rendon seventh.
But it’s still just a lineup card. In 2001, George W. Bush installed a “dream team” of deeply experienced, highly regarded national-security officials, too. And look what happened on their watch.
No more wake-up calls, please. No more “lessons learned.”
Co-published with SpyTalk, where Jeff Stein leads an all-star team of veteran investigative reporters, writers, and subject-matter experts who will take you behind the scenes of the national security state. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website.