Passing the Intelligence Test

By Rachel Ehrenfeld, Michael B. Mukasey
Friday, April 5th, 2013 @ 3:27PM

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Michael B. Mukasey is former U.S. Attorney General (2007-2009). Earlier, as a federal judge in Manhattan, he presided over the trial of and sentenced “The Blind Sheik.” Both positions exposed him to the difficult problems of fighting terrorism, al Qaeda in particular.

In the review that follows below, Judge Mukasey explicitly faults the current administration for its handling of intelligence related to terrorism. Obama’s disclosures, he says, have been “long on provocation” and “short on any appreciation” of intelligence gathering as the key component in the war on terror.

As Judge Mukasey points out, intelligence particulars should not be used for political purposes. Indeed, the White House’s instant reckless leaking that documents, cache of computer hard drives, disks and thumbnails were was found during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, rendered the information useless. Moreover, the huge publicity served as a warning to bin Laden’s affiliates, giving them time to hide their tracks. To be sure, al Qaeda members appreciated the indiscreet revelations. And this is but one example of the administration’s cavalier attitude to intelligence gathering-an attitude that undermines the efforts to fight terrorism.

Philip Mudd’s story, as told in his book and in the review, is indicative of the obstacles facing those whose role is to gather intelligence and act upon it, and not only with regard to dealing with terrorism.

Passing the Intelligence Test

By Michael B. Mukasey

April 3, 2013

Review of Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda

By Philip Mudd (Pennsylvania, 200 pages, $28.95)

Al Qaeda plots often had to be dismantled by prosecuting terrorists for low-level crimes like immigration violations or marriage fraud.

The current administration has loosed a cataract of disclosures about how this nation tried to protect itself after 9/11, even as it resolutely refuses to recognize that it is the ideology of Islamism that we are trying to protect ourselves against. The disclosures have ranged from the release of classified legal memos describing interrogation techniques used by the CIA (and the legal justification for them) to the details of the raid on Osama bin Laden‘s compound and the intelligence gathered there (which, revealed, became useless). Paradoxically, these stories and leaks have been long on provocation and short on any appreciation of the most critical component of our defense against terrorism: intelligence gathering.

Philip Mudd played a large role in that world, spending 24 years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA and FBI. He was part of the small team sent to aid anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11 and then, in January 2002, was appointed second-in-command of the CIA’s new Office of Terrorism Analysis, the division of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) where hundreds of analysts were assembled to gather information about al Qaeda. Although the CIA generally is divided between those who evaluate and report on information and the operators who run clandestine activities and cultivate sources of information abroad, the CTC combines the two functions. In 2003, Mr. Mudd became deputy director of the CTC, and then in 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller asked him to join the newly created National Security Branch, which aimed to combine intelligence gathering with the bureau’s traditional counterterrorism efforts.

Mr. Mudd’s memoir, “Takedown,” is a detailed account of the actual activities of intelligence gathering. (Ironically he is a descendant of that Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg the night of the Lincoln assassination and was later convicted of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.) CIA officers generate daily briefs for the executive branch, each tailored to the particular concerns of an agency head, but integrating the latest terrorism-related information. Mr. Mudd and his boss at the Office of Terrorism Analysis, Pattie Kindsvater, traded off weeks managing the information about terrorism in the “holy grail” of U.S. intelligence: the President’s Daily Brief.

The raw information comes from a dizzying array of locations-“from people calling an FBI office to report suspicious activity to intercepted phone calls from terror cells overseas”-each requiring its own individual consideration and then integration with information from elsewhere. Even as they are trying to capture all relevant information and present all possible options, the analysts have to be careful not to skew the presentation in favor of one option and so tread on the prerogative of their customers.

Mr. Mudd details the dangerous 2006 plot to blow up several airliners at once with bombs fashioned from plastic soft-drink bottles filled with liquid explosives. The British and American security services tracked the developing plot in real time, trying to determine the best moment to take down the terrorist cell. Act too early in the mistaken belief that action is imminent and you miss several participants; act too late and you will be counting the bodies of murdered innocents.

Compounding the difficulty was the chaos of information, disparate facts plucked from a whirling storm of others that may or may not be relevant. Most aren’t. Thus it isn’t so much rising to the occasion that is difficult, but rather sensing that it is the occasion. The measure of success here wasn’t simply terrorism prosecutions brought or disasters averted. Often, plots had to be dismantled by prosecuting terrorists for immigration violations and marriage fraud or by simply frustrating their ability to get the material they needed.

As attorney general from 2007 to 2009, I was among the beneficiaries of Mr. Mudd’s expertise at daily morning briefings at FBI headquarters. The complex threat streams were laid out, as was our need to rely on the often uneven work of hundreds of field offices and to fashion on-the-fly metrics to measure threats and successes. Mr. Mudd quotes with approval Secretary of State Colin Powell saying before a briefing. “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. And then tell me what you think.” “I always thought,” Mr. Mudd continues, “that any conversation about the intelligence the briefer provided every morning should clearly articulate the differences between the three, along with the even more clearly defined separation from the fourth, non-intelligence, pillar: discuss the policy question, what we should do about the problem that’s just been defined.”

When the Obama administration took over in 2009, Mr. Mudd was asked to serve as head of intelligence of the Department of Homeland Security. He would have been ideal for the job, but the president had come to power vowing to punish those who, in his view, had gone beyond permissible bounds in the treatment of captured terrorists, including the then still-classified interrogation program administered, with Justice Department approval, by the CIA. Mr. Mudd, as he concedes in the book, had known about the program. And he may or may not have participated in a decision to send a detainee to another country for questioning-the so-called “rendition” procedure introduced during the Clinton administration. (“I couldn’t remember,” he notes, “which seemed to be a dodge unless you’d been involved in the variety and intensity of activities the Center had underway while I was there.”)

His nomination became controversial and one day he found that the White House lawyers who had been preparing him for his confirmation hearing failed to show up for a scheduled meeting: “Even an amateur analyst,” he notes, “could read that writing on the wall.” He withdrew from consideration and resigned from government service in 2010, at age 47. There are, of course, thousands of employees throughout the government charged with protecting our welfare. But there are few like Philip Mudd, and we can ill afford to lose any of them to the toxic posturing of the political classes.

Mr. Mukasey served as attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009 and as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York from 1988 to 2006. He is also a member of the Board of Directors, ACD/EWI.

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, U.S. Policy

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