Intelligence: Stop Listening to Terrorists, Or Else

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August 6, 2007: If you ever wondered why people viewed leaks about intelligence programs as bad, why not take a look at how a series of leaks in the global war on terror have affected the intelligence gathered. Recent reports indicate that the amount of intelligence collected has dropped by as much as two-thirds. This is the result of not just the leaks, but some of the consequences of the leaks. Perhaps the most famous of these leaks was the New York Times article concerning the NSA's efforts to listen in on terrorist conversations. The result was a major firestorm. While some were upset that a classified program was revealed, others were upset that the NSA was listening in on phone conversations (never mind that there was no credible evidence of abuse). The result was lawfare targeting technical intelligence, and very heated debate.

The problem with that is that leaks - and the ensuing controversy - tend to let people know they are being listened to. Once a person, group, or country find out that they are of interest to an intelligence agency, two things happen. First, they tend to become very careful with regards to communications - they take steps to throw off surveillance efforts, and they will even shift to means that cannot be intercepted (like couriers or flying for face-to-face meetings). al Qaeda has done this in the past. Second, they begin to wonder how the information is acquired - and try to cut off the flow. If they find out enough of what an intelligence agency knows (usually through a process of elimination), they will have an idea of who might be a source. If the intelligence service is lucky, they can extract the compromised source, but they lose the ability to get future information. If said source is caught, he usually ends up dead or mutilated.

Technical intelligence has normally been preferred, as a method of gathering information, over human intelligence, precisely because it avoids controversy. Satellites do not tend to demand money for their services, nor do they have habits that can prove embarrassing should they hit the front page of the Washington Post, nor had they ever really violated the sensibilities of human rights groups. But the recent controversy has changed that - and now, the technical intelligence personnel have become somewhat gun-shy - often cutting back on what they are trying to do in order to avoid a lawsuit that air secrets, and do even more damage. This gun-shyness is worse than the loss of sources, because that affects the entire agency. In essence, they will not take chances on technical intelligence or human intelligence lest it show up in the paper.

Groups like the ACLU that have waged a relentless campaign against the intelligence community, including court rulings. They, and the reporters who broke the stories and won Pulitzers, were not the only winners. Terrorists have been biggest beneficiaries of these controversies. With intelligence agencies afraid to aggressively gather information due to fears of angering groups like the ACLU, terrorists have more freedom to talk to cells inside the U.S. In the wake of a successful attack, the reporters will probably write articles about how the intelligence community failed. These reporters will keep the finger pointed away from themselves and their sources, as well as those who filed lawsuits. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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