Sunday, January 25, 2004

Al Qaeda brought the Matches

In Oct 99, my group, of which I was lead analyst, was given a task to evaluate threats from about 6-8 different countries. State-sponsored terrorism was one of the threats. In our proposal, we argued that evaluating state-sponsored terrorism without considering the actual terrorists organizations themselves made little sense. We knew this was a bit dicey because terrorists fell under the rubric of “non-state actors” who tended to be dealt with by different organizations than those who dealt with “state actors.” The reason for this was that non-state actors [mainly terrorists, drug lords, and mafias] were seen as law-enforcement problems, to be dealt by the FBI, DEA, and such, while hostile states were obviously the concern of the State Dept, the CIA, and the other intelligence agencies. So terrorists fell in one camp, while the states that sponsored and supported them fell in a another. And of course those two camps were heavily constrained in how they could communicate and cooperate. But our customer, DIA, agreed with us and thought the “wall” issue could be dealt with, and so terrorists were added to the statement of work.

All such projects have a kickoff meeting where we and the customers go over the analysis plan in detail, discussing data issues, security issues, potential problems and limitations, and the kind of conclusions we expect to produce. At our kickoff meeting were us, several DIA guys, and a CIA rep acting a liaison. Everything went great until the topic of terrorists came up.

At once, the DIA guys explained that maybe they’d been too optimistic about the “wall” issue. Our tasking included suggestions for threat mitigation, and since that was clearly counter- terrorism in this case, that was right out. “We can’t give any counter- terrorist advice,” they flatly said. OK, we said, what about assessment?

That depends, they replied.

So we starting giving them examples of things we thought we might be able to say. “No, we can’t say, that”, they would say, “still sounds too much like advice.”

Well, what about this? we’d ask. Maybe not, they’d say, such-&-such organization vets those kind of conclusions; they’re the experts and we can’t step on their charter.

This went on for awhile and finally, somewhat exasperated, we asked them exactly what we could say; what type of conclusions we were allowed to draw. At this point, the DIA guys and CIA rep basically got together and gave us a dump on their understanding of who in the government was doing what with respect to terrorism and what the rules of cooperation [or not] were. At one point, they started talking about an organization we recognized as being in DIA. “Wait a minute,” we said, “those guys are DIA! If they are working that, then we can say this and this!”

“Yeah,” the head DIA guy said, a bit sheepishly, “they are DIA, but they’re a different part of DIA and we can’t talk to them.”

We blinked a few times, and all consideration of terrorism was dropped from the task.

I was personally rather annoyed by all this; I believed terrorists were an key topic and I thought we could have said some interesting and important things about them. It was pointed out to me that we weren’t really counter-terrorism experts [although we were threat assessment experts], that the problem was being worked by so-&-so and such-&-such, and that they probably had better data, more experience, more resources than we did. We should just go focus on our part. OK, I said grumpily, and we moved on.

See the problem? No one was working the problem effectively, at least not all of it, but I bet they all thought -- just like we did – that someone else was. That’s the “I thought you brought the matches” school of intelligence analysis. That’s what “the Wall” – all the walls -- did. They didn’t just prevent more effective cooperation and data sharing; they turned the whole process of intelligence gathering and analysis into one big game of “Who brought the matches?” 

Well, I’ll tell you who: Al Qaeda brought the matches.