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By Nick Wakeman

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David Hubler

Intelligence reform falls flat without technology

A recent op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal declared the U.S. government “complacent about terrorism” and of course cited the attempted Christmas bombing aboard a Detroit-bound flight and the deadly suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan.

The authors of the piece – a management and economics professor at the London School of Economics and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School – demanded reform of the U.S. intelligence services, which they found to be too many and too unwieldy. They suggested a consolidation into only four agencies.

The authors are not intelligence professionals, but their call for change is typical of the frustration in this country over near-misses and fatal attacks by radical individuals bent on killing. Also, their suggested solution is not totally without merit, but they place too much blame on an intricate system with which they have little or no experience.

The authors also fail to take into consideration the fact that behind-the-scenes technology – in the form of signal intelligence and communications intelligence, sigint and comint, among others – which they know nothing about is constantly being upgraded and advanced with the aim of preventing similar attacks before they occur. And we don’t know how many instances there are of technology already successfully having prevented attacks and saved lives.

During my orientation into CIA as a young man more than a few years ago, agency instructors drove home to us one overriding theme regarding the work we were about to begin that has left an indelible impression on me. “Your successes will never be known; your failures will become general knowledge,” they said.

Even in those Cold War days, intelligence technology was far ahead of what the general public knew or even dreamed of. Rudimentary (by today’s standards) overhead imagery was able to discern the makes and models of vehicles in the Langley parking lot or on the Golden Gate Bridge taken by a satellite flying over northern Canada, for example. Toothpick-thin transmitters embedded in walls could pass along monitored conversations to vehicles passing by at scheduled intervals. Stuff even James Bond didn’t have.

Many of today’s technology advances to thwart terrorism remain classified, but I know they are out there – either already on the front lines in the war on terrorism or on the drawing boards of technology companies across the country. And I don’t mean just full-body X-ray scanning machines installed at airports.

I can’t imagine what technological advances and weapons we will see in the next few years to go against al-Qaedi and other terrorist forces, but whatever it is, I am confident it will beat a pack of explosives in a pair of Fruit of the Looms.

Posted by David Hubler on Jan 15, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Reader Comments

Mon, Feb 1, 2010 M Reston, VA

“Your successes will never be known; your failures will become general knowledge,” This is one of the built-in hubris-laden excuses that makes the CIA such a pathetic bureacracy. The fact is many failures also remain unknown. But until Bin Laden is killed or captured the CIA will get no respect for me. You are too well-resourced to produce so little.

Thu, Jan 21, 2010 Observer Jr. Washington

It's tiresome and unsatisfying to read the allusions to all those successes and those wonderful systems that just can't be discussed. Listen, there are so many leaks--by well placed insiders--we'd know about more of these. And we don't. We do know that after billions on new systems, procedures, and top contractors, the counterterrorism watch and warning systems were ineffective on Christmas Day because of a State Department typo and the lack, according to the White House, of one, authoritative party in the government who was responsible for chasing down and resolving outstanding threats. Even if we had the nifty technology you hope is there, such leadership and managemenet shortcomings would make it useless, as it was on Christmas Day. Wishful thinking and denial will get us nowhere. New thinking, and penetrating lessons learned and public accountability will give us a start.

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