An interview with former CIA Clandestine Services Case Officer Robert Steele.
By Kris Todi
Robert Steele is a former Marine Corps infantry officer, former spy, and long-time champion of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Somewhere in there he also became an honorary hacker and the #1 Amazon reviewer for non-fiction. For the past 20 years he has been the Johnny Appleseed of intelligence reform, managing conference training for over 7,500 mid-career officers from across more than 66 countries. He’s written many books, articles, and chapters, done briefings across more than 20 countries, and even run for President, briefly, as a Reform Party candidate.
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The Politic: Tell us a little bit about our background and how it has influenced your advocacy of open source intelligence.
You swear oaths of silence, obedience, and as I now know, blindness as well.
My background is very international. My father married the daughter of a wealthy Colombian land-owner, and I grew up overseas as the son of an oil engineer and manager – seven years in South America followed by ten years in Asia. I came back for university and then joined the US Marine Corps. The Marine Corps infantry had a very good balancing effect on me, but it was peacetime and boring, so I applied to the CIA and was delighted to be accepted.
I loved being a spy. Being a spy is a very privileged existence – I was spending $100,000 a month at the age of 30, not exactly the norm, but I was very happy and very productive.
To come back to your question, the first third of my life gave me a global understanding of nuances. I turned that off when I joined the CIA. As with being a priest, you swear oaths of silence, obedience, and as I now know, blindness as well.
What deeply influenced my advocacy of open source was my experience as the senior civilian responsible for creating the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA) from 1988-1992, but I also put in a couple of years from 1986-1988 off the books, helping identify sources of funding and conceptualize the initiative. We were given the basement of a building, a space that was once a kitchen for the unit occupying the building. I spent $20 million making this space suitable for Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI), and as an afterthought, in one corner in a closed in space, put a single PC with access to the Internet. This was 1988 – the Internet back then was nothing more than something called “The Source,” and a number of paths to Gopher spaces operated by various companies.
Within two weeks of the analysts beginning to do real work, with the most advanced workstations I could buy and with access to everything from all the secret agencies including NSA, I found them standing in line for the PC. When I inquired, and this is something I remember vividly, I was told “There is nothing in the secret databases for the shitholes where we go – Burundi, Haiti, Somalia.” This was the moment in which I realized that the entire secret world was a fraud, that my work as a clandestine case officer had been a form of fraud, and that the NSA in particular was a massive fraud. It was at that moment that I became the modern champion of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
OSINT for me was a chance to think deeply about every aspect of the profession of intelligence. Intelligence is about decision-support, an output. It is not, absolutely not, about secrecy, or technical collection, or inputs. The secret world would have us believe that anything they do is “intelligence” when in fact most of what they do is wanton secret technical collection that is not processed, and they produce virtually no analysis for anyone other than the President and a few national security clients.
The Politic: Tell us a bit about the non-governmental/security role of intelligence.
This is the really important question. It turns out that 90% or more of what we need to know is known by organizations outside the government. The government is one of eight information “tribes” and it is the least important, the least knowledgeable, and the least agile and the least communicative.
In 2006 I published the seminal article on OSINT, “Open Source Intelligence,” as Chapter 6 in Volume 2 of Loch Johnson’s five-volume series, Strategic Intelligence (Praeger, 2007). I was able to quote General Tony Zinni, USMC, today retired, then the Commander in Chief of the US Central Command (CINCENT). This is what he said on the record:
“80% of what I needed to know as CINCENT I got from open sources rather than classified reporting. And within the remaining 20%, if I knew what to look for, I found another 16%. At the end of it all, classified intelligence provided me, at best, with 4% of my command knowledge.”
For this we pay $75 billion a year, which by my calculation comes out to $205 million a day? This is the norm — business as usual for the entire federal government. Certainly I consider it irresponsible, but I hold the president and Congress responsible, not the lesser officials who are doing what they are expected to do.
The Politic: Why has the secret intelligence community been so opposed to open source intelligence?
Pork. Corruption. Privilege.
The secret world is the best little pork pie in the world. It kicks back 5% to most Senators and Representatives (while also knowing their darkest secrets via the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA operations against our own legislators), and it is beyond the law and beyond any audit. Neither the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) nor the General Accountability Office (GAO) are allowed to audit the secret world in depth. In fact, even the agency heads themselves cannot audit their own agencies.
General Mike Hayden, the Director of the NSA as it broke new ground in violating the US Constitution said (as I recollect), “Anytime I want to look at a special compartment, the only guy that can talk to me about it is the guy that will lose his job and his budget if I cut there.” As have all those before him, he settled for keeping the money moving. In corrupt systems that are not held accountable for any return on investment (the outputs), people get promoted on the basis of the amount of money they spend and the number of people they supervise (the inputs). They also get post-retirement jobs on the basis of what companies have benefited from contract awards during their decision period.
I am particularly concerned by the fact that 70% of the US secret world today consists of contractors. This means that an inherently governmental function is being performed by contractors who have a clear conflict of interest from day one.
The Politic: What do you think the government doing wrong with respect to intelligence?
At the highest level, government is no longer representing ‘We the People.’ We have a two-party tyranny that agreed to borrow $1 trillion a year beginning around 1980, so that these two parties could stay in power with welfare and waste and pork at the expense of the current and future generations of citizens. Electoral Reform is the only remedy, one reason I ran for President in 2012 in a failed attempt to focus Occupy’s energy and to also challenge Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and others. All of them failed my test. Every single one of them is about themselves and a selfish attempt to acquire a share of the power, rather than about restoring power to the people.
At the next level the government is making decisions on the basis of who pays to be heard, not on the basis of ethical evidence-based decision-support. We do not have a national strategy, or a military strategy or a health strategy or an energy strategy or a water strategy.
In fact, it bears mention that the new NSA data center in Utah – a water-stressed state that has its citizens on water rationing – requires 1.7 million gallons of clean fresh water every single day, to cool its computers hosting the fruits of mass surveillance. Either those making the decision did not care – or worse – they did not know. This is the same kind of ignorance as displayed by Dick Cheney when we broke Iraq at a cost of trillions, not realizing before the fact that the majority of Iraq’s citizen’s are pro-Iranian Shi’ites.
All eight information tribes, but particularly the academic, civil, and media tribes, have failed to hold the government accountable for being responsible and responsive to the public interest.
The Politic: If I were to give you free reign to structure both a government and an intelligence system in any way that you want, what would the government and intelligence system look like? What is the goal your advocacy is striving toward?
First and foremost, we need a national Open Source Agency (OSA). The biggest change in my own perspective is that I have moved far beyond OSINT and am now very focused on the importance of nurturing all of the opens because only open source information technology is affordable, inter-operable, and scalable.
The OSA is the foundation for restoring integrity to our government, by creating the gold standard for ethical evidence-based decision-support.
We still need spies and secrets, but as I have been saying for decades, “do not send a spy where a schoolboy can go.”
Classified collection must be brought under integiintegral leadership. Today technical collection is out of control – and not processed despite the mass surveillance – and human collection and outreach have been gutted – this sacred capability ranges from pathologically dysfunctional (CIA) to non-existent or ludicrous (DIA).
I would include the Deputy Director for Management of OMB as a key official to whom the OSA provides persistent in-depth support. OMB does not manage anything today – it is more of a number cruncher and harmonizer of lies from the executive to the legislature. I consider OMB the single most important lever for restoring honest integral government, but first OMB has to commit to demanding that we plan, program, budget, and execute on the basis of ethical evidence-based decision support.
Across the ten high-level threats to humanity that have been identified by the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change in their report A more secure world: our shared responsibility (2004), the utility of open sources is easily 95% for most of the threats. It is simply irresponsible for the US Government to pretend that it can do “intelligence” with a massive secret technical collection archipelago, at the same time that the individual elements of the government (the Cabinet departments) are incompetent at the craft of intelligence and generally operating on the basis of 2% of the relevant information.
The Politic: You ran for President under the Reform Party. Tell us why you decided to run and what you learned from this endeavor.
First off, I was unemployed at the time. It occurred to me that it would be a useful application of my time and intellect. Secondly – and I am much indebted and greatly respectful of the Reform Party leadership for embracing my candidacy – I had been talking for years with Jim Turner (#2 to Ralph Nader for many years), Jock Gill (a communications specialist for President Clinton), and Michael Cudahey (top staffer to Barry Goldwater) as well as others such as Joseph McCormick, a champion for “transpartisanship.”
I decided that running for president, however briefly, would allow me to do two things: put all the good ideas many of us had vetted over the years on one new web site–We the People Reform Coalition–and engage all the other presidential candidates from across all the small parties, to test the possibility of a coalition movement.
I raised around $3,000 dollars. I quit after three weeks when it became clear that in its present configuration the Reform Party would prefer Andre Barnett, a body builder, as their candidate, and so it happened. More to the point the web site is still up, the ideas are still valid, and my concept for raising $1 billion, $10 from each of 100 million Cultural Creatives and centrists (over half the eligible voters no longer identify with either of the two parties in power) is solid.
The Politic: Why do you call the current government setup a two party tyranny?
I credit the phrase “two-party tyranny” to Theresa Amato, whose book, Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny (New Press, 2009) finally broke with the taboo. There are eight accredited parties in the USA. In addition to the two that monopolize power, they are the Constitution, Green, Libertarian, Natural Law, Reform, and Socialist. All six of these other parties, and all Independents, are blocked from ballot access by design.
One of the things I learned while running for President, which opened many doors for me in terms of learning from others, is that Congress has the power to mandate that all eight parties and Independents be given unfettered access to all state ballots where federal officers are concerned. A law to this effect has been introduced nine times. Nine times the two-party tyranny has voted to block all others from the ballot.
The Politic: What is the place for human assets in an increasingly electronic world?
I am not a fan of the Singularity folks. While I am certain that computers will mature in ways we can only begin to imagine, I have also been active in Artificial Intelligence since 1986, and know through hard experience that computers are stupid – they are really good at repeating the same idiot operations millions of times, but they have to be told what the operation is.
The single best treatment of the failure of computers in relation to the human brain is offered by Jim Bamford, chronicler of the NSA. In his book Body of Secrets, after a book-length review of NSA’s attempt to create massive computers with global reach, Jim concludes the book with this quote:
Eventually NSA may secretly achieve the ultimate in quickness, compatibility, and efficiency—a computer with petaflop and higher speeds shrunk into a container about a liter in side, and powered by only about ten watts of power: the human brain.
The Internet – and electronic databases – are tools for thinking, they are not the thinking itself. We need both. We need to connect dots to dots, dots to humans, and humans to humans. It is the humans, not the electronics, that make the leaps of faith, of insight, of genius.
The Politic: What do you think about Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and other recent security breaches?
I am not a whistleblower – I am a committed reformer. I have deep respect for most whistleblowers, particularly Ellsberg, Snepp and others from CIA, Rowan from the FBI, Drake and Binney from NSA. All of them sought to honor their oath to defend and protect the Constitution; Snowden for me is a mix of reprehensible treason and positive effect.
Let’s start with what is called Cognitive Dissonance. I tried to get Jim Clapper, today the Director of National Intelligence and at the time the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, to focus on this in 2007. Whistleblowing is a result of cognitive dissonance – when very good people trapped in a very bad system feel they have no other alternative. They literally cannot live with themselves if they do not do what they can to sound the alarm. Suicide is a direct result of cognitive dissonance. We have 22 veterans a day today committing suicide – in my view this is directly related to the fact that we went to war on Iraq and in Afghanistan on the basis of 935 now-documented lies, and the related facts that we have murdered hundreds of thousands of people and created perhaps 60,000 US amputees and spent trillions of dollars, all to no good end.
When government loses its legitimacy – when the secret world loses its legitimacy in the eyes of its dedicated employees, you get whistleblowers – the sane alternative – as well as suicides, drunks, thieves, and other less sane alternatives.
Wikileaks exposed the hypocrisy of the US Government. Chelsea Manning broke the law but one has to recognize that the law may be protecting misbehaviour, and that Manning may have been acting in the public interest. With Snowden, I was initially convinced that he was a loser who had been recruited by the Chinese in order to gut Obama during his meeting with Xi. Now I am not so sure – this has played out on the world stage as one of the most useful public penetrations ever of a secret government.
Whistleblowers and suicides are the canaries in the coal mine. Our government has grown too big, too fraudulent, too dishonest, too unrepresentative, and too secret. The pathologies embedded within the government – in all three branches, the Supreme Court having also been corrupted these past decades (Citizens United is the capstone disgrace) – are now such that the legitimacy of the government is called into question by at least half the US public – those who are Independents, Libertarians, Greens, and Reforms.
We are at a turning point in the history of the Republic. If not in 2016, then in 2020, I anticipate a president being elected on a platform such as I proposed at We the People Reform Coaltion – a platform consisting of electoral reform, a coalition cabinet, a balanced budget and an end to all taxes less a new Automated Payment Transaction (APT) tax, and a commitment to true cost economics, which is to say, intelligence with integrity. Occupy, the Independents, and the Libertarians, at a minimum, must find common ground and agree that electoral reform is the non-negotiable first step in restoring the integrity of the Republic.
The Politic: Is the US safer today than it was pre 9-11?
No. Believe it or not, while Dick Cheney was busy leading the neoconservatives in the telling of 935 now-documented lies, he did not know – and the secret world did not see fit to tell him – that Iraq consisted of a Shi’ite majority being repressed by a Sunni majority. Similarly, no one saw fit to mention that the Taliban in Afghanistan was hostile to Iran. We have spent trillions of dollars, murdered hundreds of thousands of people, and alienated millions more. What we have done with drones is especially reprehensible. The drone program is far outside all possible international and domestic laws. Worse, it has a 2% success rate. Fully 98% of all people killed by the drones are innocents.
At another level, the government has allowed Wall Street to loot multiple nations overseas (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain) while also putting the US economy into a deep recession.
Finally, at a contextual level, I believe that we are at the end of a half century of debauchery and treason that began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the successful cover-up of that assassination by Lyndon Baines Johnson. For the past fifty years, the White House and Congress have been totally controlled by a financial cabal, and have failed to invest in our people, our infrastructure, our economy, our society. I see no possibility for constructive change as long as we continue to allow a two-party tyranny to misrepresent the public and continue to enable the 1% to concentrate wealth and legalize their crimes against humanity.
The Politic: Who was responsible for 9/11? What do you think really happened?
9/11 has not been investigated honestly. I was one of the witnesses interviewed, and I know others. The 9/11 Commission was a mix of amateur hour and craven co-conspiracy letting Dick Cheney completely off the hook. What I can say with certainty is that ample evidence exists to indict Dick Cheney and Larry Silverstein, and go from there.
As best I can tell, Dick Cheney and the secret world knew months in advance that 9/11 was going to occur, and it is highly possible that a number of highly placed officials within the US Government, including George Tenet and Donald Rumsfled, are co-conspirators.
We know that months prior to 9/11, Dick Cheney scheduled a national counter-terrorism exercise that put him in charge of all US defenses on “the day.”
We know that months before 9/11, Able Danger [a classified military planning project] identified several of the 9/11 patsies, and that this triggered an immediate action by George Tenet and Keith Alexander to destroy Able Danger as a project and to confiscate all Able Danger records.
We know that WTC-7 went down from controlled demolitions and the other two buildings probably did as well. We know that all bomb-sniffing dogs were removed from the buildings two weeks prior to 9/11 and not allowed back in.
We are moderately certain that the Pentagon was hit by a missile – this is supported by a video, by photographs of the damage, and by the statements of a US Major General once responsible for all Soviet imagery interpretation.
We are moderately certain that the Zionist government of Israel and the government of Saudi Arabia had a hand in orchestrating 9/11 and that this is the smoking gun that Congress is trying to keep under wraps.
The Politic: What happened with JFK?
I am certain that JFK was murdered by elements of the CIA (not by direction of the Director of the CIA) acting in co-conspiracy with New York money, Texas oil, Cuban exiles, and perhaps criminal elements based in New Orleans. I believe that the CIA’s technical office manufactured fraudulent Secret Service credentials that were used by the co-conspirators to escape. I am certain Oswald had nothing to do with the assassination – he was a patsy and also the only person who tested negative for gun-powder, a detail covered up for quite some time.
It merits comment that JFK knew that morning that there was a conspiracy to murder him in Dallas. He was explicitly warned by his brother and chose to blow off the warning.
Phi Beta Iota: Subsequent to this interview Steele was invited to Yale to meet personally with a number of students.