Dot, Dot, Dot . . .
March 10, 2010
In his new book The Watchers, (Penguin Press, 2010), Shane Harris chronicles what he calls “the rise of America's surveillance state,” a process he's been following since he was a reporter and technology editor at Government Executive from 2001 to 2005.
It's a story with all the elements of a spy thriller: political intrigue, shadowy federal organizations and a compelling cast of characters desperately seeking to prevent the next Sept. 11. At the center is the enigmatic John Poindexter, former national security adviser and architect of the ill-fated Total Information Awareness data collection and analysis effort.
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What I discovered was that it really was the Beirut attack that shocked the intelligence system in a very similar way to 9/11. You have the Marines in Beirut, ostensibly on this international peacekeeping mission. They're hunkered down at the airport. For various political reasons, they're not allowed to go out very much in public. They are sort of sitting ducks. What happens is in the aftermath of the bombing, the intelligence community finds out there were all these warnings that something bad was about to happen to the Marines at the airport. So you had, in the spring of 1983, more than 100 individual warnings about car bombings fielded by the intelligence community.
The Marines were blind, deaf and dumb sitting at the base. And the golden nugget of it all is that NSA intercepted, in the days before the attack, this phone conversation going from a minister in Iran to presumably one of these organizing terrorist groups–directing this group to go and take this spectacular action against the Marines. You add all these up and it looks a lot like 9/11. There's all this information sitting there and it's like, how come nobody's putting it together? And Poindexter is the guy who looks at this and says, “This shouldn't happen and we can take steps to make sure it doesn't happen. There has to be a way to logically approach this problem, systematize the whole process and connect those dots.”
Phi Beta Iota: The US Intelligence Community is badly managed, grotesquely over-funded, and incapable of changing its culture for the simple reason that instead of finding and empowering leaders with new ideas and open minds, we continue to give more money to old leaders, like pouring gasoline on a fire. We still cannot process 90% of what we collect; we still cannot speak foreign languages; and we still do not play well with others. The IC is managed by people who know nothing of intelligence–they are essentially staffers who went through the motions of moving money around–and their only real accomplishment is that they have not burned any bridges. Unfortunately, they have been so busy not burning bridges they have not built anything worthwhile. The IC is a shell game–move money, move the harem around, repeat the same testimony over and over to Congress again–ultimately the IC is a $75 billion a year tragic farce.