Paul Pillar

The Intelligence Community Has Cleaned Up Its Attribution Problem … Has the Press?

James Risen has another article on the evolution of intelligence analysis, this time describing how screwing up the Iraq intelligence so badly now weighs on Iran analysts (for the better, IMO).

I was struck by the description of one way the intelligence community has improved its analysis.

The intelligence community also now requires that analysts be told much more about the sources of the information they receive from the United States’ human and technological spies. Analysts were left in the dark on such basic issues in the past, which helps explain why bogus information from fabricators was included in some prewar intelligence reports on Iraq. And, when they write their reports, they must include better attribution and sourcing for each major assertion.

While I’m skeptical the IC has improved sufficiently on this front (I suspect, for example, that attribution problems are one reason the IC was looking for an AQAP attack in 2009 in Yemen and not on a plane bound for Detroit), I am heartened that at least the IC is trying to give analysts more information on where information comes from and what biases might come with that information. At the very least, it should help avoid the stovepiping of information from people like Curveball.

But reading that passage got me wondering whether the press has gotten any better on this front. This article was published in the NYT, a newspaper that rather famously promised to clean up its anonymous sourcing after the Judy Miller fiasco, but which routinely fails to meet its own guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong–Risen himself meets these guidelines in the story, explaining why around 3 anonymous sources had to remain anonymous.

one former senior intelligence official, who like several others quoted in this article would speak only on the condition of anonymity about internal agency matters

He also includes on-the-record quotes from sources that appear identical to the named anonymous sources he quotes from; leaving little doubt as to who and where his story came from.

one former official who worked with the [CIA] analyst [who had a breakdown after the Iraq intelligence debacle]

Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst who resigned to protest what he considered the Bush administration’s politicization of the prewar Iraq intelligence

Paul Pillar, a former senior C.I.A. analyst on the Middle East

according to the former officials [who worked on the 2007 Iran NIE]

one official [who worked on the 2007 NIE] recalled

Thomas Fingar, who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the time of the 2007 assessment on Iran

He even describes John Bolton in such a way as to downplay Bolton’s own role in intelligence as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, presumably making it clear (as if there were any doubt) that Bolton was not among his sources describing the problems with intelligence under Bush.

John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration

So this is not a commentary on Risen. Continue reading

“Did Anyone Know a Fruit Vendor in Tunisia Was Going to Light Himself on Fire?”

That’s the question NSC spokesperson Tommy Vietor used yesterday to deflect Senate Intelligence Committee concerns that the Administration was taken by surprise by the events in Egypt.

Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and start a revolution? No. But for decades, the intelligence community and diplomats have been reporting on unrest in the region that was a result of economic, demographic and political conditions.

That’s pretty much the answer Stephanie O’Sullivan gave to the committee as they grilled her yesterday (though without the snide reference to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation sparked the uprising there).

“We warned of instability,” said Stephanie O’Sullivan, who has been nominated to become the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official. The hearing was on her nomination to be principal deputy director of the Office of Director of National Intelligence. But, she added, “we didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be.”

It’s also what Paul Pillar told Spencer about warnings of the Egyptian uprising.

“The ingredients of upheaval were there for a long time,” says Paul Pillar, who was the intelligence community’s top Mideast analyst from 2000 to 2005, “but it was impossible to predict in advance what particular catalyzing events would set stuff off.”

But that response doesn’t address three issues.

First, there’s DiFi’s complaint that the intelligence community was not monitoring open source resources to track the Egyptian opposition.

Feinstein set a skeptical tone at the opening of the hearing, saying Obama and other policymakers deserved timely intelligence on major world events. Referring to Egypt, she said, “I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area.”

After the hearing, Feinstein said she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government.

Speaking more broadly about intelligence on turmoil in the Middle East, Feinstein said, “I’ve looked at some intelligence in this area.” She described it as “lacking . . . on collection.”

Our intelligence community makes a great deal of effort to track the public internet communications of Islamic extremists. But DiFi suggests they’re not doing the same to track potential sources of instability around the world. In my next post, I’ll show that she may have a point.

In addition, the response that the intelligence community can’t predict when a fruit vendor will self-immolate and with it light up the whole Middle East ignores a point that Pillar admitted.

At the same time, the CIA is really, really close to its Egyptian counterparts. It relied on Egypt’s spymaster, now Mubarak’s vice president, to carry out a torture program against terrorist suspects. But Pillar denies that closeness led the CIA to rely on rosy pictures of a stable country provided by Egypt’s spies.“They take with grain of salt what [Egyptian spies] have to say,” Pillar says. “Anybody in the State Department or intelligence community following a country like Egypt is highly conscious of that as an occupational hazard. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they have great sources inside an opposition movement, but they’re aware of this as a potential shortcoming.” [my emphasis]

Pillar admits that we didn’t necessarily have great sources within the opposition movement. And he may be suggesting that that is because of our particularly close ties to Egypt’s intelligence services and thugs like Omar Suleiman. Particularly if DiFi’s complaint about not tracking social media is correct, that’s sort of going to make it hard to predict a revolution.

Finally (and this is a point as salient for the complaining Senators as for the intelligence community), what if we did know people were talking about a revolution? What would we have done?

Given the Administration’s caution about dispensing of its ally Mubarak (something I’m not terribly surprised about), what do the Senators really think we would have done, as a country, had we thought Mubarak’s rule was unstable? Egypt has been such a cornerstone of our foreign policy for so long, I highly doubt it would have changed our policy of gently trying to nudge Mubarak to reform without trying to offend him.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @mike_stark @AriMelber But, hey, there is nmo reason the media sou;d understand or cover that with real criminal trial experts.
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bmaz @mike_stark @AriMelber ... as ANY other GJ would get. Bet just leaves GJ w/a bunch of statute cites+says good luck. Which is NEVER done.
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bmaz @mike_stark @AriMelber ...for a vote as "draft indictment" by the GJ. This is months long+I bet McCulloch never submits a draft indictment..
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bmaz @mike_stark @AriMelber ...this would, with not much variance, be a 2-3 hr grand jury presentation, with definitive charges submitted...
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bmaz @mike_stark @AriMelber Here is what I DO know from 30 yrs crim law experience (27 trial level): in ANY other homicide under similar facts...
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bmaz @DavidSug @walterwkatz Yup on all fronts.
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bmaz @DavidSug @walterwkatz I am talking to you Sugerman! Honestly, from what I know, none of this is secure. But, still, sometimes stop+wonder
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bmaz @DavidSug @walterwkatz I separate ID's, but apparently things catching up to me.
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bmaz Whoa, just switched from the Dead Pirates game, and Law+Order SVU has an elevator video case! #SnatchedFromHeadlines
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bmaz @DavidSug @walterwkatz Yo, young, but in law school. Watched that commercial live and was mesmerized.
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bmaz @walterwkatz @DavidSug I don't use Chr or FFox
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bmaz @shenebraskan @DavidSug @walterwkatz Tried it long ago. Was too slow and worthless.
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