White House-Intelligence Community Relations Are Evolving

From Diogenes

One of the pillars of Intelligence Community analytic tradecraft is employing a range of techniques, including alternative analysis and analysis of competing hypotheses (ACH).  Let’s try those techniques in looking at the President’s view of intelligence and the Intelligence Community.

The conventional wisdom, almost reaching revealed truth in some quarters, among the news media, many pundits, and numerous individuals within the Intelligence Community is that the President has denigrated the officers who work in the IC, and that he willfully ignores the IC’s product, believing in a personal omniscience about world affairs that is not warranted by his experience, training, or contacts.

Another view would hold that we are seeing a transition from a historical phase of White House-IC relations to another.  Some presidents came into office having run an intelligence agency (Washington, the elder Bush; or saw their father run one, in case of the younger Bush), and had a well-developed sense of what a non-politicized intelligence service can do for an administration.  Other presidents had to learn on the job, and their views changed from skepticism to applause for intelligence professionals.  This complete maturation, however, is not guaranteed for any presidency.  Nixon remained wary of CIA throughout his tenure.  Carter came around reluctantly.  Tense relations with CIA were the watchword with the Kennedy administration immediately following the failed Bay of Pigs operation.

We may be seeing an incremental development of such a view of intelligence with the current administration.

From the initial arm’s-length denigration of intelligence professionals, we have recently been treated to P45’s visit to CIA’s Original Headquarters Building’s main lobby.  No matter what the substance of his tone-deaf ineloquence before the Memorial Wall, P45 became the first president to visit the Agency on his first day on the job, perhaps illustrating the importance he attaches to the work of the Agency.  Moreover, as the Washington Post reports in its look at the President’s time-management preferences, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/02/21/how-donald-trump-spent-his-first-month-in-office-by-the-numbers/?utm_term=.b34989acc415  he devoted six hours during his first month to intelligence briefings.  While this works out to only a few minutes per day, it is better than the initial fears of him shutting out intelligence completely.  Not stated in the Post coverage is the identity of the individual/organization providing the intelligence briefings.  Was it the erstwhile National Security Advisor, a designated President’s Daily Brief briefer, CIA Director Pompeo, an acting Director of National Intelligence or representative, a combination of these worthies, or someone else?  We also do not know the substantive issues discussed in the briefings, or how the message was received.  That said, we might posit that P45 has moved to the “these guys might have an important role to serve” phase in his thinking.

More troubling is the possible quick transition to “and that role is to back policy” vice “set the table for policy discussion”.  The FBI refused an administration request to publicly badmouth campaign team-Russia connection stories, while the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security bristled at taskings for “shows that” analysis of terrorist links of people from the seven countries subject to the new travel ban. Policy-neutral analysis has been the watchword of American intelligence since the founding of CIA, and resistance to such politicized tasking is to be expected.  Similar calls during the Reagan administration for material bolstering a USSR-terrorist nexus and during the Bush administration for a Saddam-al-Qaeda link did not go over well with the IC’s analytic cadre.

We’ll be watching for signs that the White House’s view of intelligence is evolving to the more classical truth-to-power relationship.

For further reading on the alternative analytic techniques, see Richards J. Heuer and Randolph H. Pherson Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis CQ Press, 2014, 384 pp.

For more extensive commentary on Presidential-IC relations, see

Christopher Andrew For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush Harper Perennial, 1996, 688 pp.

John L. Helgerson CIA Briefing of Presidential Candidates 2008, 214 pp.

David Priess  The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama  Public Affairs, 2016, 400 pp.


This Just in: Fake News, Fake Countries, Fake Flags

From Diogenes

Elbowing its way into contention as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year (and it’s still only February), “fake”, particularly when used as the adjective in “fake news”, has dominated the discussion among pundits, the news media, and various regimes around the world.  Alas, the word “fake” could well win the annual award for its new meanings, as it continues to be misused, both in connotation and tone.

“Fake” has historically been a synonym for deceptive/false.  In recent weeks, however, the slogan “fake news” has served as a substitute for thoughtful analysis and more than one-deep examination of ideas.  A thoroughly exasperated CNN anchor Don Lemon abruptly shut down a panel discussion when guest Paris Dennard continued to parrot what Lemon called Dennard’s “stupid talking point” of “fake news”.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrb-yuvqf4I  Rather than disagreeing with a point, its users instead use “fake news” to denigrate opposing views via oracularly-posited dismissive language, in this case labeling a story, a body of work, or an organization as overarching “fake news”.  To be effective, this mantra is repeated, often, wearing down the patience of the opponent and diverting the attention of the audience from the original substantive issue(s).  Breaking the link between audiences and media is a time-honored propaganda technique that is becoming more popular around the world.

Resort to this oversimplification of a debate also erodes the richness of our language.  A more articulate method of disagreement is to say “your reporting is missing the more important issue, which is…” or “one might question the intellectual/factual foundation of your assertion”.

If the misuse of “fake” regarding news wasn’t enough, we now have “fake countries”, vice “illegitimate regimes”, thanks to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called Israel a “fake” nation at the quadrennial International Conference in Support of Palestinian Intifada, always at the top of the social calendar in Tehran.

This week the world was also treated to a fake flag of the U.S., featuring 51 stars, which greeted U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the European Union headquarters in Brussels.  Fake flags should not be confused with false flags, spyspeak for misattribution, which we discussed in an earlier altcia article.  The 51-star flag might be a first draft for a new U.S. flag when Northern Virginia is formally admitted to the union.  NOVA already is treated as a state by the Washington Post, which always capitalizes its references to the area.

The bottom line: when you hear “fake”, ask yourself who is really doing the faking.

The Perilous Aftermath of the Next Terrorist Attack

From Susan Hasler:

Another terrorist attack will inevitably happen in this country. It will not take place because of who now sits in the White House, how the courts rule, or whether or not counterterrorism professionals are doing their jobs conscientiously. It will take place because of a wide range of cultural, social, religious, and geopolitical factors in our recent history. It will take place because of failed policies, imperfect vigilance, and cycles of violence and retribution set in motion long ago. It will take place because there is no such thing as complete safety, even if you build walls, waterboard detainees, suspend civil liberties, bomb the shit out of a Muslim country, and bankrupt the treasury in the process. 
Just as inevitable as the next attack is the blame game that will follow. The blame game never solves anything. Yes, you can spread blame around like manure on the fields in springtime. There’s plenty to go around, and it will stink to high heaven, but nothing good will grow from it. It distracts from efforts to stop the next attack. It never even gets close to finding the real culprit. Yet we indulge in it passionately, as if we expected it to yield solutions rather than ruin. 
Who will Trump blame? He’s already told us part of the story, tweeting on February 6, “Just can’t believe a judge [the one who suspended Trump’s travel ban] would put us in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!” If the Judiciary has been ruining your day, what better time than after an attack to work up a groundswell of support for reducing its powers?
Trump will also blame the Intelligence Community, of course. The IC, and particularly the CIA, has been a scapegoat-of-choice for politicians for decades. If you keep yelling “intelligence failure” loud enough you can keep people from looking for policy failures. This might be an opportunity for Trump to clean out any pesky officials who have been providing intelligence he finds unpleasant to read. Perhaps he can institute a sweeping, disruptive reform that will make CIA less of a “skunk at the garden party” offering unbiased intelligence and more of a team player offering up nuggets to support policy. 
Trump will blame the press for weakening him and therefore the country. He may take moves against the press that would only be tolerated in a post-attack atmosphere of fear.
Finally, Trump will blame women and men in pink hats for demonstrating at airports. He will stir up the hatred, racism, and misogyny in his base until peaceful protest is met with violence. He may ask for more powers to quell this violence.
The blame game will be a golden opportunity for a gold-plated opportunist to push his agenda further than he could hope to now. Bannon and company are probably already planning for it. We should all be thinking about how we will respond.

“Please excuse my son from suicide bombing today. He has a cold.” ISIS having commitment problems while bureaucracy offers vulnerabilities

by Diogenes

While the White House complained of lack of coverage of terrorist events that did, in fact, garner extensive media ink and pixels (e.g., try telling the Florida media that it ignored the Pulse nightclub attack), here’s a terrorism story you might have missed.  Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim reported here: A file on Islamic State’s ‘problem’ foreign fighters shows some are refusing to fight.

An Internet adage holds that if it exists, there’s porn of it.  With ISIS, if it exists, there’s a form to monitor it.  The bureaucrats in the Tariq Bin Ziyad Battalion of ISIS (distinctive in the annals of terrorism, ISIS, inspired by its predecessor al-Qaeda, has a human resources department) meticulously logged excuses offered by 14 foreign volunteers (nee fighters) for not being available for the battle for Mosul.  Reasons included documented and undocumented medical problems, homesickness, unhappiness with areas of assignment, disillusion with the cause, or previously-undetected allergy to fighting.

Although this is an admittedly small sample, given ISIS battlefield losses, it is likely that ISIS writ large is facing similar problems of morale among the foreign troops who initially were the zealots’ zealots.  Foreign recruitment has slowed to a trickle of what it had been (thanks in part to a continuous stream of arrests in Europe of ISIS recruiters, as well as eroding appeal of a losing cause).  Local ISIS “military planners” (terrorist attack strategists and tacticians) now have to deal with flagging enthusiasm by remaining foreigners experiencing the shrinking of the caliphate’s physical territory, while the terrorism tourists who returned to their home countries after a few weeks or months in Syria and Iraq have gone on to fame for attacks in Europe and other regions.  This could draw other expatriate terrorists back to their home countries for more self-aggrandizing terrorist attacks.

The ISIS bureaucracy’s penchant for data collection offers potential intelligence bonanzas.  The ISIS forms included a photo (inexcusably lax operational practice for a terrorist group), country of origin, name of sponsor (who may now be in hot water), blood type, classes taken, clothes and shoe size (there is no indication that they are getting Internet ad spam, yet), and family status (including children and wives in infidel countries and number of children from slave girls).

This week’s ISIS bureaucratic form is not unique for the organization.  According to the New York Times and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, an October 2007 raid of an al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS ancestor) base in Sinjar found similar attention to detail by the personnel department.  Recruiters and the welcoming committee filled out forms between August 2006 and August 2007 on each of the 700 arriving foreign volunteers, including name, age, occupation, home town, phone number, amount of foreign currency donated, contact numbers for next of kin, educational attainment, travel partners, and military operational specialty (many offered themselves as martyrs, read: suicide bombers).

Forgeries: AltCommentary as a New Form of Propaganda

by Diogenes

Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent of Yahoo News, reported earlier this month what could become a worrisome trend that could undermine the public’s faith in civil discourse. Here’s his article: https://www.yahoo.com/news/the-authors-are-real-the-articles-are-fake-who-is-behind-the-sinister-cgs-website-174814055.html?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma

Forgeries have a longstanding tradition among hostile intelligence services. The KGB and its acolytes were active in creating physical forgeries across the globe in an effort to attack democracy in general.

This contemporary online wrinkle on forgeries makes classical counterintelligence methods of detecting physical ones (incorrect inks, cheap/inauthentic paper, physical fingerprints) obsolete, but there are still signs you can look for:

  • Does it make sense for this writer to publish in this particular journal/blog/other outlet? Two CIA alumni with whom I worked, Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown who was a senior CIA official, and Bruce Riedel, a senior intelligence analyst and National Security Council official now working at Brookings, are major names in intelligence/national security scholarship. You would more expect to see their bylines in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, or op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Why would they publish in a comparatively unknown online outlet?
  • Is the language used by the writer of their style, or is it similar to a non-native speaker or Nigerian prince with an investment strategy just for you?
  • What are the credentials of the online outlet? Have you heard of them? Where are they located? Who runs them? If you are unable to divine this information from their Contact Us and About Us, and if you have never heard of them, you might be looking at a forgery factory.
  • What is the intellectual/policy message being offered in the text of the article? Is it consonant with the previous scholarship of the author, or is there a discernable political bias that conflicts with their earlier writings?

Isikoff offers some useful speculation on who is behind this particular forgery. Even if the effectiveness of CGS is now neutralized by exposure of its methods, tributary sites can be expected to pop up elsewhere.

The hijacking of the personas of Paul and Bruce raises the question: How do you know who really wrote something? It’s particularly vital in the case of entries such as this one, in which the site’s curators offer a modicum of anonymity to authors who request it for various reasons (not limited to concerns about being harassed, hacked, and false-attributed). Here’s a partial solution to the problem of whether you can trust our postings: Our stable of anonymous writers, including Diogenes (an update, in the time of alt-facts, of the philosopher who is still searching for the honest man), FNU MNU LNU (first name unknown, etc., a name famous for obscurity in intelligence circles) and Publius (the collective nom de plume used by the authors of the Federalist Papers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—not to be confused with Publius Decius Mus, the alias taken by White House staffer Michael Anton), will use these pseudonyms only herein. (We won’t be using Anonymous—Michael Scheuer has already cornered the market for CIA alumni’s use of that alias.) If you see these names anywhere else, it’s not us, and could well be the type of hijacked persona used in the CGS forgeries.

By the way, the online forgeries technique can also be used against your online persona, even if you aren’t a prominent pundit. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are often spoofed by fraudulent mirrors of the sites of real individuals, for various unknown, sometimes malicious purposes. Make sure you are whom social media says you are.

We also suggest that you not go to the site mentioned in the Isikoff piece. It is possible that it will load cookies and other malware on your computer, keep a record of your IP address, or download your personal information. Plus so doing only encourages them by adding to their click-counter’s tallies.


Beyond Spin: How to Spot False Propaganda


In early February 2017, Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that  “I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a 6-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. It didn’t get covered.”

CNN was quick to point out that these alternative facts were indeed brand new information, as there never was a Bowling Green massacre and that President Obama did not ban the Iraqi refugee program.

For false propaganda to work, the data is uncheckable but sounds checkable.  In this instance, the facts were checkable and CNN shot down the story.  A real Bowling Green case involved Iraqi emigrants Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, residents of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were granted refugee status and entered the United States in 2009.  They were picked up in May 2011 on terrorism charges, pleaded guilty, and sentencedtwo years later.  They wanted to smuggle weapons and explosives to al-Qaeda in Iraq, not to conduct attacks in the U.S., according to court documents.  Then-President Obama ordered a revetting of the 57,000-58,000 Iraqi refugees recently allowed into the country, causing a huge backlog and delaying any others to enter the U.S.

The case illustrates some noteworthy points of false propaganda.  (True propaganda is material that is true, but spun.  False propaganda is either falsely attributed, or inaccurate on the facts, or both.)

  • It has a whiff of plausibility and sounds vaguely familiar. There have been so many gun-related attacks on U.S. college campuses, and so many terrorism arrests, that one more could have gotten lost in the news cycle.
  • It has at least some tangential relationship to “classic” facts (real facts, not alternative facts).  There have been jihadi terrorist attacks in the U.S., and many planned that did not garner extensive media coverage.  There were two terrorist-related individuals in Bowling Green.
  • The teller relates the tale with such conviction that the audience believes that the teller believes it is true.  The American default to believe authority, particularly coming out of the White House, only adds to the supposed credibility of the story.  Americans also tend to give credibility to rapid-fire delivery when added to apparent conviction.
  • There is a reason given why the audience has not heard the particulars of the story.  In this instance, the media did not cover it.  It’s hard to believe that the media would skip a massacre.  Since it did not happen, it was not covered.  CNN covered the case of the two Iraqi supporters of al Qaeda.

If you find any/all of these aspects of a story, (classic) fact-check before going further.