WASHINGTON (CNN) – As details of the foiled al Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airline became public, the world learned not only about a daring operation to stop terrorists, but also about the new reality of how U.S. intelligence works.
American and foreign intelligence partners working hand in hand to rid the world of the scourge of terror. You didn’t see much of that 10 years ago, but it’s exactly what happened recently.
The Saudis infiltrate an al Qaeda terrorist group in Yemen with their own mole, and the CIA and others are brought into the mix to help run an operation that eventually foils a possible bomb attack against an airliner destined for America.
“I’m not at all surprised that the press accounts of this have liaison services, particularly the Saudis, playing such a prominent role,” said former CIA Director Michael Hayden. “That’s the way I would have expected it to go.”
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed everything in the American intelligence community. It drove home the point that the Cold War was over. The battlefield looked quite different and the United States wasn’t quite prepared.
It no longer sufficed to have satellites stare down at a static enemy behind the Iron Curtain, with tens of thousands of troops separating the Soviet Union from Western Europe.
The enemy became terrorist groups that for the most part hid in safe havens and operated from ungoverned territories seemingly out of the reach of traditional intelligence and military responses.
“The ability to penetrate a terrorist organization is an incredibly difficult task that we were poorly positioned to do in the 1990s and even a few years after 9/11,” said Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an expert on the intelligence community.
It has been an arduous task and it is far from complete, but Zegart believes U.S. efforts to bolster human intelligence capability and work much more closely with foreign intelligence counterparts are paying off.
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan told CNN the joint intelligence operation was as good as it gets.
“You have a place like Yemen. You have al Qaeda, CIA, you have other friendly intelligence agencies. You have a source inside. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.
And the operation turned out to be a twofer — that is, the mole not only secured the new generation bomb and helped get it out of Yemen, but he also helped identify the location of a senior al Qaeda operative in Yemen, enabling the CIA to use one of its other more recent tools, the armed drone.
Just about everyone CNN has spoken with within the intelligence community touts the value of the drone missile strikes. The program began in the Bush administration to target al Qaeda leaders in the tribal regions of Pakistan and has expanded extensively under President Obama. Terrorism experts including CNN’s Peter Bergen agree the program has been extremely effective.
“The drone strikes are not just important in terms of eliminating the leadership of al Qaeda,” Bergen said. “They are also important in terms of preventing people from training in the tribal region and making that very difficult because you are always looking over your shoulder for a drone attack.”
Now drone strikes are being used far more extensively in Yemen, particularly in southern areas of the country where al Qaeda forces have taken control.
Setting aside the debate over whether the attacks represent extrajudicial killing, Zegart said opportunities to learn about al Qaeda’s strategies are lost when the military simply kills terrorists rather than take them captive.
“That’s a challenge,” she said, “finding the right balance of using these drones and actually harvesting intelligence from people who are caught.”
Cooperation and coordination between the intelligence community and the military has become a critical component of the counterterrorism campaign. While he was CIA director, Hayden said, the intelligence community worked closely with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“All things Stan McChrystal did — for example, the night raids, the sensitive site exploitation and the follow-on raids within hours and so on — that was based on intimate teamwork between JSOC and the American intelligence community.”
The crown jewel of that type of cooperation was the successful Navy SEALs raid last year on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which lead to the death of the al Qaeda founder.
But Zegart maintains that operation was the “poster child” for the influence of a greatly enhanced analytic community.
“The real breakthrough there was thinking through a different lens,” she said. “It’s not how can we find bin Laden. It’s what are the threads that could lead us to him. So you start to think about who are the couriers. That’s then the critical piece in putting information together to track him down ultimately. We tend to focus on the operational success of the mission, but this was an analytical success first.”
And those analysts came from a wide range of agencies within the intelligence community.
Inside the CIA command center the day of the bin Laden raid, it wasn’t just Director Leon Panetta and his support staff anxiously monitoring developments during the operation. Senior officials from the Defense Department, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and others were in the room. All played a unique role in what was a community-wide effort.
NGA Director Tish Long, whose agency analyzes imagery and who was in the ops center that day, said, “We were working very closely with NSA and CIA ,with the SIGINT and the HUMINT, our GEOINT — (it) truly was an integrated operation to understand what was happening at that Abbottabad complex.”
U.S. officials and experts consistently point to the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center as a success story in the effort to remove the roadblocks within the intelligence community that inhibited the sharing of information. Hayden said the establishment of NCTC has led to deeper integration and cooperation among the 16 members of the intelligence community. That help NCTC analysts run down leads and connect the dots.
But the center faces hurdles. One of the reforms implemented at NCTC, after a failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines commercial flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, was to create pursuit teams to follow up on leads. The center was criticized at the time for not putting together a variety of clues that might have prevented suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab from getting on the plane. People with specialized expertise are now brought in to analyze the data.
One of the pre-9/11 weaknesses the U.S. intelligence community has tried to address is increasing its pool of officers who are native speakers and have lived in cultures around the world. Although the numbers are significantly up, it’s no match for what a foreign intelligence partner brings to the table.
“A partner brings focus, a partner brings linguistic agility, a partner brings cultural agility, which is very hard for us to come by,” Hayden said.
But in the dangerous, unpredictable spy world, relying on a foreign partner can be risky. That was nowhere more evident than when a group of CIA officers planned a meeting with a trusted asset of the Jordanian intelligence service. The asset was, in fact, a double agent who came to the 2009 meeting in Khost, Afghanistan, wearing a suicide bomb vest that he detonated, killing seven CIA employees.
There could also be a downside to focusing almost exclusively on terrorism issues with some foreign partners. A former U.S. intelligence officer wondered if it comes at the expense of other issues.
“Would we have known more about the coming Arab awakening if our relationship with the Egyptian intelligence service had not been so much defined by our (counterterrorism) problem?” the official asked.
And even with the apparent success of the recent joint effort to stop the potential airline bombing, the one thing the intelligence community did not anticipate was that details of the operation would leak to the press.
The revelation might have al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula scrambling to find other infiltrators, and administration and congressional officials maintain this will make it more difficult to infiltrate AQAP. That would be a problem.
As Zegart put it, “There is no substitute for that human intelligence on the ground.”