The Limitations of Intelligence

We recently learned that US intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it. At least that's what an intelligence briefing from the White House reveals. With the combined abilities of our national intelligence apparatus -- the CIA, NSA, National Reconnaissance Office and all the rest -- it's not surprising that we had advance notice. It's not known whether the US shared what it knew.

More interestingly, the US government did not choose to act on that knowledge (for example, launch a preemptive strike), which left some wondering why.

There are several possible explanations, all of which point to a fundamental problem with intelligence information and our national intelligence apparatuses.

The first possibility is that we may have had the data, but didn't fully understand what it meant. This is the proverbial connect-the-dots problem. As we've learned again and again, connecting the dots is hard. Our intelligence services collect billions of individual pieces of data every day. After the fact, it's easy to walk backward through the data and notice all the individual pieces that point to what actually happened. Before the fact, though, it's much more difficult. The overwhelming majority of those bits of data point in random directions, or nowhere at all. Almost all the dots don't connect to anything.

Rather than thinking of intelligence as a connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Which picture is the relevant one? We have no idea. Turning that data into actual information is an extraordinarily difficult problem, and one that the vast scope of our data-gathering programs makes even more difficult.

The second possible explanation is that while we had some information about al-Assad's plans, we didn't have enough confirmation to act on that information. This is probably the most likely explanation. We can't act on inklings, hunches, or possibilities. We probably can't even act on probabilities; we have to be sure. But when it comes to intelligence, it's hard to be sure. There could always be something else going on -- something we're not able to eavesdrop on, spy on, or see from our satellites. Again, our knowledge is most obvious after the fact.

The third is that while we were sure of our information, we couldn't act because that would reveal "sources and methods." This is probably the most frustrating explanation. Imagine we are able to eavesdrop on al-Assad's most private conversations with his generals and aides, and are absolutely sure of his plans. If we act on them, we reveal that we are eavesdropping. As a result, he's likely to change how he communicates, costing us our ability to eavesdrop. It might sound perverse, but often the fact that we are able to successfully spy on someone is a bigger secret than the information we learn from that spying.

This dynamic was vitally important during World War II. During the war, the British were able to break the German Enigma encryption machine and eavesdrop on German military communications. But while the Allies knew a lot, they would only act on information they learned when there was another plausible way they could have learned it. They even occasionally manufactured plausible explanations. It was just too risky to tip the Germans off that their encryption machines' code had been broken.

The fourth possibility is that there was nothing useful we could have done. And it is hard to imagine how we could have prevented the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We couldn't have launched a preemptive strike, and it's probable that it wouldn't have been effective. The only feasible action would be to alert the opposition -- and that, too, might not have accomplished anything. Or perhaps there wasn't sufficient agreement for any one course of action -- so, by default, nothing was done.

All of these explanations point out the limitations of intelligence. The NSA serves as an example. The agency measures its success by amount of data collected, not by information synthesized or knowledge gained. But it's knowledge that matters.

The NSA's belief that more data is always good, and that it's worth doing anything in order to collect it, is wrong. There are diminishing returns, and the NSA almost certainly passed that point long ago. But the idea of trade-offs does not seem to be part of its thinking.

The NSA missed the Boston Marathon bombers, even though the suspects left a really sloppy Internet trail and the older brother was on the terrorist watch list. With all the NSA is doing eavesdropping on the world, you would think the least it could manage would be keeping track of people on the terrorist watch list. Apparently not.

I don't know how the CIA measures its success, but it failed to predict the end of the Cold War.

More data does not necessarily mean better information. It's much easier to look backward than to predict. Information does not necessarily enable the government to act. Even when we know something, protecting the methods of collection can be more valuable than the possibility of taking action based on gathered information. But there's not a lot of value to intelligence that can't be used for action. These are the paradoxes of intelligence, and it's time we started remembering them.

Of course, we need organizations like the CIA, the NSA, the NRO and all the rest. Intelligence is a vital component of national security, and can be invaluable in both wartime and peacetime. But it is just one security tool among many, and there are significant costs and limitations.

We've just learned from the recently leaked "black budget" that we're spending $52 billion annually on national intelligence. We need to take a serious look at what kind of value we're getting for our money, and whether it's worth it.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on September 17, 2013 at 6:15 AM • 69 Comments

Comments

John DownSeptember 17, 2013 6:51 AM

Interesting guess, but that there is no need of such complicated explanations if the cia is the master of puppets who orchestrated and made that attack possible, then all facts about the strange absence of actions fits the line.

MzbSeptember 17, 2013 7:00 AM

Unfortunately I think your analysis misses two other possibilities:
(1) They knew, but it was politically expedient to let the attack happen rather than issue a pre-emptive threat or warning.
(2) They did not know, but are claiming that they did know to suggest that their intelligence is better than it is.
I'd like to think it is (2), but I have my doubts.

MzbSeptember 17, 2013 7:13 AM

Actually a closer reading of the government statement makes the 20/20 hindsight theory most plausible. There's nothing to suggest anybody actually looked at any intelligence data until after the attack - the statement could be construed as a positive spin on an intelligence failure.

JamesSeptember 17, 2013 7:18 AM

Sentences like "Of course, we need organizations like the CIA, the NSA, the NRO and all the rest." seem to be making an assumption about what is possible. In particular, that it is possible to have a world where these security agencies exist but do not overreach to the point that they become threats in and of themselves. If the only options on the menu are either a world where security agencies overreach so much as to become threats themselves or a world where no such security agencies exist at all, it's hard to see how we "need" these security agencies.

KeithSeptember 17, 2013 7:21 AM

> The third is that while we were sure of our information, we couldn't act because that would reveal "sources and methods."

Can we rule that out? Even discloser after the fact, may effect sources (even if that channel is no longer operating).

@ Mzb and extention to your point 1
Even if this was know 100% a pre-emptive strike would make US the Agressor, unless it could share and convince others. If it's hard to get a consensus after the gas attack, you can guess the chances of getting one based on 'intel'

Robert ThauSeptember 17, 2013 7:47 AM

Past the Cold War, there's another colossal intelligence failure: the bogus case that came out of US intelligence that Saddam had WMD, and probably an active nuclear program. Which may ultimately be more consequential than missing the end of the Cold War (that was unexpected good news). And it illustrates another danger of unrestricted dragnet collection:

It's not just that most of the dots don't point anywhere. It's that in the vast amount of random crud that the dragnet accumulates, you can find something which at least superficially appears to point in any direction you want. So, if you start with a preconceived notion of what you want to find, then in the random bits that accumulate in the dragnet, you will almost certainly find stuff that --- taken out of context and separated from anything that might call its veracity into question --- will point to your predetermined conclusion.

And there certainly was that kind of a will in the intelligence community at the time one CIA agent left after hearing from a colleague that the head of the Iraqi counterproliferation office explicitly told his staff, "The President wants us to go to war, and our job is to give him a reason to do it." (The agent is Lindsay Moran; the anecdote is on p. 291 of the hardback of her memoir, "Blowing My Cover".)

This isn't the only such case, BTW; apparently, we nearly went to war with Russia over what the US government treated as an unprovoked Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, whose government at the time was very US-friendly. It turned out that the facts were the reverse, but the intelligence agencies were telling Cheney what he wanted to hear: https://www.nsfwcorp.com/dispatch/putin-saudi-arabia/03e532f41d931a5887fe0dadedb59e9cf6f9a6c3/

Peter A.September 17, 2013 8:02 AM

@Bruce:

The fifth option is that the .gov knew that the attack is going to happen with a reasonable degree of certainty and had a way to stop it with a fair chance of success, but it was deemed politically risky, wrong or damaging for one reason or another.

The USA's self-appointed role of the world's policeman is very difficult if not impossible to accomplish - even if it is only a PR stunt to color pursuing nation's own interests as 'global peace making' actions.

TomSeptember 17, 2013 8:11 AM

The failure of the CIA to predict the end of the cold war points to another interesting failure of intelligence. The CIA was, from the American side, the main organisation waging the cold war. You would think that that would put them in the best place to see its end coming. But actually the role of the CIA was never to end the cold war but to continually win it by preventing it becoming a hot war or, if it did, make sure the West would win that hot war. Because the CIA wasn't set up to end or predict the end of the cold war, they didn't predict its end.

My point is this: Most organisations are good at doing one or two things. When you set up an organisation to do something, you shape it so that it's good at that thing and that means it's not shaped for other things. Intelligence agencies are generally set up to answer specific types of questions and so they are good at answering those specific types of questions.

The problem is that the threat environment today is not well-characterised by specific types of questions. The cold ware environment was; all we had to ask was, "What are the Soviet government and its allies up to? What technology have they developed? What weapons have they built? What agents have they placed?" So long as we kept asking those questions we would come up with useful answers.

But there is no set of useful questions you can ask about today's environment. Sure they could have been looking out for people taking pilot training but not bothering about the landing bit before 9/11 but it wasn't a question they were set up to answer. And once they were answering it, they should have been looking for people carrying bombs onto the underground. Or stuffing explosives in their shoes. Or in their pants. And once they'd got that, they should have been looking for Russian Muslims with an interest in marathons. More general patterns, such as looking for people who don't like Western capitalism, or American foreign policy, or British oil companies, turn up so many false positives that they aren't useful, though perhaps this explains to some extent why groups like the Occupy movement end up lumped in with terrorists - it's a large group of people who fit the intelligence agencies' terrorist pattern, therefore they must be terrorists.

Even if I knew a better way of running an intelligence service, I wouldn't write about it here - I'd be out getting stinking rich with it.

RSaundersSeptember 17, 2013 8:22 AM

Most after-the-fact "connect the dots" exercises have gaps in their overall picture. Why would we expect the before-the-fact picture to be any better.

Let's say the US knows: a) the attack is in three days; b) the target is Zamalka; and c) the weapon is Sarin. It's a classic "Schneier Movie Plot" scenario. Compare the US cost to respond to the evildoer's cost to change the plot.

What are the intervention options: 1) Attack the launchers with cruise missiles = nope, don't know where the attack is from; 2) Go to the UN and predict the future = bad idea, al-Assad just changes the date. 3) Drop Steven King's invisible dome over Zamalka = sci-fi and it still doesn't work because al-Assad just bombs the next suburb over.

It's a relatively standard security problem, we just need to look at in our normal way. Even when you know the evildoer's plot, it only changes the outcome if you can interdict a part of the plot that's hard to change. This is why the TSA never catches anybody whose really a terrorist. If they search too much it makes the 99.9999% percent of fliers who aren't terrorists mad, if they search too little plots can exploit the gaps. It's a losing game, the only way to win is to stop playing. You don't try to guess the plot and be selectively strong there, you focus on recovering from the bad event after it happens.

Let's say the NSA is spying on everyone and decrypting everything with some alien computer they found in the desert in 1951. Whatever. Let's not focus on techniques and which ones upset us. That's being like Hayden and focusing on the box edges (to mix blog posts). Rather than plot-guess about what bad things they COULD do, we need to focus on What's the damage they are actually causing? What do we need to recover from that damage?

Actually, I just don't see much damage they are doing with the information they gather. Sure, they will need ongoing oversight. Perhaps their oversight needs to be more public, or at least better skilled with experts. That seems like a relatively small problem in a world where some governments are using Sarin on their citizens.

dasSeptember 17, 2013 8:42 AM

Connect the Dots is age old problem for algorithm to arrive at correct destination but if only it could give only a plethora of possible cause and effects. Since each transversal depend on free will called choices which human make. To study the mankind and its behavior is highly dependent on its psychology. Data can give present state but very difficult to predict the future with high accuracy . It may require completely new tech like time travel

JoseSeptember 17, 2013 9:12 AM

But Schneier, do you really trust what the government tells you?

Do you trust the official inflation rate?

Did you believed the virtual "arms of mass destruction" Irak had?

We don't really know if it was Assad who used this arms. In fact he would be stupid given the fact that he was winning the war and that the chemical attack was exactly what made American public opinion to support the first Gulf War unanimously.

I am not telling you that Sadam Hussein's attack on Kurds was fake, in fact was very real and Sadam Hussein admitted it was a mistake.

It is quite significant that one year ago when the people in change of US government was asked if they were going to enter Siria, they said: Only if there were a chemical attack.

It seems like people in power discovered a Wildcard with Sadam Hussein and now want to use it for getting public support for invading whatever country US of America is interested in invade next, for getting resources(oil) or strategic places(like gas pipes in the case of Siria).

PeterSeptember 17, 2013 9:29 AM

It seems to me that, even more than the Boston bombers, the fact that they missed the Texas fertilizer explosion is even more damning. The company collected and stored huge and illegal amounts of explosives, for many years, according to press reports. Surely that is precisely the kind of thing that the NSA and Homeland Security is supposed to detect and prevent. But they didn't have a clue. Most of the reasons for failure that you suggest did not apply in that case.

TomSeptember 17, 2013 9:30 AM

Hello,

> Of course, we need organizations like the CIA,
> the NSA, the NRO and all the rest.

No, we don't. It's the governments who need it to help them hiding their wrongdoings. If a society would be a real democracy then it would have a full transparent government. One without secrets. And without secrets you don't need such a thing as an intelligence agency.

In addition: how often did intelligence any good to society? As far as I know this is very rare. In the most cases they make things worse. They are almost always not controllable and not accountable.

> Intelligence is a vital component of
> national security

There is no such thing as a "national security". It's a buzzword of governments to sell surveillance laws.

And what many US citizens often oversee is the fact, that we're already living in a globalized world. I'm a citizien of germany but I'm affected by the actions of the NSA as everyone on this planet as well. And I give a shit on "US national security" (sorry for the harsh wording, noting personal!). They spy on me. On my children. On my parents. On my friends. On almost all human beings who're using the net. How can a whole species be a threat to the "national security" of 1 country?

Look at history. My grandma has been spied on by the SS. And I have been spied on by the Stasi. The used the knowledge about us against us. Either to force us to tell them where we hide the jews or to supress us from free speech. And in both cases those organizations started to protect some "national security".

That's crap. Intelligence needs to be shut down. Completely. Databases have to be deleted and the spies have to be fired. Then there would be real freedom.

best regards,
Tom

RSaundersSeptember 17, 2013 9:45 AM

@Peter, Regarding the Texas explosion, that sounds like FBI and BATFE (both parts of the Justice dept) and DHS perhaps, but not NSA. Texas is not a foreign country anymore, regardless of the impression the folks there tend to give you. NSA is a foreign intelligence agency.

RickSeptember 17, 2013 10:04 AM

In my humble observation, the most thorough solution to these problems isn't technical. The math is sound. As Schneier has astutely noted, the nature of the problem is political. Mankind has demonstrated its inability to govern mankind. History repeats, over and over, time and again.

For the management of society, we should hand over authority to God. Envision a divine, theocratic monarchy. However, until everyone can plainly agree on God, we cannot trust that either.

Until then, I resolve to use a typewriter, a mail forwarding service, and walks with conversation partners in the park. For work with sensitive digital data, utilizing a TEMPEST-capable virgin PC in a locked facility run with diesel generators and without internet is a good idea too.

A curious thought: In an untrustworthy world, an alternate encrpytion method is Truth.

AspieSeptember 17, 2013 10:16 AM

This problem is as old as espionage. Good analysts will never serve a 100% certainty in any of their products. Whilst there is doubt it takes political momentum to assume the most probable outcome and act on it. This kind of gambling rarely pays dividends for the politicians but the IC can always assert their doubts as happened with the Chilcot inquiry into the UK's blunder into Iraq.

I see more of a problem in that nobody involved stands to pay for a mistake. The IC can simply quote percentages and the politicians can claim pressure and the need to act decisively. When it goes wrong we get an inquiry (if we're lucky) but either way the only necks on the line are those of the "adversary".

If international law could actually be enforced, as opposed to ignored as it currently is, then nations might make a more considered decision before they rush to war. Even so, vested interests (perhaps a Russian pipeline though Syria for example) will weigh heavily in decisions made.

bryanSeptember 17, 2013 10:28 AM

The interesting thing about the "classified" budgets is that they are hidden in such a way that would be illegal if it were done by a normal company. Therefore there is no possibility for transparency and accountability.

CallMeLateForSupperSeptember 17, 2013 10:37 AM

"We need to take a serious look at what kind of value we're getting for our money, and whether it's worth it."

+1

Mission efficiency should be a part of that assessment, but unfortunately the metrics to that end are useless because of secrecy: the data are out of reach.... if they exist at all.

vas pupSeptember 17, 2013 10:46 AM

@Tom:
"If a society would be a real democracy then it would have a full transparent government. One without secrets. And without secrets you don't need such a thing as an intelligence agency".
Tom, if people were angels, we don' t need government. Real democracy could exist only in the perfect world with perfect people, and all other countries are 'angels' as well. Until such dream era, we do have real criminals, terrorist groups and countries harboring them (openly or secretly), enforcement part of the government is neccessity based on reality, not wishful thinking. On the other hand, enforcement part of the government should be under oversight by society, because each part of the government cares about self-preservation (money/funding, people) and status within government as well.
So, the solution is not to disband all alphabetic soup of enforcement Agencies, but put their activity into strong legal frame, conduct oversight (uninterrupted - like checking heart rate in intensive care, not once a day), set priorities and parameters for evaluation their effectiveness. Otherwise, just to eliminate them will bring chaos, not democracy.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 17, 2013 11:00 AM

One possability is the information intercepted was "golden" but "to good to be true" ie that it looked like a deception plan that had been "over egged" by the Syrians.

If the US had made some kind of response prior to the launching of the rockets then the US would have handed Assad what would be in effect a free pass to do as he pleased with conventional weapons and air strikes, because there would have been collatoral damage, which the US press would have ripped Obama a new orafice. But worse the US would have via UN rules commited the first move in starting a war with Syria which would have played right into Russia and China's hands.

But by waiting on Assad to make the first move, the US Press still gives Obama stick for failing to act but it's easily ridden out as the news footage of children gasping and dying hits the international news. As for Russia and China it puts them in an akward position because now they are seen as supporting the use of WMD, and it opens them up to the question of where the Syrians got the chemicals / technology / knowledge from...

But the Intel game is an odd one and in some respects it's like predicting weather...

As Bruce says it's not joining dots but producing hundreds of forcasts (pictures) as to outcomes from giving various weightings to the various pieces of intel (kind of like a 'onte Carlo simulation). You then group the resulting outcomes into groups and normalise the resuly as the probability of the event happening. You then do a similar task on the risks to you of the various actions and then make recomendations on those.

It's very sad to say I know but one of the risks is the number of people hurt or killed by the deployment of such weapons and experiance has shown that the results are often likely to be less than if conventional weapons are used. This is because the use is extreamly weather dependent. Thus the decision to actually fire the rockets would only have been finaly made by the Syrian forces at most an hour or so before hand and President Obama's advisors would have told him this along with the fact that the number of casualties would in all probability been very small.

As it turns out the UN inspectors are saying the conditions when the rockets were fired was about the best possible.

But when you compare the number of casualties compared to the human cost so far it's so small as to be irrelavent from a millitary point of view and if it had been the same rockets with conventional warheads it might have only rated a sentance or two on the news. It's the political and public opinion asspects that are the important factor, which gives rise to the thought about which mind the order to use WMD came from after what happend in Iraq...

As for the CIA missing the end of the cold war no they didn't they predicted it while G.Bush Senior was still in the White House but not when. The problem was for various reasons the cut-backs had fallen on Humint and there were few if any "sneakers on the ground" where the real clues were in the shop windows and heard in political chants, none of which US Elint picked up. The reason it came as fast as it did was because Gorbachev decided it was better to get it over and done with quickly rather than make it long protracted, violent and bloody. The problem was Glasnost gave freedom to question and Perastokia failed to deliver economic recovery. The outer parts of the Federation gave voice to their discontent first was Estonia then Arminia, whilst Estonia was in effect "far flung" Armenia was not. The resulting crack down still continues one way or another today. But at the end of 91 Gorbachev basically called time and resigned rather than start all out civil war. What the US political leadaship (especialy the likes of Condi Rice) failed to realise though the august coup should have made it abundently clear was millitary force was nolonger an option. Instead they assumed that Gorbachev would do was in effect start a war either internaly or to the East to go after resources etc. But they failed to realise just what effect the near decade long war and final withdrawal humiliation Afghanistan had had on the Russian collective psyche the rank and file millitary would not open fire on their own people and likwise saw no honour in another land/resourse grabbing campaign. The joke of it was as one CIA insider supposadly said the only Humint they had was CNN who they could not talk to...

A Nonny BunnySeptember 17, 2013 11:03 AM

> More interestingly, the US government did not choose to
> act on that knowledge (for example, launch a
> preemptive strike), which left some wondering why.

My money is on the realization that you generally don't get credit for preventing things. It's hard to prove what would have happened if you didn't do anything.

Bauke Jan DoumaSeptember 17, 2013 11:15 AM

Your premise is wrong.

The named institutions aren't there for 'the people'. They are for themselves.

Like large corporations, their prime motivator in much of their activities is to
prolong the existence of numer one, The Corporation.

With that comes a whole dynamic of paranoia, and the resulting spiral towards
what I call the Anal Retention-Syndrome (excuse my french).

The NSA is a large success -- from its own perspective. It's achieved total
autonomy, it's a state within a state. And politicians are attracted to it --
attracted in the sense of affective association, and atrtacted in the sense of
almost unescapable gravity.

bjd

SkepticalSeptember 17, 2013 11:35 AM

Wait a second.

The NSA's belief that more data is always good, and that it's worth doing anything in order to collect it, is wrong. There are diminishing returns, and the NSA almost certainly passed that point long ago. But the idea of trade-offs does not seem to be part of its thinking.

I suspect that the NSA is keenly aware of those trade-offs. Remember that the consumers serviced by the NSA aren't interested in exobytes of raw data; they're interested in timely, accurate, and well assessed intelligence reporting on matters of interest.

Let's take a step back and consider how Snowden's leaks may be distorting our perception of the NSA.

Just because Snowden happened to focus particularly on data collection does not mean that the NSA is solely focused on data collection. The documents Snowden took reflect, to a large extent, Snowden's own views on what would be most important. A mathematician leaker might have taken very different documents; a linguist, still other documents; an intelligence analyst, different documents still.

Because of Snowden's particular leaks, when we think about the NSA now, we first think of data collection (even more so than previously). We flash to the slides of bytes collected, number of sources, etc. And so our mind quickly concludes that this, and this alone, is what the NSA is all about.

But that's just the availability heuristic in action. It's misleading. If Snowden had taken off with 50,000+ documents on NSA programs related to language translation, voice analysis, and the mathematics of cryptography, and that's what we had all been reading about for the last 3 months, we'd have the impression that such programs play a much larger role at the NSA than we currently believe.

We forget that our analyses and judgments of the NSA are formed on the basis of a small slice of data selectively presented to us, and on the emotions we have surrounding that slice. We look to our intuitions, forgetting the paucity of actual information that feeds those intuitions. And like all human beings, our minds create the illusion for us that we have the whole picture - when a careful second look reveals that we don't.

At the end of the day, the NSA is judged by its consumers based on the quality of its product. And that product is NOT raw exobytes; it is relevant intelligence. Assuming normal bureaucratic incentives and politics apply, we can therefore conclude that the NSA is undoubtedly very much aware of the trade-offs, and very focused on achieving the optimal mix of collection and analysis.

Karl SchmidtSeptember 17, 2013 11:49 AM

@Jose
Well said - I would only add that it is all about 'trust'. The government can do good things with the technology IF we can trust them. Sadly, the USA has been spending that trust that was built up over generations.

The amount of disinformation coming out of DC (sponsored by both parties) is so high, that I think it is just as likely that this is about gas pipelines that are sadly missing from the news coverage.

If the lying was to stop today, it would take a decade to repair the damage to the USA.

But has the disinformation increased, or are we just more likely to hear about it because of IT?

Clive RobinsonSeptember 17, 2013 12:19 PM

@ Jacob,

    another day, another RNG story

Best you repost on the squid page.

But the attack methodology is exactly what I posted I'd expect the NSA to do back when the rumours about the NSA could crack RSA came about after James Bamford published info supposadly from an NSA connected person.

amanfromMarsSeptember 17, 2013 1:09 PM

Hi, Bruce, things are hotting up now, aren't they. I hope BT are not going to disappoint and leave intelligence supply to sundry others, lesser well equipped to provide what is needed as there are certainly more untoward situations/rogue and renegade events guaranteed to come and be completely disruptive and either creative or destructive as per future intelligent requirements because of ......

An autonomous, practically anonymous and virtually invisible, getting smarter very quickly society/population creates catastrophic problems for establishment systems which rely on the persistence and maintenance of ignorance and secrets ....... which appears to be pretty much where the West is presently at?

Or is that not right?

..... which was shared earlier, asking a question on http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/09/how-successful-networks-nurture-good-ideas/

To deny it is surely to be guilty of fooling oneself and also of trying to fool all who would be listening to one's views on the matter, although there would be those who would see the folly and be more likely to offer more advice than pity or scorn, which are such impotents.

Dave FunkSeptember 17, 2013 1:18 PM

Problem is that there are two parts to the stuff that CIA/NSA et.al. do: Collect Data and Interpret Data. They are two different jobs, two different sets of people. For the Collect Data, it is pretty easy to set up metrics and measure your performance. Interpret Data, Aye, there's the rub, to analyze or not to analyze. To analyze perchance to dream. It's the dream part that gets you into trouble. While one can count messages collected, how does one measure the analysis. Several people in this line of comments mentioned the WMDs in Iraq, and no doubt there are violently opposed opinions amoung this august group of commenters. It is impossible for analysts to look at data through anything but their own rose colored glasses. In the Iraqi WMD question, we know that the rose colored glasses that the analysts wore were a bit different from the glasses that their bosses wore. You can collect the data, you can have the data, but if you do not believe what the data has to say, you will never be able to read the data. Given that, I think we could afford to collect a bit less data.

thecaseforpeaceSeptember 17, 2013 2:07 PM

Bruce, all,

I'm not sure if the tone of this article is based on naivete or perhaps Bruce is trying to slowly walk people to the truth of how bad things have really become. I understand most of you don't have military backgrounds to put the conflict in a strategic context. Let me distill it down:

There are 3 scenarios:

Surprise - were surprised by the attack or couldn't do anything about it.

LiHoP (Let it happen on purpose) - found it to be politically or strategically advantageous and allowed the attack to take place, then spin it as needed later.

MiHoP (Made it happen on purpose) - Facilitated the logistics for the rebels or covert assets to initiate the attack for a greater strategic goal.

Back to the Surprise scenario that Bruce is discussing - Does the US have the capability to deploy air assets to stop a strike within minutes? YES. The US navy has 11 warships off the Syrian coast including 2 carriers and at least one (likely more) Navy Seal detachments. An airstrike could have been delivered within minutes, and a Seal Team deployment could be accomplished on-site in less than 4 hours. Not to mention the CIA and Merc assets already imbedded in-country. With 3 days warning, they had a figurative buffet of options to deal with the attack.

That begs the question who would benefit from the attack? Assad or the US backed rebels -half of which have been confirmed to be mercenary forces of a very unsavory character. Well, any fair tactical assessment puts Assad as winning and he recently took out a company sized element of elite merc fighters incurring the border with conventional arms. He has no logical or strategic incentive to use chemical weapons because he should know by doing so would result in foreign intervention. Logic isn't exactly a bulletproof leg to stand on when discussing dictators, but it's a data point.

Do the rebels have an incentive to have chemical weapons be used? Yes. They are losing, and they have been repeatedly asking for assistance from international forces. John McCain was even photographed with some rebel leaders (of arguably questionable character). The US has been supplying weapons, the Qataris and Saudis have been supplying weapons to the rebels. This is an open fact.

Does the United States have an incentive to depose Assad? Yes. It's been planned for over 12 years. Watch General Wesley Clark discuss the Pentagon and SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) strategic plan to attack 7 countries in 5 years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53jbRxHSfj4

This isn't about high ideals and morality, if it was, Darfour, and Rwanda wouldn't have gone on for so long, the US wouldn't be littering the world with depleted uranium munitions leaving a permanent legacy of deformed children and extremely high cancer rates. The United States also doesn't have a problem with chemical weapons when they're used in support of US interests such as when the US provided satellite imagery to Saddam in order to provide targeting for the use of his chemical weapons. Don Rumsfeld even is on video a week after the attack meeting with Saddam.

We don't know what exactly happened, but there's enough of a bread crumb trail to ask some very good questions.

This Is My Real NameSeptember 17, 2013 2:27 PM

If "no one has any right to privacy"...

...then people with national security letters should be fully open about that they have received such and what they contain.

...then people working at NSA should fully disclose where they work and what they do.

...and people working at Intel, Google, Microsoft and other corporations should come out of the closet about the backdoors they have implemented in the technologies they work with.

If they have some knowledge to hide, they should remember that they have no right to hide anything.

Peter HoeftSeptember 17, 2013 3:31 PM

For a quick look at how the CIA handles information, the book "The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" sheds a bit of light on it, and the analysis process. A good read.

65535September 17, 2013 4:19 PM

Many of my points have been covered here and elsewhere. I will make it short.

1.NSA appears to be best at spying on its own people (where NSA knows the language and the land). They missed the Boston Bombers. They had warnings from the Russians and interviewed one suspect. But the suspects were international and bi-lingual. The suspects slip through the "most sophisticated" spy system in the world.

2. Data doesn’t mean useful actionable information. The data has to be compiled; interpreted and acted upon. NSA obviously did not have the local language and/or local dialect, let alone the ability to interpret and act on the Syrian chemical weapon situation. Or, the Administration chose not to act for political reasons.

3. NSA maybe too big and disorganized to interpret and compile data into to useful information on an international scale. Sure, NSA maybe able to vacuum US backbone data and plant bugs here and there – but is has wasted its resources for international action.

It is time for a forensic audit of NSA and its secret court to see what is actually going on. NSA can’t keep track of its documents or its spies. It has grown too big. The other alternative is to de-fund NSA and use the resources else where.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasonsSeptember 17, 2013 5:19 PM

The U.S. government seems to have discovered its limits--the ceiling and not thr floor--and it has been throttling down hill since the 1950's.

gusSeptember 17, 2013 5:39 PM

US intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it

I guess this should say "weren't able to stop it". The original text makes it seem like al-Assad wasn't able to stop the attack.

GweihirSeptember 17, 2013 7:11 PM

I think the reason they did nothing is entirely different: They do not care! Their mission is actually not preventing any terrorism or mass-murder in some country far away, that is just the PR nonsense used to sell it. And even their obviously abysmal track-record is not enough to make the public aware of it, because it has been effectively scared into inability to be rational on the issue.

They lie directly and without shame. For example when there were inquiries from Germany whether all this snooping helped finding terrorists, there was a claim from the US administration, that they had prevented "50 terrorist attacks, some of them in Germany", but no proof whatsoever and nobody arrested. Obviously an outright fantasy, but it took quite a while for the public to protest and, tellingly, that claim has not been repeated.

No, what the NSA does is economically motivated espionage, espionage on foreign (and likely domestic) politics and politicians, identifying malcontents, attacking and sabotaging abroad. 'Terrorism' is not something they care about, and so is some 3rd world dictator preparing mass-murder. If they did care about these things, the world would look differently.

JohnSeptember 17, 2013 7:22 PM

Bruce,

On one hand you suggest that the NSA is ruthlessly invading the privacy of Americans, and on the other you criticize them for not stopping the Boston bombings since the brothers left a long Internet trail and one was on the terror watch list. Is it not reassuring from a US citizen privacy standpoint that they were not monitoring US residents/citizens on the terror watch list? Sounds more like an FBI screwup than anything else. Do you just like bashing on the NSA no matter what they do?

When the NSA is neutered due to these leaks and is a shadow of its former self, some incident/crisis will happen and the very same people who called for the NSA to reform, massively change, etc. will then criticize them for not knowing everything and stopping bad things from happening. Everyone likes to sound intelligent about knowing where the right balance is between security and privacy and being "brave" enough to take risks in the name of privacy but everyone shits bricks the day after a serious attack and demands answers on why it wasn't prevented.

TRXSeptember 17, 2013 7:48 PM

> I don't know how the CIA measures its success, but it
> failed to predict the end of the Cold War.

They also failed to notice the fall of the Shah of Iran, even when they heard gunfire outside their offices.

Though, as you said, connecting the dots ahead of time is difficult - in his autobiography, former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin wrote that the KGB also failed to notice any immediate problems in Iran.

Apparently the NSA thinks that, if they can just collect enough data, they can create some kind of "Minority Report" prediction system. That didn't work out in the movie, either...

Dirk PraetSeptember 17, 2013 9:10 PM

We recently learned that US intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it.

I call felgercarb on that White House intelligence briefing. It's either fabricated to put Assad in a bad light or an ex post facto analysis (failure to connect the dots). However valid the other three explanations may be in other contexts (not enough intel, revealing sources and methods, nothing we could do), they could have been easily circumvented by passing on that information to the Russians, leaving them with the problem while at the same time holding irrefutable proof for the world to see that a sarin attack was in the making. It would have saved many lives had the attack been canceled, and checkmate for both Assad and Putin if it had taken place regardless.

In essence, this leaves us with only two explanations: either that briefing is propaganda, or the political/diplomatic custodians entrusted with that information are completely incompetent at the game they are playing.

@ thecaseforpeace

He has no logical or strategic incentive to use chemical weapons because he should know by doing so would result in foreign intervention.

I'm thinking along the same line. Until we see definite and irrefutable proof that Assad was indeed behind it, him doing so makes little sense. Let's not forget that Moscow, contrary to the US and France, has submitted a report to the UN stating exactly the opposite and accusing rebel forces. Needless to say that we don't hear a lot about that in our mainstream media. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time a permanent Security Council member is lying to the UN about WMD's.

@ Skeptical

At the end of the day, the NSA is judged by its consumers based on the quality of its product. And that product is NOT raw exobytes; it is relevant intelligence.

If you mean relevant intelligence about terrorist attacks, it would seem that they are not doing a particularly great job. Unless of course they can justify their enormous budget and intrusive mass surveillance with intelligence of a somewhat broader nature.

@ RSaunders

Texas is not a foreign country anymore, regardless of the impression the folks there tend to give you.

+1

David WilliamsSeptember 17, 2013 10:35 PM

I believe its a case of not being able to get enough credible information to provide a certainty to act upon. The risk of acting on information that isn't 100% and the consequences of this is too high.

Having information that in retrospect can be considering a warning is not the same as having information that is strong enough to act upon.

David @ Green ITC

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasonsSeptember 17, 2013 11:11 PM

@John

On one hand you suggest that the NSA is ruthlessly invading the privacy of Americans, and on the other you criticize them for not stopping the Boston bombings since the brothers left a long Internet trail and one was on the terror watch list.

Bruce is making a comparitive statement, when questioning the relevance of ILLEGAL spying, NSA defends it by stating its usefulness. So why, if you already have all this ill gotten data did a couple of kids that were on the radar get the better of you. It's as if a home security company sold you an alarm system with all the bells and whistles, and you paid out the nose for it, was the kid down the street able to steal your stereo system. Ob

Clive RobinsonSeptember 18, 2013 12:21 AM

@ Dirk Praet,

    I'm thinking along the same line. Until we see definite and irrefutable proof that Assad was indeed behind it, him doing so makes little sense. Let's not forget that Moscow, contrary to the US and France, has submitted a report to the UN stating exactly the opposite and accusing rebel forces. Needless to say that we don't hear a lot about that in our mainstream media. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time a permanent Security Council member is lying to the UN about WMD's.

Like you and several others I have a problem with Assad apparantly authorising the blatant use of WMD without a cover story (unlike say Israel with white phosporus attacks thay always claim are from "signal flares" not chemical attacks). Assad must know that militarily the use of chemical weapons is usually less advantageous than conventional weapons. At the very least it smacks of an unbalanced mind.

So on the asumption Assad is still rational you have to look at the supposed cover story (the Russian line) or those who want to cause the US to enter the fray for whatever the reason.

The Russian line about "it was the opposition" has a major flaw in it which is "where did they opposition get the chemicals". Which leads to all sorts of interesting speculation which in the end boils down to the "or those who want to cause the US to enter the fray"...

Now the first candidate on the list of who wants the US to enter the fray, is certain elements in the US such as the War Hawks and their backers who supply the US military. And god alone knows how many there are if you look at the UKs politico's "list of members interests" you find many have "sipped at the cup" of UK arms manufactures after all it is a major money spinner and is incredably corrupt dispite legislation to stop bribary and illicit arms exportation. I'm assuming it's little different in the US.

Next down on the list is Syria's neighbours, there is nothing so sweet as getting somebody else to do your dirty work at their expense, especialy if you can join in later and lay claim to the spoils of war like a major land grab.

Then there is the question of politics inside Syria it's self, In a government that is effectivly a dictatorship, as you get towards the top of the tree, further promotion is usually via "dead mens shoes" which is normaly a slow process. Framing your own "glorious leader" is an old and well practiced method which is why dictators often purge the ranks beneth them before a faction can get to the size where a coup becomes possible.

Oh and then you get "terrorist organisations" but that again brings you back to the access to WMD chemicals or their precursors and facilities for production.

The list is long and the usuall "scientific method" of reducing possabilities tends not to work when politics and power is involved...

Clive RobinsonSeptember 18, 2013 12:31 AM

@ Gweihir,

    No, what the NSA does is economically motivated espionage, espionage on foreign (and likely domestic) politics and politicians, identifying malcontents attacking and sabotaging abroad. 'Terrorism' is not something they care about, and so is some 3rd world dictator preparing mass-murder. If they did care about these things, the world would look differently

There are considerable numbers on this side of the argument but I would say the NSA is a player not a manager in this game. The question becomes who stands to gain the most from it and if history is anything to go by in a plutocracy the real pupet masters remain out of sight.

MarkSeptember 18, 2013 12:49 AM

Remember that the consumers serviced by the NSA aren't interested in exobytes of raw data; they're interested in timely, accurate, and well assessed intelligence reporting on matters of interest.

I don't believe that because that's not the product they are getting.

The intelligence services should be operated like any other investigative journalistic organization like The Guardian or Al Jazeera but their product isn't as good, they are drowning in data and so interested in outcomes that their analysis is overshadowed by their propagandizing. They are more interested in showboating and covering their asses than accuracy.

RiccardoSeptember 18, 2013 2:46 AM

The fifth possibility: all US intelligence statements are a fraud. Why don't you consider this case? Please, don't call it conspiracy theory. Because if you think that there is no conspiracy, you have to believe that Russia intelligence, as well as other sources, denying such information is doing conspiracy. So, the only credible conspiracy is that of others.
I like to remember a little story. There are thirtheen religions in the world each stating that it is the only true religion. I am very lucky that the only one right religion is the that my parents spreaded to me.
God bless America (?!?).

WinterSeptember 18, 2013 3:11 AM

"It's as if a home security company sold you an alarm system with all the bells and whistles, and you paid out the nose for it, was the kid down the street able to steal your stereo system."

Marc Twain has written about such a system:

The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm
http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/359/

Spoiler: The McWilliamses went broke because their burglar alarm got stolen every time.

Wesley ParishSeptember 18, 2013 4:47 AM

Well, an interesting set of responses to the allegation that the CIA knew about the chemical attack in Damascus in advance.

Interesting that no one's yet asked the questions: what are the Syrian army units specifically charged with maintaining and using chemical weapons? (Armies that hand out such weapons willy-nilly tend not to last long) Where such units anywhere near the suburb attacked? What is the appropriate chain of command for issuing orders for the use of such weapons?

And then of course, has anybody remembered the use of sarin in a Tokyo subway in 1995? Did Aum Shinrikyo need to be a government agency to manufacture and use that chemical weapon? Plus we have the intriguing incident of Syrian rebels in refuge in Turkey, being caught with sarin in their possession.

I think the CIA are lying through their teeth. They're mortally afraid of being held accountable for their past mistakes and overinflated claims, and are lying to save their petty arses.

AlbertSeptember 18, 2013 5:12 AM

There are of course more conspiratorial possibilities too. If the attack (as some speculate) was a false flag attack (ie carried out by rebels, with or without help from foreign experts), and the intelligence agency had information about it, that opens up a whole range of new possibilities of why the attack was not prevented.

SkepticalSeptember 18, 2013 6:02 AM

Dirk, Mark:

You're both providing yet additional examples of the availability heuristic in action.

Quick, recall all the terrorist plots you can think of where the NSA provided timely intelligence upon.

You're judging the NSA's ability to produce timely intelligence based upon your ability to recall such plots. Can you recall many such plots easily? Then the NSA is good at it. Can you only recall a few such plots, and with difficulty? Then the NSA is bad at it.

But that ability actually just tells us what information you may have been recently exposed to, what information you find salient, perhaps even just how good your memory is.

It does not tell you how good the NSA intelligence product is.

However - we do know enough about bureaucracies in Washington to speculate on how the NSA demonstrates relevance and retains and grows funding: they must satisfy their consumers. And the ONLY way to do that is to produce timely, well assessed, relevant intelligence on matters of interest to consumers. It can't be done by sending a powerpoint on exobytes collected in lieu of what consumers actually want.

Now, it obviously involves more than that. A typical bureaucracy would use any successes to argue for resources and programs that extend beyond those successes; and some of the consumers themselves are engaged in the same battle for funding and support. But, satisfaction of consumers is a necessary condition.

Dirk PraetSeptember 18, 2013 9:31 AM

@ Skeptical

You're judging the NSA's ability to produce timely intelligence based upon your ability to recall such plots.

Actually, no. I'm basing them upon the June testimony of General Alexander before the House Select Intelligence Committee on the NSA's PRISM program. He there stated that some 50 terrorist plots worldwide had been foiled by their surveillance programs. The Guardian and a number of other news outlets subsequently pointed out that these numbers were hugely overstated with quite some of the examples given actually being the result of more traditional police work and tip-offs.

FrankSeptember 18, 2013 9:52 AM

You missed a possibility that is at least as likely as the other possibilities presented.... they're lying.

Based on the info we have, it may be the most likely of all the possibilities.

AndrewSeptember 18, 2013 9:00 PM

Interesting post. So NSA collects all this data and it may not even be of much use except after the event. Perhaps for that reason such collection of data will be more useful in future for cracking down on dissent than preventing terrorist attacks?

fajensenSeptember 19, 2013 3:07 AM

NSA is the answer to the question:

"What could you do with unlimited funding and no interference from petty bureaucrats and politicians slowing you down?"

The answer is:

"Not much"!

SkepticalSeptember 19, 2013 9:07 AM

No Dirk. Alexander addressed terrorist plots stopped (allegedly) by surveillance produced by PRISM and the telephone-metadata database.

Alexander was not talking about all NSA programs.

This is what the mind likes to do. We give it a partial picture, and it quickly fills in the blank spots to suit our own biases. The huge blank spot in our knowledge about the NSA is filled in with extrapolations from Snowden's leaks.

"Nothing there on analytical and targeting programs," the mind says, "no problem! Let's just magnify the importance of what you do know; we'll pretend there's nothing here that you don't."

And suddenly our sense of the NSA is reduced to what we see in Snowden's documents.

The intuitions being used here to claim that the NSA doesn't care about analysis, and only cares about exobytes collected, are themselves the product of flawed analysis. Kind of funny, actually.

Dirk PraetSeptember 19, 2013 11:27 AM

@ Skeptical

Alexander addressed terrorist plots stopped (allegedly) by surveillance produced by PRISM and the telephone-metadata database.

But of course he did, since at the time of his statement only those two had been revealed. So he came up with a number of about 50 terrorist plots these programs had contributed to prevent. Do you honestly believe that if we asked him today to include additional figures for others foiled using all currently known data collection as well as analytical and targeting programs, he's going to come up with another 50 or more ?

Nobody here is doubting that the NSA's analytical and targeting programs yield results too, but since little of interest has been published on those (yet) we can only speculate as to their capacities and operational details. It is however safe to assume that any results thereof and pertaining to suspected terrorism were included in Keith Alexander's already seemingly pimped up numbers.

If we must speculate about them, then I am lead to believe that however formidable they may be, they haven't quite kept up to cope with the massive amounts of data the NSA is taking in today, in quite some cases resulting in "drinking from the firehose"-syndrome. That was the main problem in preventing 9/11 a decade ago, and by missing the Boston bombers, it would seem it still is today.

Mr. PragmaSeptember 19, 2013 2:21 PM

Funny.

No matter how bluntly usa gov agencies lie to their citizens and the world, it just seems too hard for us-americans to see the quite evident 5th option:

5) the us-americans had *no* intelligence (other than what they invented themselves) on an Assad CW attack simply because there was no such attack.

It's amazing. usa is arguably the most detested and hated country in the world for good reason; it's hated for having killed hundreds of thousands based on wanton lies, usa is right now financing, staffing and equipping terrorists in Syria - and yet us-americans seem to not even consider the possibility that their agencies do what they frighteningly often do: lie.

And this "analysis" is presented by an otherwise bright man in a blog dealing since weeks with the creepy crimes and lies of nsa. Incredible.

RolandSeptember 20, 2013 6:50 PM

The 4 options presented are blinkered by an insider perspective that takes the side of the US Government and its agencies.

But as Hullabaloo said:
"On the other hand, this memo could just be full of lies. It wouldn't be the first time US Intelligence put out bogus information to bolster a case for military action, would it?"

For me as an outsider, the most obvious option seems to be 'a false flag attack to justify foreign intervention'.

AnonSeptember 21, 2013 7:53 PM

I find it odd that the end of the Cold War is brought up as a CIA failure. From its start until 1989, its reason for being was to counter the Soviet threat. The very fact that the US won the Cold War is proof that the CIA had to be doing something right during that time period.

Nick PSeptember 21, 2013 8:58 PM

Adding to Anon's comments above I recall that my studies on spies and such showed that we used them quite effectively during the cold war. And I agree that the CIA probably didn't want their opponents to go away: just to not be a real threat.

FigureitoutSeptember 22, 2013 9:51 AM

Stanislav Datskovskiy
--Pfft, you're giving them too much credit. Judging by the ham-handed incompetence I've experienced, I don't trust them to capture and protect me from terrorists. They're wasting money.

FigureitoutSeptember 22, 2013 10:10 AM

Stanislav Datskovskiy
--You can fool them into revealing themselves, they fell for traps they should've seen. Of course you're vulnerable but you got their identities and now you can follow them around and show them how it feels.

SkepticalSeptember 24, 2013 6:16 PM

Dirk, what's the basis for assuming that the NSA's numbers relating to these two programs are inclusive over all their programs?

I'd also just add there's no reason to limit ourselves to terrorist plots when discussing this. I'm not trying to move the goalposts, and I know that I introduced the terrorist plots detected metric, but want to bring us back to the original measuring stick, which is intelligence that is timely, of interest, and useful to consumers (terrorist plots would be a subset).

Regarding the Boston Bombers, would better analysis of any raw signals data have enabled the federal government to prevent the attack? I don't know the answer, but if not, then I don't think non-prevention here can be counted as evidence against the NSA's analytical capabilities.

I really do wonder what someone with a different shopping list might have brought out.

Dirk PraetSeptember 25, 2013 7:59 PM

@ Skeptical

Dirk, what's the basis for assuming that the NSA's numbers relating to these two programs are inclusive over all their programs?

It was in Gen. Alexander's best interest to come up with some serious results of their work, and since these were far from impressive he had no reason whatsoever to omit even one, whether or not it had been discovered under the then already revealed programs or any others. That's what I would have done too, especially since nobody in the audience at the time would have been able to prove otherwise.

Regarding the Boston Bombers, would better analysis of any raw signals data have enabled the federal government to prevent the attack?

I actually believe the answer to that one to be yes. In hindsight, they should have been able to pick up quite some clues from one of the Tsarnaev's digital trail and they even got tipped off by the Russians. Admittedly, Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, was a lone gunman and I think we all agree that such types are almost impossible to stop.

But in the case of the recent Nairobi mall attack, it would seem that neither CIA or NSA had seen that one coming, which in my opinion is again a serious intelligence failure. In the light of the 1998 US embassy bombing over there, as well as the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, it is very reasonable to assume that the US IC has deployed quite some resources in that region. Which seems to indicate that either they failed at picking up raw data or at its analysis. I tend to believe the latter.

gehemnisSeptember 27, 2013 5:03 AM

"The NSA missed the Boston Marathon bombers, even though the suspects left a really sloppy Internet trail..."

NSA isn't, despite protestations to the contrary, allowed to spy on anyone they choose. The brothers were living in America and afforded the rights of a US Person. If you want to blame someone, blame the FBI, that's their job.

Coleen RowleyFebruary 1, 2014 9:59 AM

Good article on stupidity of "collect it all" quantity over quality approach but be careful of your main premise that there is, even in hindsight, some real consensus or solid evidence as to who attacked Ghouta. As many commenters note and which Sy Hersh and others later exposed ( http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin http://www.salon.com/2013/12/09/seymour_hersh_obama_administration_nearly_lied_the_u_s_into_war_with_syria/ ), there's a big difference in the (extremely flimsy) intelligence case that Kerry et al attempted to make and what the actual (internally contradictory) intelligence the U.S. possesses and possessed. Huge controversy remains to this day. Whatever actual intel the U.S. did have remains secret so it's hard to assess but at very least the trajectory theory (referred to by Samantha Powers and used by the NYT and Human Rights Watch) has been significantly discredited. The NYT was forced to print a retraction and two weapons experts recently reported as follows in late January, 2014 (see MIT report: "Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013"):

Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, and Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published a report which challenges the ballistic data used by U.S. intelligence services in connection with the 21 August 2013 massacre in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.

The authors show that the sarin-laden rockets could not have been fired from a distance of more than 2 kilometers from their point of impact. Based on the intelligence maps published by the Pentagon, they concluded that under no circumstances can Syria be held accountable for the massacre.


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