Monday, September 17, 2012

On "Actionable Intelligence"

I will have to be very careful in this posting. It, unfortunately, will not include all that I know, would want to say or go into the sort of detail that is really needed. In other words, it won't be as complete, or a coherent as I would have liked to make it. Can't be helped for a variety of reasons, including legal ones.

I hope my comments are not misunderstood. I have no direct inside knowledge of what happened exactly in Libya. I do not want to be an armchair quarterback needlessly criticizing people, some now dead, on decisions they made in a complex and high stress situation. That said, just from reading lots of open sources, my own long experience serving in some tough and nasty places, including in the Muslim world, and a few conversations with friends still at State or who have recently retired, it is clear that there was a major failure of judgement in Libya in regards to the security of our personnel there. The blame, unfortunately, starts with the late Ambassador, and heads right up the chain to the Secretary via the Deputy Secretary and the Undersecretary for Management, the Security Bureau (DS), and the Assistant Secretary for the Near East Bureau (NEA). As one navy officer with whom I served in the Pol-Mil Bureau at State told me, "We would never put a ship to sea in the condition of some of those embassies." Clearly, our operation in Libya was one of those. Heads should roll, including that of the Secretary. Yes, Secretary Clinton should leave or be fired.

In my 34 years at State, I dealt with tons of intelligence reports on a huge range of topics. There was always intel pouring in from some agency or another, some friendly foreign security service or another, journalists, and common folks re potential threats to US missions abroad. Most of it was garbage. Worthless. The sort of thing that would read, "Source reports indications of planning by unknown persons to execute an attack on US interests in the near future." And that would be a moderately good one; most reports were a lot more vague than that. It was hard to do much with that. As Charge of a large embassy in a Muslim country, I would have constant meetings, often several times a day, seven days a week, at all hours of the day, with our security folks to go over every scrap of intel and piece of random info that we had on threats to American facilities and citizens. We constantly would gather with our friends at the British, Australian, and Canadian missions who often had the same security concerns as we, and exchange the latest information. Most of the time it was tough to reach conclusions on actions beyond telling people to be "extra alert."

As I noted, most information was not very specific and not considered "actionable," to wit, that you could undertake a specific action at a time and place certain that would head off the threat. In addition, of course, we had a job to do other than just stay safe. One of the demands of leadership was making decisions balancing the need to "stay safe" with the need to get our job done. We, after all, were there to do our country's bidding, not just to stay safe. There was always tension between those two demands. There were many times when I would go to bed at three or four in the morning wondering if I had made the right decision; had I achieved the right balance between those demands? Was I about to get good people killed for no good reason? Had I made the right decision in not closing the embassy that day? Had I made the right decision approving a trip by our people to a certain locale in light of the threat info we had? On the occasion when I shut the embassy down, had I done the right thing or was I needlessly panicking?

The press has spent a lot of time speculating about marines. Not all embassies have them, and few consulates do. Contrary to what you see in Hollywood movies, a marine detachment at an embassy (MSG) is generally small: six to eight marines, at times a few more. Their job is to protect the most sensitive parts of the embassy. They are rarely expected to be the force that stops an assault on the outer walls. That is the responsibility of the host nation. I remember being inside an embassy on many occasions, with a howling mob of thousands of irate Muslims outside, hoping that the host country would fulfill that responsibility. If they did not, and things such as high walls, and barbed wire could not hold back the invaders, we had drilled, over and over and over, the things we all would do to protect classified materials and ourselves as best we could. Different embassies have different rules of engagement for the marines. In the ones I ran they had very clear instructions on the use of deadly force. They had weapons, and those were loaded.

The Obama White House is hiding its manifest incompetence and failures of judgement behind the excuse of lack of "actionable intel." The White House claims there was no "advance warning" of an attack in Libya and presumably Egypt. This, of course, is nonsense. As noted before, there rarely is highly detailed advance warning of a specific event; when you have that sort of rare quality intel you often can do something to avoid the incident in the first place. If, for example, you know of an assassination attempt on the Ambassador at point X on date Y, at a minimum you make sure the Ambassador is not there then. In one case in which I was heavily involved, we had exceptionally good intel that the bad guys were building a giant truck bomb to use in a public event in which we would be participating; we were able, working with specially vetted local forces and the always great Aussies, to interrupt that construction effort and put away a nice number of evil doers. Most of the time, however, you need to rely on good people interpreting incomplete and often contradictory information in light of ongoing events--locally and globally--and the current operating environment. It is an art, not a science, and it relies on something which seemed missing in the Libya case, i.e., common sense.

Common sense remains the single most important component in making decisions about security. If the resources did not exist for whatever reason to have a properly set up and secured facility in Benghazi, why was it there? That is a question for the people at State management and for the Secretary. Who approved placing such a weakly defended facility in a highly unstable location? What was the purpose and usefulness of the facility weighed against the risks of having it there? Some bad calls seem to have been made.

A valuable piece of intel seemed to have been ignored: the calendar. Did nobody have access to a calendar? They are readily available. In the missions where I served we always had a keen awareness of the date and the love of terrorists for key dates. Certainly the date 9/11 should have rung some bells. Were people not aware of outside events that could have an impact in Libya? What was the urgent nature of the business that required the Ambassador to be in a remote, hard-to-defend location on 9/11, at a time when any newspaper reader could see the tensions building all over the Muslim world? Canada, for example, had just shut down its Tehran mission and ordered Iranian diplomats in Canada to leave. Why? What was up? I do not want to be unfair but I fail to understand why the Ambassador was in Benghazi on 9/11.

When I was at State, the atmosphere under the Obama misadministration was even more unreal than usual. The fawning over Obama and Hillary Clinton knew no bounds. The press releases and the internal conversations seemed to reflect the nattering of a cult rather than sober deliberations. We would have "serious" people tell us, "The world loves President Obama." There was a feeling that somehow we were at a magical turning point in the history of humanity. Doubt what I am saying? Really? See the incredibly idiotic statement made by White House spokesman Carney on September 14:

"This is a fairly volatile situation, and it is in response not to U.S. policy, not to, obviously, the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video – a film – that we have judged to be reprehensive and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it. But this is not a case of protests directed at the United States, writ large, or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive . . . to Muslims."

We see here a perfect summing up of the philosophy that dominates in this misadministration. We are not to blame, nothing is our fault, nothing we have done could possibly have anything to do with anything negative that is happening. We are good and loved. It is all somebody else's fault, so, of course, we can't be expected to be ready to react. The only thing missing from Carney's statement is overtly to blame it all on Bush. Those sorts of blinders make it impossible to make good judgements. The price for that, as we saw in Libya, is death.
The Diplomad


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