Comment: Is There a ‘DNA Problem’ in US Spying?

Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus

The controversy of the apparent ineffectiveness of US intelligence agencies to uncover the so-called Christmas Day bomb plot has reignited the discussion about the operational shortcomings of the US intelligence community. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of of The New York Times Book Review, has authored an interesting commentary, in which he delves into some of what he sees as the design deficiencies in American intelligence.

He argues that the inability of US intelligence agencies to better cooperate with each other is implanted into their organizational DNA, owing to the classic Sherman Kent v. Willmoore Kendall intelligence debate of the late 1940s and 1950s. The debate, authoritatively reviewed by the late Yale History Professor Robin Winks in Cloak and Gown (1987), centered on two opposing intelligence science viewpoints: on the one hand, Kent advocated that that methodic, specialized intelligence collection and analysis by trained experts was key to “the elimination of surprise from foreign affairs”. On the other hand, the Kendall group of scholars considered that providing useful analysis on broad global trends would be far more suitable for a superpower relying on executive, rather than military-style, decision-making in peacetime.

The above analysis is correct. But from that point on, Tanenhaus’ article appears to disintegrate. He fails to mention that, in reality, the “Sherman v. Willmoore” argument was never definitively settled, leaving the US intelligence community in somewhat of a methodological disarray, which allowed for its mission and focus to be subordinated to narrow-minded ideological bickering between American politicians during the Cold War. Ultimately, this disarray forced America’s traditionally hesitant US lawmakers to attempt to restructure the mission of US intelligence, following the rampant civil liberties abuses of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The incomplete effort of the Church Committee to save whatever was left of the US civil liberties code from the clenches of rampant political policing, is responsible for the modern-day separation between the CIA and the NSA (which operate exclusively abroad) and the FBI (which operates primarily domestically).

Tanenhaus suggests that the US intelligence effort should now be re-centralized, and the traditional internal v. external dichotomy scrapped, since “America’s principal adversary is not a rival superpower, but a loose global network of jihadists”. But in reality, the domestic espionage abuses of the 1960s and 1970s occurred precisely for this reason: because domestic civil rights and antiwar campaigns were systematically (and for the most part erroneously) identified with “a global network” of communism.

It was this erroneous association of domestic political demands, such as the civil rights and pro-peace blocs, with supposedly external ideological forces, which damaged the operational code of US intelligence agencies, divided the country and nearly brought down American democracy altogether. Going back to those days will offer no clear intelligence benefit, and will re-institutionalize the politicization of American security.

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* Ian Allen has spent nearly twenty-five years working in intelligence-related fields, and is now active in intelligence consulting. He has worked in North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently living and working in South Korea. He is co-founder and Editor of His latest writings for are available here.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

8 Responses to Comment: Is There a ‘DNA Problem’ in US Spying?

  1. hello says:

    Worst days for CIA since it missed the 9/11 attackers
    Agency failed to detect Detroit bomb or stop the Jordanian double agent
    By Jack Bremer
    LAST UPDATED 7:56 AM, JANUARY 6, 2010

    The US Central Intelligence Agency is in the doghouse. Not only did it and other intelligence services miss the signs that might have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab ever boarding the plane to Detroit which he tried to blow up on Christmas Day, but the agency’s weaknesses have also been exposed on the ground in Afghanistan. It transpires that the man who killed seven of its agents in Afghanistan last week was not simply an insurgent, but a double agent who CIA operatives wrongly surmised was on their side in the war against the Taliban.

    President Obama, in an unusually forthright – bordering on furious – mood, said yesterday in reference to the Detroit bomb plot that “the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way”.

    He said US intelligence services had had all the information they needed about the 23-year-old Abdulmutallab, but had failed to connect the dots and see the attack coming. “I will not accept that,” he said. “We have to do better. We will do better and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.”

    Many former CIA officers have come forward to criticise the agency, suggesting it is at its lowest point since it failed to foresee the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Many pin the blame on the fact that the CIA is no longer in total charge of intelligence gathering, having to share the role with up to a dozen different services following the post-9/11 panic. But others say the agency has become sloppy and ineffectual.

    The most damning comments in recent days have come not from a former spook but from General Stanley McChrystal’s senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Major General Michael T Flynn. In a report issued on Monday by a Washington thinktank, the Centre for a New American Security, Flynn said that such was the paucity of intelligence from Afghanistan that analysts in Washington were so starved of information “many say their jobs feel more like fortune-telling than detective work”.

    Flynn said US agents were “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”.

    As for the killing of seven CIA agents at the US Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan last week by a suicide bomber, it transpires that the killer was Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, who the CIA believed had been successfully “turned” into a double agent.

    As a result, when Balawi called to say he had information that might help the CIA find Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was allowed into the base without normal security checks. In a room filled with agents, he then blew himself up.

    Balawi had written angry articles on the web calling for jihad against the US and Israel, but agents apparently assumed this was part of his cover as a double agent.

    Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and counter-terrorism agent, told the /Guardian/ the tragedy would have been avioided if agents had followed customary procedures. A source supposedly as significant as Balawi should never have been brought inside the base, he said, because it risked exposing him. Nor should he have been debriefed by such a large number of agents: there were about a dozen in the room when Balawi detonated the bomb.

    “You have a lot of inexperienced people being shoved out into the field without adequate mentoring and without proper training,” Johnson said.

    While Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, has responded to the president’s criticism over the Detroit “screw-up”, promising the intelligence community will boost its efforts to prevent new attacks, no one at the CIA has yet to put up their hand and accepted responsibility for recent errors.

    Under White House pressure, that could change in the coming days, though no one’s putting money on Obama sacrificing his own man, Leon Panetta, appointed last year against the advice of observers to head the CIA.,news-comment,news-politics,worst-days-for-cia-since-it-missed-the-911-attackers

  2. hello says:

    Man who bombed CIA post provided useful intelligence about al-Qaeda
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    Jordanian guards of honor carry the coffin of Jordanian intelligence officer Sharif Ali bin Zeid in Amman. Bin Zeid was with killed seven CIA employees when a Jordanian suicide bomber attacked an agency post in Afghanistan.
    Jordanian guards of honor carry the coffin of Jordanian intelligence officer Sharif Ali bin Zeid in Amman. Bin Zeid was with killed seven CIA employees when a Jordanian suicide bomber attacked an agency post in Afghanistan. (Yousef Allan Via Jordan Royal Police/associated Press)

    Jordanian boys climb the wall of a U.N. Relief and Works Agency clinic, where Balawi used to work as a physician, in Zarqa city, east of Amman.
    Jordanian boys climb the wall of a U.N. Relief and Works Agency clinic, where Balawi used to work as a physician, in Zarqa city, east of Amman. (Nader Daoud/associated Press)

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    By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    The Jordanian double agent who staged a suicide attack on a CIA base last week had supplied intelligence agencies with credible leads about al-Qaeda plans to attack targets in Jordan and in Western countries, Jordanian government officials said Tuesday.

    The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, began volunteering information to Jordanian operatives last year from Pakistan, after moving to that country ostensibly to further his medical studies, two officials said in interviews. It was the first of a series of contacts, they said, that culminated on Dec. 30 with Balawi’s admission to one of the CIA’s most sensitive posts in eastern Afghanistan.

    The new details about the informant-turned-bomber emerged amid increasing criticism by former intelligence officials of security procedures that allowed the man to enter a CIA base without being adequately searched, and to position himself in the middle of a large group of Americans before setting off the bomb.

    The blast killed seven CIA officers and contractors — two of them employees of Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater USA, former intelligence officials confirmed — and wounded six others in the deadliest attack on the agency in 25 years. A Jordanian intelligence captain who worked with the informant also was killed.

    The CIA has declined to comment on the bomber or the circumstances of the attack, but U.S. intelligence officials pushed back Tuesday against suggestions that the attacker had duped the operatives after securing their trust.

    “No one in American intelligence trusts completely — that’s the kind of language that’s been used — any asset with an extremist background. That’s just wrong,” said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the investigation. “You have to use unsavory individuals to penetrate terrorist groups. A saint won’t get you inside.”

    The reference to “unsavory individuals” was a tacit acknowledgment of the troubled past of Balawi, a physician and a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda sympathizer who had been arrested in Jordan for alleged ties to extremist groups.

    A Jordanian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Balawi had been detained by local authorities but later released for lack of evidence. Balawi later traveled on his own to Pakistan and then began e-mailing Jordanian officials with intelligence leads, including credible accounts of al-Qaeda plans to attack Jordanian and Western targets, the official said. A second Jordanian official confirmed the account, though both sources said they were unable to confirm that Balawi was the bomber in the Dec. 30 attack.

    “We shared the information with friendly countries as part of our global efforts to combat terrorism and al-Qaeda,” the first official said. He added that operatives “continued the contact . . . in an effort to lure him in and verify the information he had.”

    Former and current U.S. officials have said Balawi provided “actionable intelligence” to Jordanian and American operatives that led to lethal strikes against Taliban or al-Qaeda targets. CBS News reported Wednesday that some of those strikes involved the CIA’s unmanned aircraft, which have staged more than 50 attacks in the past year.

    Balawi’s meeting at the CIA base, located in Khost province, was arranged after he promised to provide information about top al-Qaeda leaders. The meeting was initially set to take place in Pakistan, but the plans were changed for reasons that are not clear, the second Jordanian official said.

    Former intelligence officials said they were aghast at Balawi’s ability to surround himself with CIA officers on a base.

    “I have no idea how a potential hostile ends up standing next to at least 13 CIA personnel,” said a former agency case officer. “It’s incredibly regrettable, the loss of life, but I have never heard of anything as unprofessional. There’s an old infantry rule: Don’t bunch up.”

    Traditionally, even informants who are assets of friendly countries are handled with caution, the former case officer said. “He is a potential hostile,” he said.

    The U.S. intelligence official who defended the agency said it is too soon to draw conclusions about whether security procedures were violated.

    “All the facts aren’t in on Khost, and you have people talking nonsense, claiming things they plainly don’t know,” the official said.

    Special correspondent Rayna Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

  3. hello says:

    When the top U.S. intelligence officer in Afghanistan put out a provocative report on the state of intelligence there, he chose an unusual way to distribute it: Through a D.C. think tank, the Center for a New American Security. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who found that unusual.

    Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters that “it struck everybody as a little bit curious” that Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn published the sweeping critique of Afghan intel through CNAS. “My sense is that this was an anomaly and that we probably won’t see that (in the future),” Whitman added.

    So did Flynn overstep? Tom Ricks of CNAS offered this pre-emptive explanation: “As I understand it, the paper was released through CNAS because Gen. Flynn wanted to reach beyond his own chain of command and his own community and talk to people such as commanders of deploying infantry units about what kind of intelligence they should be demanding.”

    (An interesting tidbit: One of the co-authors of the report is Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger, a rising star in the Marine Corps intel community and an advisor to Flynn in Kabul. Pottinger and Ricks are former Wall Street Journal colleagues.)
    Read More

  4. I feel the Attacks from The Fort Hood Base to The Airline Bombing, then to the Military site in Afghanistan, were planned at the Same time in the same place and we can expect a more Robust attack plan from these Al-Qaeda and Taliban’s in The War Zones of the Middle East, as well as Here at home. To be a Multiple Attack Scenario, when they try to do it again. That seems to be hitting on the Strings that a single attempt to Bomb Us has not worked before hardly ever, but this Time it worked through Diversion and was successful because of Distractions made by their Media Programming. They would announce that they were going to Blow Us up well after they Thought it was a go to do so. Knowing that the plan had not been Jinxed. This makes their Psychological Warfare a Go to the extent that they have pulled it off. If we play it down, we will have a better chance and no doubt a better Opportunity to Control, How much they know about what we know and that will give Us a Better Operational Security. This thing happens in War and they got Lucky too, Now the real Test Comes to see if they can Do it again. If not then we will have Figured out their technologies and will have Destroyed every opportunity for them to repeat their Operation Successfully again. Announcing their Operations and How they did it will make their Situation a Pain in the Butt for them, for if we hit on anything at all they may think we have something Going on in their camps and May Destroy their Plans before they start. It sure as Heck makes them wonder what we know too. If there are multiple sites that are running Operations then they would have to be taking orders from More than One Leader and right now I feel that Bin Laden is and was there in Yemen until He was Removed well before it was known to be a Go for the Operations and may be Hiding in Saudi Arabia to under the Cloak of Terrorism. By their Contacts there. It would be the easiest way to escape too. Then to move to Iran. The Somali Pirates would help him too.

  5. KMansfield says:

    “America’s principal adversary is not a rival superpower, but a loose global network of jihadists”

    It’s obvious to me that their attacks are a reaction to our arrogance in pursuit of resources for capitalist expansion and maintaing dominance. The expenses in human lives on both sides and the debt we’ve incurred are just a comical farce of over-reaction. As if death could ever be funny.

    Terrorism isn’t an ideology. Its a tactic.

    These “jihadists” remind me of Anarchists from the early-mid 20th century. They were characterized as huge threat too. See this excellent book “The Proud Tower, Barbara W. Tuchman (Ch. 2)
    The son of polish immigrants, Czolgosz, began reading several Anarchist pamphlets. His dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and the unfairness of it all, He identified with the the Anarchist ideals and shortly there afterward met with Emma Goldman, a publisher. He told her he thought it was awful that our government went to the aid of the Philippines to help them gain their freedom from Spain, yet turned around and went to war with it’s people. He didn’t think our Flag stood for that. Alarmed by his reverence to the Flag she cut off ties with him and reported a warning in her Magazine that he may be an agent provocateur. Still a neophyte, it didn’t take him long to find his way to President William McKinley. He shot him and he died 4 days later. There were a few other leaders in Europe that were killed by independent anarchists, including an american travelled to europe. The motivation was retaliation for abuse and willingness to be a martyr for the cause of the working class.

    This obviously isn’t something unique to Islam. Motivated and discontented people can act on their own. I feel like our leaders refuse to acknowledge that this is a reaction to their wars of aggression.
    They are using it as an excuse to continue, escalate, and expand the fronts in these wars of aggressions for two reasons.
    Money and power.


    I feel like someone played a terrible joke on that boy by giving him loaded underwear. I probably could have made a bigger explosion with pop rocks and coke, or vinegar and soda.

    There was more than one failure.
    that doesn’t get discussed much: The security company that ran the port in Amsterdam.
    This boy had no Visa so it wouldn’t have made any difference if the CIA screwed up or not.
    Protocols were egregiously broken taking him to see a supervisor that approved his entry on to the flight and waived the rules for improper ID He should’ve had to wait for 48 hrs to get on that plane.
    The nameless helper that went to the managers office must have had influence with an manager of the security firm.

    The same security firm (under a different name) is the same one that allowed 2 of the 9/11 hijackers to get on planes in the US. Why is this security firm still in business?
    How bad do you have to f*ck up to have your license withdrawn?

    This is an Israeli company, and the father was involved with weapons sales with the Israeli Government agencies. Security and intelligence is something Israeli’s pride themselves on.

    Who would benefit from a so-called “terrorist” security breach/failed attack on US soil?

    Health Care will be winding down, and a new issue will be place on the table. Obama has 3 years left. Radicals Netanyahu and Lieberman are in power in power in Israel.
    Their plans for a U.S war with Iran don’t seem to be going as well as they’d like.
    A non-lethal distraction made to order could be just the ticket for their bff ally. (Especially since Gates warned them against making more “mistakes” like the USS liberty, or Lavon Affair.

    I think these radicals would like to portray Obama as weak, and undermine his presidency. Even though his actions are identical to Bush’s – if he’d ever follow his own rhetoric he might be different. George Mitchell seems willing to use soft power to put Israel into the uncomfortable position of ending the Palestinian conflict or stop receiving aid.

    Obama doesn’t have many more bullets to shoot himself in the foot with (or his base.) He’ll have to use his remaining ammo on issues to actually achieve something positive or he’ll be a single term president.

  6. Naboth Zondo says:

    The more bureaucratic system you have in collecting, sharing, and rightfully utilizing life saving information the bigger chances you have for error.
    Times have change, the world is not the same colonized by Europe and America many years ago. After so many wars, deceit, defeat and brainwashing, it is catching up.

    The More the U.S spread its wings around the world to protect its international interest more than taking care of the home land, the less it will be safe at home.

    The Intelligence business is getting hard every day because of the internet. Evil doers do not have to do much traveling to be effective. State sponsor wars and terroristic acts can occur without send agents or seeing the actual face of those who will commit the actual crime.

    From my experience, in the Business of Intelligence, it doesn’t matter how great and powerful your military and economy is. Or how smart and sophisticated your system is. What matter is getting the right real time information to the right people at the right time for the right application.

    Tanenhaus suggests that the US intelligence effort should now be re-centralized, and the traditional internal v. external dichotomy scrapped, since “America’s principal adversary is not a rival superpower, but a loose global network of jihadists”.

    The CIA has gain an international bad reputation. It is know for its role in Economically sabotaging other countries economies, raging unnecessary ethnic or tribal wars to divide a certain group of people in return to control the natural resources.

    It is know for secretly removing democratically elected governments and installing dictators who serve as puppets, while the U.S turn a blind eye to democracy.
    It is is know for supporting some of the worse human beings who committed some of the worst genocide ever known to man.

    The name CIA instills fear and not joy. This is why it is getting hard for them to recruit or trust those they pay to spy.

    When did we ever hear about how the CIA saved a poor nation?

    When did we ever hear how the CIA help to give life and hope to millions around the world, instead of the many wars, coups and assassinations they literally sponsor.

    I know that the only plead some may have is that the CIA is a very secret organization. But if we even check in their old files, we still do not find a result that makes it a joyous organization the world can celebrate.

  7. davidfulton3 says:

    I agree .President Truman,upon leaving office,stated that his,”Biggest regret was,having established the clandestine services of the CIA”.Within 1 month after the John F. Kennedy assasination,Truman announced publicly,”The CIA has taken over control of the U.S. Government !”…….I recognized 4 signatories (out of 12) of the National Security Act,as Skull & Bones members.Those are the ones I recognized,there may have been more.Shortly before the assasination,John Kennedy had given a memorable speech,warning of Secret Societies.He had also threatened to,”Splinter the CIA up into thousands of pieces,& cast those pieces into the wind”.Kennedy had uncovered a plot (Connived by the House of Rothschild ((THEY OWN THE FED. RES.))) to fleece the American Treasury.Kennedy was in the process of taking the power to print money away from the FED & have the government take control.He wrote a signing statement that required all currency to be backed by silver.They assasinated him & ignored the signing statement (EVEN THOUGH, ITS STILL TO THIS DAY ,THE LAW.).They then ,after his death,began printing Federal Reserve Notes,instead of Silver Certificates.Coins (10,25,&50 cent,& $1.00) were ,at the time of his death,made of .925 silver.Immediately following his death the coins were only clad in silver.MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT,THE CIA OPERATES UNDER THE COMMAND OF “THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD”.At the CIA’s inception,they covertly brought thousands of NAZI Doctors & Scientist to America,under ‘Operation Paper Clip’.These criminals were saved from the gallows (Nuremburg Trials).They covertly continued their torturous programs of involuntary human experimentation,using U.S. citizens (other Nationals as well) as test subjects.This was under ‘MKULTRA’,as exposed by ‘The Church Commitee’.The CIA destroyed 80% of the files before the Church Commitee got to them.THEY NEVER STOPPED these experiments,they just got more skilled at hiding evidence of them.Knowledge gained is put into the hands of the Global Elite,& used to subvert the goverance of our government.Against National Security interest.I am a victim of this involuntary,human experimentation.You can read some of my comments,if you GOOGLE :David Fulton Torture >>> JESSE VENTURA has posted them on the internet……………..All My Best,…DAVID FULTON…………

  8. Big Al New York state says:

    The names and places change…but with security agencies, the people stay the same. It’s the same story…ups and downs, Russia, Israel, USA and their spy agencies..Perhaps a better HR system is called for?

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