Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror by Matthew M. Aid

Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror 
by Matthew M. Aid 

 This book describes the American intelligence apparatus throughout the first Obama administration. I actually read it before the current issues with the NSA came to light though it does have some interesting things to say about that why they thought prism was a good idea and the probable outcomes.

The book is divided into sections most of them geographical. The largest are on Afghanistan, Pakistan Iran and North Korea. There are smaller sections on the Americas and Europe. Should be noted there is coverage of homegrown terrorism though as one of the analysts points out to the author it's almost impossible to know what's going to happen till it actually does. Which of course was something that was demonstrated by the Boston bombing.

Perhaps most interesting is what the book does not talk about. The biggest gap is the lack of material on China except for a brief section in the conclusion. For that matter Russia is dealt with in just a few pages mostly describing intelligence failures. I could be charitable about this and assume that the reason why there wasn't more was that such operations are extremely sensitive for geopolitical concerns.

He identifies various problems with American intelligence gathering. The biggest of this is something he calls "data crush". The idea is that the Americans are excellent at gathering all sorts of intelligence but terrible at refining it into usable end product. One of his interviewees describes it as being like if you hired someone to paint a painting but all they do is keep buying paint. This makes sense in light of the NSA program. They were excited about the idea of getting a look at everyone's email and other data but probably have no useful way to look at it beyond keyword searching. He describes how databases at the CIA often provide no-hit responses even when they should be there. He also highlights the bureaucratic infighting between the various agencies. How Homeland Security failed to become a true clearinghouse for information. How both the FBI and CIA managed to undermine the attempts to rationalize the structure of the community.

Much of the reporting is based on interviews many of them anonymous. The rest appears to be gleaned from public congressional hearings as well as declassified documents.

Highly recommended all sorts of interesting tidbits here about the 2008-2012 era.