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[infowar.de] TNR 04.11.02: AL QAEDA'S DISINFORMATION WAR
The National Review
AL QAEDA'S DISINFORMATION WAR.
by Eli J. Lake
Post date: 10.30.02
Issue date: 11.04.02
In the weeks leading up to the October 12 bombing in Bali, warnings of
pending terror flooded U.S. intelligence channels. Analysts from the
National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the FBI combed through threats
suggesting that car-bomb attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings were planned
against Americans on three continents. The volume of electronic and
telephonic communications--what intelligence professionals call
"chatter"--between assumed Al Qaeda operatives spiked in late September.
Intelligence analysts suspected that audiotapes from Osama bin Laden and
his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released earlier in September contained
coded messages to Al Qaeda-linked terrorists to launch new strikes. By
mid-October, U.S. intelligence was nearly certain, as CIA Director George
Tenet told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees
on October 17, "that Al Qaeda is in an execution phase."
But U.S. intelligence didn't know specifically what Al Qaeda would do. So
the administration did what it always does when it is faced with a deluge
of vague threats: It scared the hell out of everyone. On October 10 the
State Department issued a "Worldwide Caution," recommending that Americans
abroad avoid "facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate
or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor
recreation events." The warning extends through April 8, 2003. In other
words, it suggests that for six months Americans overseas should avoid
going to school, church, or out to eat.
A more useful warning might have recommended that Americans not travel to
Indonesia, something the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs
considered in the week before the Bali incident. Indeed, new information
stemming from an investigation into a grenade attack in central Jakarta on
September 23 suggested that a larger attack might be in the works, though
it was not specific to Bali. But no new Indonesia-specific travel warning
was issued. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that the
intelligence community had received credible threats to American targets in
Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as well. "Considering
the information we had regarding the general worldwide situation, we issued
a Worldwide Caution," Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State
Department's Consular Affairs bureau, told The New Republic.
In other words, one of the major problems confronting U.S. intelligence a
year into the war on terrorism is that it has too much information--and
most of it bad. Worse, many in the U.S. intelligence community believe this
is no accident. "Do the terrorists use disinformation? Absolutely,"
Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Porter
Goss said during a break at last week's joint intelligence hearings about
September 11, 2001. One counterterrorism official told TNR last week, "few
threats provide any specific information, and some threats are intended to
mislead." At a September 19 hearing of the joint House-Senate Intelligence
Committee's investigation into September 11, 2001, Deputy Defense Secretary
Paul Wolfowitz put it this way, "[W]e should not underestimate the skill of
our enemies or their determination to conceal their activities to deceive
us. They understand how we collect intelligence, how we are organized, and
how we analyze information."
Indeed they do. Since September 11, 2001, evidence has mounted that Al
Qaeda has a keen understanding of the U.S. intelligence-collection system.
Among the numerous written materials confiscated from Al Qaeda lairs in
Afghanistan are handbooks on how to evade and deceive U.S.
signal-interception systems, including detailed instructions on when
various kinds of satellites orbit over specific land areas. Last December
the CIA believed that an intercept of bin Laden's voice on the radio in the
caves of Tora Bora had pinpointed his location. According to U.S.
intelligence officials, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)--based on an
analysis of NSA data--now believes this was deliberate deception.
Similarly, in April, one of bin Laden's chief operations officers, Zayn
al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, told American
military interrogators that Al Qaeda would target U.S. banks in the
Northeast. The FBI warned local police stations and financial institutions
in twelve states plus Washington, D.C. In hindsight, one former FBI
official told tnr last week, the bank warning was "bullshit," and, "We were
pretty sure it was wrong at the time." Another national security consultant
to the government familiar with the Zubaydah interrogations said, "Suffice
it to say, some of the stuff that has come out of the terrorist camps, part
of the interrogation take, is made up. ... These guys were having fun with us."
round zero for the American side of the information war is an interagency
panel that has been meeting in Washington--usually twice daily--by
videoconference since the September 11 attacks, and less frequently before
then. The panel, known within the government as the Counterterrorism
Sub-Group (CSG), includes senior officials from the CIA, the DIA, the FBI,
the NSA, the Office of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the
National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Often
representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and
Naturalization Service, and other branches of the government sit in as
well. The panel serves as a clearinghouse for threat analysis based on raw
data that pours into the system; it also advises various agencies on
whether and how to make threats known to the public. The panel might
recommend, for instance, sending notices to local law enforcement
officials, issuing travel advisories for particular countries, and changing
the color of the current terror warning system. While authority to issue
warnings rests with the agencies, the panel has considerable influence.
In the spring and summer of 2001 the CSG was flooded with terror warnings.
Cables reporting potential mortar attacks, car bombs, and kidnappings
streamed into the State Department's operation center and CIA headquarters
from throughout the Islamic world. The NSA also intercepted 33
communications suggesting pending strikes on American targets in the months
prior to September 11. "Throughout the summer of 2001 we had more than
thirty warnings that something was imminent," NSA Director Michael Hayden
told Congress last week. "We dutifully reported these, yet none of these
subsequently correlated with terrorist attacks." As a result of the
threats, U.S. Embassies in the Middle East were placed on highest
alert--requiring, among other things, embassy staff to keep only as much
classified material in their offices as they could burn within two hours.
During those months the CSG issued a confusing series of warnings. At first
the group predicted that an attack would occur on or around May 29, 2001,
in retaliation for the conviction in U.S. Federal Court of the planners of
the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This
prompted the State Department to issue a Worldwide Caution and prompted
embassies to increase security. Nothing happened, but the threats
continued. So the CSG offered a new theory: An attack would come in
response to the June 21, 2001, U.S. grand jury indictment of 14 men
connected to the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the American military
housing facility in Saudi Arabia blown up on June 25, 1996. This prompted
the Pentagon on June 22, 2001, to place U.S. forces on heightened alert, to
cancel a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marines in Jordan, and to
put the entire fifth fleet of the U.S. Navy--stationed in Bahrain--to sea
to avoid a repeat of the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, the year
before. The Sunday prior, an FBI team in Yemen investigating the USS Cole
attack had evacuated the country because of information that they were an
imminent target. Still, nothing happened. Finally, CSG put out word that
the big attack would likely come on July 4, Independence Day, and the
intelligence community corroborated in June with an alert predicting a
"spectacular attack" in the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, or Italy in the near
future. All told, the State Department issued four Worldwide Cautions
between May 11 and September 7, 2001.
According to sources familiar with the minutes of the CSG meetings that
summer, after July 4 many on the committee openly raised the possibility
that the threats from Al Qaeda might be strategic disinformation. Though
Tenet told the Joint House and Senate Select Intelligence Committee on
October 17, 2001, that "[w]e considered whether Al Qaeda ... [was] trying
to create panic through disinformation. Yet we concluded that the plots
were real," others were doubtful. David Carpenter, the State Department's
assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security at the time, told TNR
that in the summer of 2001 he thought the prospect of disinformation was
possible, even probable. "Even though there was a tremendous amount of
information being received, we still remained skeptical about the great
majority of [it]," he said. A kind of threat-fatigue set in. Mel Goodman, a
former CIA analyst who teaches national security at the National War
College, said, "When it did not happen after July Fourth, there was some
complacency. At DIA and CIA the people ringing the most bells were steadily
discredited and marginalized." Cofer Black, at the time the CIA's chief of
counterterrorism and a member of the CSG, told the Senate Select
Intelligence Committee on September 26, "By late summer  I was
growing more concerned about a potential attack on the United States.
However, I knew that we needed very specific information about an attack if
anyone was going to pay attention to us and facilitate action."
Indeed, there's some evidence that bin Laden's network was testing how the
United States would react to certain kinds of threats prior to September
11, 2001. "Certainly they are aware we have a massive intercept
capability," says Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National
Security Archive and the author of The U.S. Intelligence Community. "They
will want to determine if they are being listened to and how fast we would
respond to a threat." To track U.S. reaction to disinformation, bin Laden's
men would need only an Internet connection and the State Department's Web
address. There they would have seen, for instance, on June 22, 2001, the
State Department's warning that Al Qaeda was targeting Americans abroad.
Had they introduced the threats themselves, they would know that the line
of communication they used was being tapped.
Adding credence to the disinformation theory is the fact that almost none
of the pre-September 11 information was what the professionals call
"tactical intelligence," laying out the specific time, location, and method
of a terror strike. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, for example,
received word in June that bin Laden associates had been preparing for
martyrdom operations but heard of no precise plan. If Al Qaeda believed it
was communicating through secure lines, U.S. intelligence would expect the
information to be--at least more frequently--specific.
ll this vague intelligence prompts the kind of fuzzy anxiety that leads
embassies to heighten their security posture, the State Department to issue
public warnings to citizens abroad, and the Office of Homeland Security to
change color warnings. And this can actually make preventing terrorist
attacks harder. Rear Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, the DIA's acting director,
told Congress on October 17, "[W]e can take little comfort in strategic
warning where the threat of terrorism is concerned. The nature of the
threat demands warning with tactical perspective, timeliness, and
specificity. A natural tendency to 'over-warn' must be recognized and
By all accounts, though, this tendency is nearly irresistible. The vague
warning systems provide the intelligence agencies political cover from
Congress and the administration if a terrorist attack does happen. Says
Richard Perle, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, "If you are an
intelligence officer, and you have to make a quick assessment, you ask
yourself, 'What are the consequences if I judge this to be a false alarm,
and it turns out to not be a false alarm? Then I am responsible. If I take
the alarm to be genuine and it turns out the event did not materialize,
there is much less damage compared to the damage of getting it wrong the
other way.'" Indeed, since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103--when some
publications ran stories claiming that American diplomats had been warned
that an attack was imminent--State Department policy has been that no
threat warnings shared widely within the government should be kept from the
public. Rusty Capps, the president of the Centre for Counterintelligence
and Security Studies, a Washington-area training center for U.S.
intelligence officers, believes the warning system only exists "to allow
bureaucrats to feel they have done something and have covered themselves."
To get the kind of tactical warnings they need to foil terrorist plots,
U.S. analysts need more and better human intelligence--the kind of
information that comes from paid informants inside Al Qaeda's inner circle.
On some level, the intelligence community seems to know this. On October 17
Tenet told Congress that in 1999 his agency had launched something he
called "the Plan" to, among other things, infiltrate Al Qaeda. Since that
operation began, he said, the number of human-intelligence reports has
increased significantly. In addition, since September 11, 2001, the CIA has
successfully squeezed foreign spy services--such as Sudan and Pakistan--for
vital information on Al Qaeda. Even the interrogations of Al Qaeda
prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have provided important context for the roughly
two million communications the NSA monitors on average every hour. The CIA
and NSA are developing computer models to help sort through these
intercepts to determine the reliability of the source and to separate them
from "background noise" like anti-American statements made by non-terrorists.
While these initiatives may bear fruit down the road, the intelligence
bureaucracy has a more urgent task now: to meaningfully warn Americans
about terrorism given the abundance of phony threats it currently collects.
That means scrapping the Office of Homeland Security's five-color
threat-alert system, which is used inconsistently and mainly serves to
terrify Americans. It means narrowing Worldwide Cautions to specific
regions. It means, whenever possible, conveying the reliability of the
source of the threat information. Americans need to know when they are
under threat of attack. But they do not need to be constantly afraid. If
the two are confused, then the public will soon learn the lesson that
intelligence officials have learned the hard way: Too much information can
often be as dangerous as too little.
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