Two talks from the IC at Kentucky (NSA and CIA)

Updated.

I recently attended two talks here at UKY given by members of the intelligence community, one by a NSA employee and one by the former Acting Director of the CIA. The latter was by far the more interesting, if also serving to confirm how divorced the IC often is from a grasp on politics (and how untouched it is by outside critique, including that from scholars).

The NSA talk was given by Glenn Lilly for the Maths Department Alumni Day. He summarised a now declassified investigation into how the Soviets bugged the US embassy typewriters for nearly a decade without being caught. It was an interesting account in the spy vs. spy mold, how the Soviets did it, how the US was tipped off by (still classified) third country, etc. The main point was that cryptography is all very well but if you can get the text before it is encrypted it’s even better. This was in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s.

The other talk was delivered by John McLaughlin, a former CIA officer who was briefly Acting Director of the agency in 2004. The talk was organized by the “Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce” here at UKY. McLaughlin gave a talk on the topic of challenges facing the IC (in a manner that can only be described as after-dinner practiced; opening with a joke, keeping the material peppered with anecdotes without ever really getting too deep).

One comment is worth highlighting. He said that he would give three ways to defeat terrorism: 1) remove its leadership 2) deny safe havens 3) remove the causes of terrorism. In his assessment the US had achieved only the first of these, ie it has achieved the deaths of the top al Qaeda leaders “and the bench is frankly pretty thin.”

He said the US has not been able to deny safe havens around the world (eg the Af-Pak border).

On the third point, it is possible for him to have taken more than one analytic route, and it is always worth listening when a career IC member ventures into an area beyond the pure collection/analysis of intel. What he actually said was that on the causes of terrorism the US was deploying humanitarian missions and aid relief. He didn’t say why or how this would reduce causes of terrorism, but clearly this is far removed from what scholars in geography and anthropology have written.

The clear implication of McLaughlin’s comment is that the causes of terrorism are “over there,” perhaps among radicalized youth and ideological madrassas. What it omits is plainly any consideration of US responsibility, or that the drones and military bases might have something to do with it. I think this comment, more than anything else he said, illustrates the gulf between the IC and its critics.

Update. This report today on Hillary Clinton’s comments about Pakistan is coincidentally illustrative of that last point. Clinton, who is visiting India, criticized Pakistan for not fighting terrorism hard enough:

The US would push Pakistan for securing the conviction of Hafiz Saeed, the Mumbai attack mastermind, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today, adding that country has not done as much as US and India wanted it to fight terrorism.

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