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Intelligence Estimate: No new news…but one intriguing message

There are no real surprises in the unclassified “key judgments” of a new National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, out this morning. Most of the important assessments of the 16 intelligence agencies have already leaked out or were highlighted in other forums by senior officials in recent months.

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially alQaida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

Again, no surprises. The estimate does point out, echoing testimony by the country’s top intelligence analyst last week, that Al Qaeda has “protected or regenerated key elements of hits Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)…”

In all, the one-and-a-half pages of unclassified nuggets aren’t any more specific than what intelligence officials have put out for public consumption in the past year.

But there was one tantalizing bit at the end. The estimate seemed to say that the intelligence agencies need to better position themselves to counter the Internet as a tool for terrorism. In a section devoted to “technological advances” (read: the Internet, communications technologies, etc.) that continue to let “even small numbers of alienated people find and connect with one another, the authors drop this paragraph:

The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment
will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt
plots. It will also require greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local
level relate to strategic threat information and how best to identify indicators of
terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.

Let me read between the lines here a bit. “The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment…” Here, they’re talking about picking up on the signals of an attack–online chatter, rhetoric on jihadi Web sites, but also message traffic, probably money transfers. We’ve known for a long time that the intelligence agencies focus on the Web and online transactions to detect terrorist patterns.

But to the second point, this “will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots;” that strikes me as a pretty candid admission. It’s not like the intelligence agencies are saying, “We can’t detect plotting on the Internet,” but they’re clearly pointing out this is an area of concern, and one that’s going to keep putting counterterrorism specialists through their paces.

In light of this challenge, the agencies will need “greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local level relate to strategic threat information.” This strikes me as a clear reference to the use of fusion centers, which are supposed to marry local intelligence with the global threat picture. This could be seen as a shot at the Homeland Security Department. Theoretically, it’s DHS‘ job to put those two pieces together–local and global–but it has never really worked out that way. Most of this integration goes on at the National Counterterrorism Center, and the intelligence agencies hold sway there. The fusion centers themselves, while nominally under DHS‘ purview, are, in my experience, FBI-led affairs, with strong ties to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It’s not clear whether this part of the estimate could be read as a move to underscore that this intelligence fusion is really the intelligence community’s job, or as a signal to DHS that they need to step into this role more forcefully. I have to conclude, though, based on my reporting, that it’s the former. This is a clear signal that the intelligence community sees fusion centers, and in the integration of local, national, and global threat reporting, as a vital part of domestic security.

Finally, the estimate says the intelligence agencies must understand “how best to identify indicators of terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.” That’s the false-positive, false-negative challenge in a nut shell. How do you scan all this activity–whether online or in the physical world–and determine what is and isn’t suspicious? This is an area of particular interest for me, and I’ve been writing about it for years. I think it’s most interesting that, in an NIE devoted to terrorist threats to the Untied States, officials chose to point out this challenge. Clearly, it weighs heavily on their minds.

The Terrorism Enhancement: The story behind the story

I stumbled onto the terrorism enhancement story several months ago while reporting on another one: the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program. I learned about a trial of so-called “eco-terrorists” in Eugene, Oregon, part of the FBI’s Operation Backfire against the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. After lawyers for the defendants for Daniel McGowan, whom I write about in the lead of my story, and his fellow defendants learned that the NSA was monitoring terrorist communications inside the United States without warrants, their lawyers wanted to know if the government had intercepted any of their clients’ information. Theoretically, if the government had used warranties wiretaps to secure their indictments–“fruit of the poisonous tree”–it could jeopardize the case. Prosecutors insisted they hadn’t used warrantless surveillance information, and for a time it seemed that the government would have to prove that to the judge. Fast-forwarding a bit, the matter ultimately became moot when defendants struck a plea bargain.

It seemed like the NSA angle wouldn’t pan out. But something else intrigued me. I learned that the prosecutors were pursuing a “terrorism enhancement” to the defendants’ sentences. I’ve been covering counterterrorism for six years, but I had never heard of this law, which is contained in the same part of the the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines that covers hate crimes and other “victim-related adjustments.”

Why was the government pursuing a terrorism enhancement against environmental activists? And who else had they sought it against? That question led me into a months-long investigation that culminated in my current feature story.

Just figuring out how many times the government had sought the enhancement proved impossible–the U.S. Attorneys Office doesn’t track that figure. But I was able to determine that judges have applied the enhancement at least 57 times in the past eight years. I studied more than half those cases–35–and learned that prosecutors sought the enhancement more often against domestic defendants, as opposed to members of international terrorist groups.

Intelligence chief (finally) gets a deputy

For one year and 51 days, the nation’s top intelligence official has been without a second-in-command. When Gen. Michael Hayden stepped down as the principal deputy director of national intelligence, in May of last year, to become the CIA director, it effectively left the intelligence community without a chief operating officer.

But today, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell announced that the president has nominated Donald M. Kerr to be McConnell’s new No. 2. Kerr is currently director of the National Reconnaissance Office, a position he has held since July 2005. Previously, he was the CIA’s top science and technology official, and he has served in a number of other posts.

The full text of McConnell’s message to intelligence community employees announcing Kerr’s nomination follows:

Dear Colleagues:

I am pleased to announce that the President today nominated Dr. Donald M. Kerr to be the next Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. He brings a wealth of experience and a focus on mission, gained from previous positions in the Intelligence Community, U.S. Government, and private industry.

Dr. Kerr currently serves as the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office and the Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force (Intelligence Space Technology). He previously served as CIA Director of Science and Technology, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Laboratory Division), several positions at the Department of Energy, and as the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. I look forward to his strong support and insight as we move to complete my 500-Day Plan, and continue our vital work for the security of our nation.

In accordance with the Intelligence Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Dr. Kerr’s nomination is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. We look forward to their favorable consideration of his nomination.

Sincerely,

Mike McConnell

The search for a deputy DNI has been a long, sometimes tortured affair. Several officials were approached–they declined–and the White House shot down other selections. McConnell has been doing double-duty, acting as the president’s chief intelligence adviser and trying to manage the community day-to-day.

After Hayden left for the CIA, intelligence observers worried that former DNI John Negroponte–who for all his diplomatic skills was never highly-regarded as an intelligence community manager–would be left in the lurch. Negroponte stayed on as DNI for seven more months, then left to become deputy secretary of state. When the president chose McConnell to replace him, intelligence observers breathed a sigh of releif–McConnell is deeply respected within the community, and career officials see him as “one of us.”

But unlike Negroponte, McConnell was a management nut. He has embarked on an ambitious set of reform plans, including speeding up the security clearance process, devoting new resources to science and technology, and implementing joint-duty requirements for promotion to senior ranks. In short, McConnell is a born manager, which left many wondering what kind of skills he’d want in a deputy.

Just doing a quick reading of the tea leavs on Kerr’s nomination, McConnell had to find someone willing to take on the arguably thankless job, as NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly pointed out in a recent piece on Kerr’s potential nomination. The Bush administration is also in its twilight. It’s likely that McConnell prevailed upon Kerr’s allegiance to the intelligence community–in which he has served for so many years–to come aboard and help him implement his reform plan.

I’m not sure whether some will see the move from NRO to the DNI’s office as a promotion–probably not–but it does give Kerr an ostensibly wider purview of the nation’s spy agencies, and that may have been attractive to him. He must figure that he has something to contribute.

One other note: The DNI’s office is launching a big push on the science and technology front. As part of the fiscal 2008 budget request, McConnell has asked Congress for money to set up the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, iARPA, modeled after the successful Pentagon R&D unit, DARPA. Kerr used to run the CIA’s science and technology division, and so has some familiarity with that terrain. As a former senior CIA official reminded me this morning, a huge portion of the intelligence community is devoted to technical issues–everything from signals collection and processing to geospatial intelligence. Kerr is also double-hatted at NRO–he’s assistant to the Secretary of the Airforce. He has defense credentials, and likely got the blessing of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Kerr might be able to provide some bureaucratic cover for McConnell, too. In a controversial move, iARPA would take away the money that the CIA and other agencies receive for community-wide intelligence projects. (The agencies get to keep science and technology funds slated for their own, individual purposes.) Kerr will likely understand the sensitivities involved in dipping into other agencies’ rice bowls, and so he might be able to help shepherd that process as the deputy DNI.

(For the record, here’s the White House’s personnel announcement on Kerr.)

Top intel analyst: Pakistan new home base for Al Qaeda

Tom Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, is delivering a “global security assessment” to the House Armed Services Committee today. In his prepared remarks, just released, Fingar singles out Pakistan as the current home base for Al Qaeda, which he calls “the terrorist organization that poses the greatest threats to U.S. interests, including to the homeland.”

We have captured or killed numerous senior alQaida operatives, but we also have seen that alQaida’s core elements are resilient. They continue to plot attacks against our Homeland and other targets with the objective of inflicting mass casualties. They continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders hiding in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Europe.

Fingar’s remarks echo the assessment senior intelligence officials have put out—on background with journalists—in the past few months: Al Qaeda has re-grouped, with a new cadre of middle and senior management, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The foiled plot to blow up multiple passenger jets flying from the U.K. to the U.S. last year was linked back to Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, intelligence officials have said.

The political ramifications of a resurgent Al Qaeda in Pakistan are huge for the Bush administration. One need only imagine the political price the president would have paid had Al Qaeda succeeded in its attempts to kill thousands of airline passengers , and if the brain trust for that plot were found to have been hiding out in Pakistan, with the full knowledge of the White House and our intelligence service. The planes bombing plot was designed to rival, if not exceed, the 9/11 attacks, at least in terms of human casualties.

In his prepared remarks, Fingar added, rather ominously, that “Pakistan, despite its ongoing efforts [to crack down in Islamic militants], continues to face terrorism’s many challenges, while that country also raises other concerns for us.” He also said Pakistan can expect harder times to come:

With tribal opposition to the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq widespread and elections expected later this year, the situation will become even more challenging—for President Musharraf and for the US.

• Moreover, democracy has not been fully restored since the Army took power in 1999 and Musharraf’s suspension of Pakistan’s Chief Justice in March has brought thousands of protesters into the streets and increased public demand for a fully democratic system.

It’s important to remember that, last February, Vice President Cheney made an unannounced visit to Islamabad to show the United States’ displeasure with Musharraf’s apparently deficient efforts to squelch the Al Qaeda resurgence. Who did Cheney take with him? The CIA’s No. 2, Steve Kappes, a beloved career operations officer who has worked in Pakistan and knows the Middle East intimately. Undoubtedly, along with the United States’ insistence that Pakistan do more was an offer to help them do just that, through increased participation with our clandestine service.

DHS "well on our way" to preparing for transition

In a discussion about surveillance cameras in New York City this morning, Diane Rehm devoted some air time to turnover and vacancies in the senior ranks of the Homeland Security Department. (See yesterday’s post.) DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke joined by phone, and said that, in April, the department was permitted to hire an additional 73 senior level positions. Officials are trying to “cross-train” them with existing employees, so that they’re ready to take over in January 2009, when a new administration comes in, he said. “We need high-caliber leaders in these spots, and we believe we’re well on our way to getting there.”

When I interviewed DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson back in May, he gave some more specifics. He acknowledged that it hadn’t been easy to keep good help. “We’ve had a significant turnover,” he said. “And that turnover has been below the top-level jobs as well.” (A number of those positions remain vacant, according to a new House Homeland Security Committee report.) But, Jackson said, preparations for the transition are well under way. “I would say we are well beyond the halfway point in what we have to get done.”

Also on the show today, former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said he was distressed by the high turnover and vacancies. “I think it’s troubling, really, that there are so many high-level positions at [DHS] that are open,” he said. Ervin also noted that, compared to other departments, the vacancies are “unusually high” at DHS. Why? Ervin cited a confluence of factors. “The department has the lowest morale” of any in government. It has “been underfunded since the beginning.” (Ervin noted that he’s a conservative Republican “who typically does not call for greater government spending.”) And Ervin pointed out that, in the wake of high-profile disasters like Hurricane Katrina, it hasn’t been easy to attract and retain a lot of talent at DHS. It won’t be any easier given that the Bush administration’s final days in office are upon us, he added.

Of the recent terrorist plot in London, Ervin emphasized that it was no coincidence the strikes came during a governmental transition, from former Prime Minister Tony Blair to new PM Gordon Brown. He also reminded listeners that terrorists blew up commuter trains in Madrid three days before the national elections in 2004. (I discussed this significance of this pattern, and what it means for DHS, in my story on the upcoming transition.

Knocke said DHS officials “are mindful of recent events in London,” and “the timeliness of attacks [in Madrid].” That echoed Jackson’s sentiments. The deputy secretary told me that the possibility of a terrorist attack timed to the U.S. transition in 2009 factors into officials planning now.

Trouble in DHS’ Upper Ranks

A congressional report out this morning leads off with a story I wrote about the Homeland Security Department’s reliance on politically appointed leaders.

Spencer Hsu has a good piece in this morning’s Washington Post about that report and the administration’s failure to fill about a quarter of the top leadership posts at DHS, “creating a ‘gaping hole’ in the nation’s preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.” Spencer references my previous story, as well.

“The DHS has one of the largest rosters of senior political appointees in the federal government, in part because of how it was created. The DHS says it has never had more than 220 senior political appointees, although the Office of Personnel Management told Congress of more than 360 in 2004, National Journal reported last month.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Informed Reader picked up on my story, too, last month. You can also listen to an interview I did with Federal News radio about DHS’ political appointees.