The United States-led overthrow of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda cohorts in Afghanistan in late 2001 prompted the jihadist terrorist network to fully disperse. Following this, a conventional wisdom evolved that effective counter-terrorism would turn predominantly on law-enforcement and intelligence cooperation. With al-Qaeda thoroughly decentralised and thus unsuited for military redress, the reasoning ran, the counter-terrorism regime would have to become similarly networked through intergovernmental connections among primarily civilian national security organisations. But the Bush administration’s determination that state sponsors – in particular, Iraq – were still intimately involved in the new terrorism prevented this paradigm from taking a firm hold. The American alternative involved a notional synergy of anti-terrorist devices. Firstly, a preventive military attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime would eliminate a likely source of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to al-Qaeda and deter other potential state suppliers. Secondly, the American presence in post-war Iraq would draw jihadists into a smaller killing zone in which the US military instrument – its most formidable asset – could be applied in order to shrink the ranks of the jihad and marginalise its global impact.
It is now clear that this virtuous dynamic has not arisen. To be sure, the Iraq intervention was also supposed to suppress popular impulses towards religiously based violence by improving the political and economic lot of the Iraqi people and showing the way of reform for other Muslim countries. The failure to uncover WMD in Iraq, however, has cast serious doubt on American good faith, and state-building has thus far failed. On balance, therefore, the US-led occupation of Iraq has only aggravated Muslims around the world and apparently spurred terrorist recruitment and activity. With bold solutions like regime-change in Iraq unavailing, the focus among most members of the counter-terrorism coalition has returned to law-enforcement and intelligence cooperation as the key mechanism for improving both hard security and at least enabling some ‘soft power’ applications (such as the use of information for ‘strategic communication’) against transnational terrorism.
After 11 September, intelligence sharing increased between the US and other key counter-terrorism partners, including most Western European governments as well as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore. Some US bilateral intelligence relationships that were already strong – for instance, those with Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the United Kingdom – simply intensified. Still other US intelligence links with putatively anti-American states, like Libya, Sudan and Syria, expanded owing to the disincentives to antagonising an America that had just been both victimised and angered. Others, such as that between the US and Saudi Arabia, took time to build because of the Saudis’ reluctance to admit – until ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ staged multiple attacks in the kingdom in 2003–04 – that transnational terrorism was a Saudi problem. Although the controversy over Iraq drove transatlantic relations to their nadir during the same timeframe, intelligence sharing did not appreciably ebb because both the US and its European challengers on Iraq understood that severing operational ties on the civilian side would only further undermine international, regional and domestic security. Beyond Europe, clandestine US civilian collaboration with authorities in countries harbouring terrorists – for instance, in the arrest of 11 September mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Pakistan, and that of al-Qaeda–Jemaah Islamiah liaison Riduan Isamuddin (aka Hambali) in Thailand – have yielded durable gains.
Multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union (EU) and the Association of South East Asian Nations were unable to make much headway in easing the sharing of intelligence among member-states, substantially on account of the traditional discomfort that national governments harbour about losing control of intelligence. The primary vehicle for sharing intelligence remained bilateral relationships. Yet intelligence interaction expanded only incrementally, for a variety of reasons. The EU’s policies on personal data-sharing and extradition were incompatible with standards in the US and many Arab states that were less encumbered by privacy and death-penalty concerns. Malaysia, while willing to allow the US to set up a counter-terrorism training centre in Kuala Lumpur, was less inclined to share information with the US on a routine basis or allow the US overt operational leeway on Malaysian territory so as to preserve its sovereignty and foreign-policy independence. More broadly, many nations were concerned that the US wished to conduct an intelligence-sharing relationship on a one-way basis, whereby the US would get more than it would give.
From the American perspective, the US was the prime target of the jihadists and therefore more acutely in need of actionable intelligence. While this attitude has some grounding in fact, the pronounced inclination of the US Department of Defense (DoD) to militarise counter-terrorism – despite clear demonstrations of the limitations of the military as a counter-terrorism instrument – has given US allies and partners special pause. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, envisages special-operations forces engaged in both kinetic and indirect low-visibility operations around the world as the United States’ principal instrument for winning the ‘Global War on Terror’. To be fair, it is not difficult to imagine situations in which joint cooperative military operations might be useful – for example, the destruction of a training camp, or the ‘snatch’ of a terrorist suspect in open territory or in a country whose government is reluctant for political reasons to detain the suspect itself. Yet the Istanbul, Madrid and London bombings suggest that the jihad’s epicentre is moving to Europe, where mature and broadly US-friendly democracies are the norm. In that theatre, even the most covert and discreet activity carries prohibitive diplomatic and political risk.
Indeed, the US has apparently already assumed such risk in executing so-called ‘renditions’ of terrorist suspects on European soil. In a rendition, suspects apprehended by the US or an ally are sent with US facilitation to a country (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Uzbekistan) that employs interrogation techniques not permitted under US or European law. The intelligence thus collected is, in turn, shared with the US and presumably any third-party government aiding in the arrangement. The US employed the practice very sparingly and selectively in the 1990s, but steeply increased its use after 11 September. The UK parliament is investigating whether the British government allowed the CIA to use British airspace for renditions. Germany, Italy and Sweden have undertaken criminal investigations of the CIA’s alleged abductions of terrorist suspects in the execution of renditions, focusing on their own governments’ possible complicity. Suspected CIA planes have also been spotted in Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain as well as the three countries conducting the investigations. The US may also have constructed covert detention centres in Poland and Romania – a matter under investigation by the Council of Europe.
These revelations, on top of the evidence of widespread abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and similar problems on a smaller scale at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prison in Afghanistan, have made European and some other governments less inclined to coordinate intelligence operations with the US. They fear adverse public reaction that could have disruptive political consequences and jeopardise inter-governmental intelligence cooperation even further. At the same time, there is gathering momentum in the US intelligence community towards reprioritising missions. If the Cold War was the era of collection, the post-Cold War years may have become the era of processing. The fear has evolved that the shift may have gone too far – at the expense of collection in general and human intelligence (HUMINT) in particular. While this pattern has been recognised, recent attempts to break out of it have stalled. For example, during the tenure of Porter Goss as CIA director, while more than 20 CIA overseas stations were reopened and the CIA director was named national HUMINT manager, Goss’s heavy-handed treatment of veterans of the Directorate of Operations – the HUMINT side of the Agency – impelled some of its most valuable employees to resign.
A new dispensation?
An ongoing debate within the US national security system has pitted the DoD against the civilian intelligence establishment, including the newly formed national intelligence directorate and the firmly entrenched CIA. While the civilian side favours more robust intelligence sharing and joint operations, the DoD does not. Instead, it has manifested a go-it-alone approach, epitomised by the practice of infiltrating into foreign countries ‘military liaison elements’ that operate with substantial independence of the CIA and State Department offices on the ground, not to mention the intelligence agencies in host countries. Despite suffering some statutory diminution of control over national intelligence assets upon the enactment of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the DoD managed to retain control over some 80% of the federal intelligence budget and to cut the national intelligence director out of the military chain of command. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, has said that prosecuting the war effectively will require ‘exquisite intelligence’. Judging by the dysfunctional relationship among the White House, key Cabinet departments and the intelligence community over Iraq’s WMD, intelligence of such high quality has not been reliably generated.
Consequently, there is a growing realisation within the US intelligence community that the checks and balances afforded by intelligence sharing would stand to upgrade the quality of actionable intelligence. Recently confirmed CIA Director General Michael Hayden has said that the CIA should make it a ‘top priority’ to nurture information exchanges with its foreign counterparts on threats of mutual concern. He advocates more routine exchanges of documents and shared access to databases – a departure from the CIA’s tradition of ‘transactional’ sharing only at the specific request of partners in favour of a ‘common knowledge’ model. In addition, Hayden believes that the timely sharing of raw information would perforce improve intelligence analysis by testing the plausibility of information before a wider and more critical audience.
Though a US Air Force general, Hayden also wants to expand the role of civilian agencies and shrink that of the DoD in the collection and analysis of information. This attitude will probably sit fairly well with allies and partners that are deeply suspicious of the US military’s judgement, influence and conduct in the counter-terrorism and non-proliferation fields. Inaugural Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte – to whom Hayden was principal deputy – is charged by statute with asserting greater civilian control over US intelligence activities. Now, therefore, two strong institutional presences exist to balance the DoD, which, along with the difficulties it has experienced in Iraq, suggests that its bureaucratic power over those activities may be palpably diminished.
While Hayden’s association with domestic electronic surveillance as National Security Agency director may give some partners pause, they associate mainly the Pentagon with Iraq and procedural excesses. Hayden’s clear-eyed preoccupation with maintaining the high tempo of intelligence collection on emerging threats while simultaneously improving intelligence analysis, coupled with his premium on intelligence sharing, suggests tangible movement within the US national security system in the direction of greater operational interdependence with respect to intelligence matters. This development too is likely to reassure partners who have been leery of unilateral US intrusion in the broader security arena. The US and its partners may be settling into a new epoch of collegiality in the intelligence realm. But for it to survive popular political opposition – particularly in Europe – operational collaborations like renditions and covert detentions will have to be kept discreet and infrequent.
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