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I credit favorite writers and public opinion makers.

A lifelong Democrat, my comments on Congress, the judiciary and the presidency are regular features.

My observations and commentary are on people and events in politics that affect the USA or the rest of the world, and stand for the interests of peace, security and justice.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

DNI Mike McConnell's Primer on Intelligence

Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell spoke to a college audience recently. His speech could be seen as a kind of Basic Primer on Intelligence Gathering. It is the subject of today's post. (For further info go to the DNI Website which is at
McConnell was formerly in the military. In 1966 he became a naval officer in Vietnam (characterizing himself as a “90-day wonder”). Then he went into the Intelligence field, becoming a Vice-Admiral in the Navy. McConnell became Intel officer for one of his heroes, General Colin Powell during the Gulf war. Before becoming DNI he served as Director of the National Security Agency.
Speech ON U.S. Intelligence issues -- the speech was broadcast on C-SPAN - 1/16/08. The gathering was held at Center for Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The speech was introduces as, “Secret Intelligence in a Democratic Society.” [From here on I summarize and paraphrase DNI McConnell to the best of my ability to be accurate. I have rearranged the material from its order in my meeting notes to improve cohesiveness and flow. Anything in brackets I have added for elaboration or clarity].
McConnell began with this:

Americans don’t like spies . Americans don’t trust their government. Thomas Jefferson talked about “the tyranny of government.”
The purpose of intelligence gathering is to capture, collect [and analyze] the secrets of a foreign nation. We live in an age of technological “Connectedness.” The world has shrunk. As an example: the danger that cyber security could not protect the global flow of money. Connectedness presents a vulnerability.
The history of intelligence gathering -- begins with World War II . The war began and the U.S. was unprepared. "Intelligence" consisted of signals intelligence and human intelligence.: “SigInt" is signals sent from place to place; “HumInt” involves direct communications between people. At that time it was used for code-breaking. “Enigma” the machine, was captured. Computers actually began as tools to be used for code-breaking. Intelligence was able to break the very valuable Japanese naval codes. The U.S. exploited this knowledge at the Battle of Midway and thereby shortened the war.
The Central Intelligence Agency began because of the Cold War with the Soviets. In this battle we “captured the high ground” – outer space. We were able to look down on the enemy all during the Cold War.
Then came a new requirement, “inner space.” We had to develop ways to get intelligence about the Soviet missile submarines just off the east coast of the U.S.
The CIA has had 40+ years of robust global intelligence capability. It enabled us to win the Cold War. By the 1970’s we knew there had been some CIA abuses of wiretapping over time. Examples include: Dr. Martin Luther King. The Weathermen’s phones were tapped because they were allegedly “agents of a foreign power.” Supreme Court justices Hugo Black and Earl Warren's phones were tapped. These abuses brought about the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978.
Provisions of FISA -- FISA authorizes intelligence gathering, including wiretapping, from foreigners in a foreign country. Inside the United States a court, the specially created “FISA” court, must issue warrant authorizing a wiretaps. The problem came with changes in technology. FISA originally characterized signals communication as by wire – within the U.S. signals, and through the air – foreign signals.
In the 1990’s the technology changed. With the advent of fiber optics as the main communication means 90% of the foreign-to-foreign communications came by wire through the telephone switches located within the U.S. A warrant was needed to wiretap. Through the air signals became one of the main modes on communication within the U.S., and were thus exempt from the warrant requirements. Eventually the FISA law did not meet intelligence gathering needs and it needed to be changed.
What Director McConnell asked for: 1) Do not require a FISA warrant to wiretap foreign-to-foreign communications. 2) Require a FISA warrant to wiretap if one of the subjects is a U.S. person. 3) Give retroactive immunity (from the dilemma of pending legal actions) to those private entities (telecommunications companies) that had been assisting the government with the wiretapping.
The Protect America Act was passed by Congress in August of 2007 as a result. Its provisions are: 1) It did not require a FISA warrant to wiretap foreign-to-foreign communications. 2) It required a FISA warrant to wiretap if one of the subjects is a U.S. person. 3) The bill would come up for renewal after six months.
PAA problems (according to DNI McConnell) include the following: It does not contain the requested immunity provision. Therefore, the phone companies may face ruinous court decisions regarding their wiretapping work for the government, that the plaintiffs say was illegal. Also, the PAA is about to expire. There are three different amending bills pending in Congress: One from the House of Representatives (that contains no retroactive immunity provision); one from the Senate Intelligence Committee (it contains retroactive immunity provision); and one from the Senate Judiciary Committee (that contains no retroactive immunity provision).
After the Cold War ended in 1992 came the “peace dividend.” The CIA and NSA got smaller. In 1994 came the Internet. That includes the fact that, in addition to all the good people who use the Internet, it can also be used by people who want to do us harm. Now we are in similar circumstances to World War II.
The enemy wants to use weapons of mass destruction to inflict mass casualties, larger than the number of people killed on 9/11, inside the United States.
Al Qaeda -- FATA designates the mountain tribal areas of Pakistan. It is location of the headquarters of Al Qaeda, a global enterprise, that franchises and recruits around the globe using the Internet. Osama bin Laden is there in an area that is very remote with tall mountains and a network of people that protect him.
How can we work this target in a successful way and still protect civil liberties? Some people think we spy on Americans.
Intelligence information cannot be made public because it might compromise the intelligence sources - where we got the information, and methods – how we came by the information. What information should be collected? There are billions of bits of potential communication intelligence data every day on phones and the Internet. It is a huge challenge to prioritize what is most important to our customers the decision makers.
The following was during the Q & A: [Director McConnell believes] 9/11 could have been prevented if information sharing could have been such that we “connected the dots.”
The DNI referenced certain working documents: 1) NIPF – is the National Priorities Intelligence Framework. One of the biggest challenges is to learn how to share intelligence with the law enforcement community. The war is “here.” Information sharing is one of our currently active 6 goals.
The NIPF is reset every six months. There is also a "500 Day plan to get better."
There are challenges in the future. This century will see a growing Asian population in comparison to other countries. We have national borders that need to be protected. That is the job of Homeland Security. We are building a fence along the southern border. We need to effectively partner with Canada and Mexico.
Regarding the DNI's statement made about “water-boarding," to quote, “it would be torture if it were applied to me." The President has said that the United States does not engage in torture. We use “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These techniques have saved lives because of the information we got.
In 369 days Admiral McConnell said he would be out of a job.

Further references:
What can you do? Talk to your senator or representative about making sure that your civil liberties are protected when these bills come up - perhaps next week.

View my current slide show about the Bush years, "Millennium," at the bottom of this column.

(Cross-posted at The Reaction.)

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Fiber Optic Cable said...

This is really a brilliant post . I like that your way to discuss your experience and your knowledge .

Carol Gee said...

My, what a nice compliment. Thanks. And thanks for "plowing through" such a long post.
Come back and visit any time.