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The Urgency of Offensive Counter-Terrorism By: Angelo M. Codevilla
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 13, 2003

Much of what is done (or left undone) in the name of fighting terrorism depends on information from U.S. intelligence agencies, like the CIA and FBI. This information suffers from one great problem: its sources, methods, and conclusions are not subjected to independent scrutiny. There is no meaningful examination of whether information is being "planted" by another government in order to manipulate U.S. intelligence to their own ends. In plain words, U.S. intelligence suffers from a lack of independent quality control. In the intelligence business, quality control goes by the name of counter intelligence.

Contrary to popular perception, U.S. intelligence has very few human sources of information about terrorist activity of its own, and their accuracy is not easily verifiable. The U.S. government gets some information directly from interception of electronic communication. But since most of these intercepts are performed by devices that are understood by intelligence professionals around the world, there is always reason to doubt their value. Counter intelligence cannot increase the amount of information available on terrorism. It can, however, make sure that such information as the U.S. acts upon is legitimate.

For example, at the outset of the War on Terrorism, President Bush uncritically accepted the CIA’s contention that terrorism is the work of "shadowy networks" of rogue individuals, rather than the work of Arab regimes working through cut outs. The CIA’s view, in turn, came from sources that have not been subjected to strict scrutiny.

On the basis of these unexamined decisions, the "War on Terrorism" has been about "bringing to justice" individual plotters "one at a time." Note well that even if U.S. intelligence were much better than it is, it could not contribute significantly to fighting a war of this nature. That is because defensive anti-terrorism is mission impossible.

The primary effect of better CI would be to force the U.S. government to operate consciously within the limits of its knowledge. This in turn would mean acknowledging that whereas intelligence cannot make possible defensive anti-terrorism, it can be an effective instrument of properly conceived offensive operations.


Terrorism, by definition, is an attack against non-combatants. Citizens cannot protect themselves as combatants do, and attempts to provide civilians with protection against random mayhem will produce doomed attempts to militarize civil society. The classic literature on "domestic security" is unanimous: all attempts are futile, counterproductive, and often silly to boot. Such attempts discredit those who make them. Studies from the 1980s show that while success rates for terrorist attacks against undefended targets, limited only by the terrorists’ incompetence, are close to 100 percent, success rates against the most heavily defended targets are about 85 percent. The experience of Israel, the gold standard of internal security, shows that terrorists shred the best security almost as easily as the worst.

The problem is simply the combination of abundant targets and of an endless stream of potential terrorists. Success encourages, and breeds imitation. And if success runs unchecked, terrorists will soon hatch faster than we can catch them.

In the face of such a problem, the best intelligence system imaginable is overmatched quantitatively. There cannot be resources sufficient to survey all possible suspects, never mind possible suspects, then tie them to meaningful activities.

The ordinary tendency of police forces faced with frustration, their deformation professionelle, is to treat everyone as suspects. At best they turn themselves into laughingstocks; at worst they discredit the government they work for. Besides, the trigger pullers and bombers, the terrorists, are not the proper targets of anti-terrorism any more than enemy privates are the proper targets of conventional war. Hence, serious students of intelligence must counsel against the hope that better intelligence can make the defensive, or police mode, of counter terrorism work.


What can good intelligence contribute to countering terrorism? What can a good intelligence service know? What is beyond even the best possible scenario? And why is U.S. intelligence on terrorism so shoddy?

The success of collection, whether human or technical, is directly proportional to the intelligence service’s knowledge of the target. The more you know, the better you can design an approach to learn even more. It is possible to pierce governments’ secrets because governments exist in non-secret ways. The top levels of government and society try to shroud themselves in secrecy. But they are the focus of attention. The closer the secret activities are to the open ones, the better the chances to learn about them. It is easier to know about the movement of armies than of platoons.

Conversely, it is more difficult to know about the activities of lower ranks of foreign governments, and a fortiori about semi-official activities for two reasons: they are farther away from the obvious, and they are legion. Indeed, the only excuse for collecting intelligence about low level activities is that it may lead to knowledge about high level activities. That expectation however is unwarranted in the case of terrorism, the political effectiveness of which depends on cultivating the impression that although the trigger pullers serve the causes of prominent persons, there is no connection between them.

Agents' effectiveness also depends on the knowledge that the collectors bring to the questioning. It is foolish for agents to question a terror suspect on areas the suspect is unlikely to know, but not all agents understand the enemy well enough to distinguish between the two areas.

U.S. intelligence struggles to collect basic information about the top levels of foreign governments and societies, to which it has some access. It is unrealistic to expect it to have direct knowledge of the activities of persons many layers removed from contact with foreign leaders, and living social worlds away from U.S. intelligence personnel.

Specifically, CIA case officers, almost all under nominal cover, have no direct access to persons who have even second hand relationships with "shadowy networks" of terrorists. Lacking such access, CIA relies heavily on "liaison services." These of course have their own agendas. Because it lacks its own direct sources, U.S. intelligence has built its picture of terrorism, and especially of al-Qaida, from Arab sources that lack credibility.

Although U.S. intelligence could get closer to direct terrorist networks, it is impossible to imagine a U.S. intelligence service that could get as close to terrorist activities as, say, the Drug Enforcement Agency gets to drug traffickers.


Counter Intelligence is often mistaken as the art of catching spies. In fact, catching spies is one of the means of CI, along with CI analysis but not its goal. The goal of CI is controlling the flow of information between one’s own intelligence service and other intelligence services.

The primary means of CI is quality control. If CI works well, it guarantees the integrity of collection, analysis, and covert action – somewhat as an honest accounting firm guarantees the integrity of a company’s balance sheet. Unfortunately, the position of CI in the U.S. system is akin to what the relationship between Enron and Arthur Andersen would have been if Andersen had been an outright subsidiary of Enron.

The least of CI’s contributions to the integrity of the product is its guarding operational secrecy. That is because mere sloppiness in the trade, or the occasional traitor, is seldom the cause for disasters. The greatest threat to the intelligence product’s integrity comes from the tendency of collectors to accept bad sources of information in lieu of none, and of analysts to fill factual holes with their own prejudices.

In the case of terrorism, CI can point out the limits of our knowledge - what we do not know. It can free policy makers from the burden of theories that masquerade as reality, of charges and countercharges, of disregarding intelligence or politicizing intelligence, of intelligence officers who confuse what they believe with what they know. No one should underestimate the benefits of policy made without illusions.


Good CI personnel are to intelligence services somewhat like special forces are to armies – and they tend to be misused in the same way: as shock troops. "If there is a tough problem, why not throw the best people at it?" higher authorities reason.  However, this is the wrong answer. The more critical the situation, the more that specialized personnel should concentrate on their specialized jobs. The problem is CI has not enjoyed the independence necessary to do provide effective quality control. Nothing would so improve CI as much as securing its independence, within both the FBI and CIA.

Almost as important, CI should be recognized and cultivated primarily as an analytical discipline, with investigations serving to augment analytical projects. CI should not be confused with and wasted on chasing after individual terrorists or cells in the futile hope of thwarting the next 9/11.


Honest intelligence about terrorist activities would begin by admitting that, normally, it is impossible to prevent almost any expert person who is willing to die – and often less expert and committed persons - from carrying out terrorist acts against the United States.

Honest intelligence would proceed on the basis that terrorist acts, like other political acts, are done to advance causes. The causes of any war are the causes for which the war is waged. Wars are won incidentally by piling up corpses and destroying the hopes of the living. All fighters run on courage. Those who fight alone and with a higher probability of death require straighter doses of it. It is characteristic of human beings that courage is usually proportionate to hope of victory. Dying for lost causes happens more in novels than in reality.

Honest intelligence would not waste its energies on futile retail searches for the soldiers of terror. Rather, it would devote itself to a task both feasible and fruitful: searching out the physical, military, and political vulnerabilities of the causes for which terrorists fight, and of the persons who embody these causes.

Countering terrorism is possible only offensively. CI can help restore the integrity of intelligence. Thus restored, intelligence can help us successfully wage war against the regimes that are the living embodiment of the causes of terrorism.

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