Tinker, Tailor, Leaker, Spy: The Future Costs of Mass Leaks

January 7, 2014 Topic: SecurityIntelligence Regions: United States

Tinker, Tailor, Leaker, Spy: The Future Costs of Mass Leaks

Mini Teaser: The Manning and Snowden revelations have provoked a necessary conversation about liberty and security. But their mass disclosures harm America's intelligence partnerships and the trust of potential sources.

by Author(s): David V. Gioe

The real question of the Manning case, beyond the damage of what information he has revealed, is the potential value to American policy makers of the intelligence that won’t be collected. It is the discreet conversation with a potential cooperative source that will not happen that is the intelligence price to be paid. To be sure, Manning did not have access to CIA operational cable traffic (the internal communications of the National Clandestine Service), but we can be reasonably confident that if he had it, he would have provided it to WikiLeaks, and the cost in human lives would have been dramatically higher.

The CIA takes the protection of source identities extremely seriously, and even in a “need to share” culture, Manning did not have access to this sort of information. But does a potential future human-intelligence source know exactly the types of cable traffic to which a low-level army analyst may or may not have access? Or, rather, might he assess that people like Manning could know his identity? What might he calculate the chances to be that his name could be buried somewhere within hundreds of thousands of U.S. government cables? A dedicated counterintelligence service would surely invest the time and energy to comb through tens of thousands of cables to find—and connect—dots that would lead to the exposure of sources, as was vividly illustrated by the Iranian revolutionary students who painstakingly reconstructed shredded cables from the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates concluded:

I spent most of my life in the intelligence business, where the sacrosanct principle is protecting your sources. It seems to me that, as a result of this massive breach of security, we have considerable repair work to do in terms of reassuring people and rebuilding trust, because they clearly—people are going to feel at risk.

IT WOULD BE WRONG to conclude that massive leaks might only affect strategic-level HUMINT. Operational- and even tactical-level HUMINT are also potentially compromised. For instance, the Taliban claimed to have reviewed the WikiLeaks war logs looking for names of people who had cooperated with the Americans in Afghanistan. The Taliban, thanking WikiLeaks for revealing “spies,” further claimed to have executed tribal elder Khalifa Abdullah of Kandahar, who was unmasked by the documents. Others have argued that Abdullah was not actually named in any leaked document. However, belatedly scouring WikiLeaks for Abdullah’s name misses the point: regardless of whether the Taliban positively identified Abdullah in a cable and then targeted him for execution, perception is the reality that matters in the world of intelligence. An Afghan who heard the Taliban’s lethal claim, true or false, may decide to believe retired general Robert Carr, chief of the Manning “Information Review Task Force,” when he testified that the Taliban’s claim to have executed an American source was false, but the consequences of believing Carr cannot compete with taking the Taliban’s threat seriously and steering clear of Americans. Carr is probably correct given his former position, but the Taliban’s credible threat is also worth considering, especially if more massive disclosures come in the near term.

Under cross-examination by Manning’s defense team, Carr acknowledged that Arabic (and presumably Pashto, Dari, etc.) names were not rendered in their original language in U.S. cables, but rather were transliterated into English. Manning’s defense team pressed Carr by asking if Iraq or Afghanistan shared an alphabet with the United States. Carr truthfully replied, “No,” and then conceded that Afghans are less “plugged in” than Westerners. Even if Manning’s defense team was able to demonstrate that Afghans aren’t as glued to their smartphones as Westerners are, they exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Manning’s defense team made the willfully ignorant suggestion that their client’s disclosures did not have a great impact on the safety of deployed soldiers because the areas in which U.S. troops are deployed are not English-speaking countries. This canard is insidious because one can be certain that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremist or insurgent groups have plenty of members who speak passable or even native English. In fact, in the era of online linguistic and translation tools such as Google Translate, America’s enemies do not need to speak English. Yet they often do—and some are even native-born American citizens or former U.S. residents. For instance, the architect of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, attended Harvard University and later was a naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC. He was not only a fluent English speaker, but also a true student of his American adversaries. The former leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, held various advanced degrees from American universities. “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh and Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn (born Adam Pearlman in Oregon) are two further American citizens who switched allegiances and could review WikiLeaks documents just as easily as any literate American with an Internet connection.

IN ADDITION TO American HUMINT, American SIGINT has also paid a steep price in potential but nonactualized intelligence recently with the Edward Snowden affair. Appearing before Congress in June 2013, FBI director Robert Mueller testified that Snowden’s leaks had caused “significant harm to our nation and to our safety.” Mueller could have reasonably gone even further to assert that Snowden’s actions made intelligence “liaison” (clandestine diplomacy between intelligence services) more difficult as well. In the same way that potential human sources may now be wary of working with American intelligence officers, potential SIGINT partners may wish to distance themselves from mutually beneficial cooperative partnerships (called “liaison agreements”) with the U.S. government.

This has moved beyond a mere possibility to actually impinging on current intelligence pacts. Consider the recent German decision to terminate a cooperative SIGINT treaty with the United States and the United Kingdom that dates from 1968. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle justified the move by stating, “The cancellation of the administrative agreements, which we have pushed for in recent weeks, is a necessary and proper consequence of the recent debate about protecting personal privacy.” Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations downplayed the significance of this event, noting that it may have been done for domestic political consumption in advance of pending elections. Riecke suggested that this abrogation of the treaty would not affect the day-to-day sharing agreements between the United States and Germany. One hopes that Reicke’s analysis is correct insofar as this treaty may have been a loose end and low-hanging political fruit for theater-driven politicians, but Anglo-American SIGINT officials may not wish to be thrown under the German electoral bus as their politicians wish to be perceived as “doing something” at the expense of their allies. The Germans would stand to lose more than the Americans, but the loss of German SIGINT might be particularly poignant to American audiences who may recall that Al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell, led by hijacker Mohammed Atta, played a major role in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, any German-American intelligence-sharing agreement did not expose the Hamburg cell or stop the 9/11 attacks, but it is hard to see how even less cooperation could yield mutually beneficial results.

The German government, in this case, could have taken a page from the Obama administration’s playbook in trying to actually explain to its concerned electorate why SIGINT cooperation with allies benefits the security of both parties. Instead, it opted to take a politically expedient approach that only reinforced the conception that SIGINT cooperation is overly invasive. Sounding retreat in the face of misunderstood allegations about the Prism program likely will reinforce the pernicious suggestion that such programs are endeavors of which to be ashamed. In stark contrast to his German counterpart, British foreign secretary William Hague stood his ground, confidently stating, “The intelligence sharing relationship between the UK and the US is unique in the world, it’s the strongest in the world and it contributes massively to the national security of both countries.”

The question must now be asked: What is the intelligence legacy of Snowden’s treachery? How many foreign governments will argue the case to their electorate like Hague? How many will cancel extant agreements like Westerwelle? And how many intelligence services will avoid future collaborative contact with the National Security Agency for fear of being painted with rhetorical brushes that evoke overwrought fears of an East German surveillance state while chiming the death knell of personal privacy?

INTELLIGENCE-LIAISON RELATIONSHIPS are vital to the success of any intelligence or security service. As H. Bradford Westerfield asserted, liaison holds a “central place [in the] real world of intelligence” and is a “core feature” of American intelligence. No single service can track every malign actor, every rogue state, every weapons proliferator or terrorist. Intelligence services, all of which reside in the real world of resource limitations, rely on trusted cooperative services to act as force multipliers for their own efforts. It would be beyond the scope of this essay to include a raft of examples demonstrating the value of intelligence-liaison relationships, but, in brief, since World War II the “special” intelligence relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, covering both HUMINT and SIGINT, has been a bedrock of foreign-policy and defense planning for both sides. As Hague counseled, the two countries’ intelligence ties represented “a relationship we must never endanger because it has saved many lives over recent decades in countering terrorism and in contributing to the security of all our citizens.”

Image: Pullquote: Mass disclosure of classified information was never part of the risk calculus of a potential human-intelligence source. Surely, it is now.Essay Types: Essay