Tuesday, July 29, 2008

To Understand the War on Terror: Read This

The handful of you who follow my annual book list know that in addition to my science fiction and haiku poetry diet, I read books on world politics, terrorism, and the intelligence community. I don't normally talk about them here, but this week I read a book that I believe would be a Must Read.

Ronald Kessler's book, The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race To Stop the Next Attack could not have been written by anyone other than the columnist of The Washington Insider. As a long-time member of the FBI Fan Club, I was surprised by the things Kessler revealed that I simply didn't know about the Bureau and the War on Terror. Especially after his crucifixion of former FBI Director Louis Freeh (1993-2001) in his book "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI", I really hadn't imagined what a good friend of the Bureau Kessler could be.

Kessler takes a few current FBI Myths and jumps straight to the source, asking for, and getting, unprecedented access, including interviews in their environment, with Willie Hulon, then the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's National Security Branch, Art Cummins, then the Deputy Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (he since took Willie's old job), FBI Director Robert Mueller, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and White House advisor on counterterrorism Fran Townsend, are just some of the highlights of his Who's Who in Counter Terrorism tour.

Myth: The CIA and FBI don't share information

Response: Kessler gives us a guided tour of the National CounterTerrorism Center (NCTC), spending a great deal of time on the layout of the 10,000 square-foot operations center which has the FBI's Counterterrorism Division watch center on one end, and the CIA's Counterterrorism Center's watch center on the other end. No walls separate the entire workspace, and Kessler explains in detail how the analysts from sixteen different intelligence agencies interact in the space, and share information to keep the "mother of all databases", the Terrorist Information Datamart Environment, up to date and synchronized with what is known by each of the intelligence agencies. In a chapter called "Dr. Strangelove", Kessler walks us through what happens in the daily "SVTCs" - the all agency briefings that are run from the NCTC at 8 AM, 3 PM, and 1 AM, seven days a week.

One of the biggest challenges to understand, and one that still receives a great deal of criticism, is how the FBI can go about being both an Intelligence Agency and a Law Enforcement Agency.

Kessler illustrates "the old thinking" vs. "the new thinking" this way . . . (quoting Art Cummings):

The director [Mueller] said, 'We've got this new mission. Its a prevention mission.'

Pre-9/11, the first consideration was, I got an indictment in my pocket . . . slap it down on the table, pick the guy up, throw him on an airplane...put him in jail and you go, 'Okay, I've done a great job today.'"

Through interviews with Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, Pat D'Amuro, and others, Kessler makes it clear that that is no longer the situation. Now the first concern, when the suspect has a possible terrorism connection, is intelligence gathering. The Bureau's unique approach to extracting intelligence, whether it be in months long "friendly interrogations", through human surveillance teams, or through "technical collection", were explained to a level rarely seen in a public work.

While its clear Kessler is in the Fan Club with me, he doesn't skirt around the challenges. He addresses FISA, National Security Letters, the Computer Incompetency of the Bureau (Sentinel and Virtual Case File), whether we'd be better off with an MI5 style agency, Gitmo, and the various media feeding frenzies.

Most books about the Intelligence Community and the War on Terror focus on government screw-ups, incompetencies, and secret agendas and have as their mission the undermining of the public's confidence in our government. It was refreshing to read Kessler's "insider look" offering an alternative view into these issues, and I hope others will join me in checking out this book.

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