Cynicism About Terror Alerts

August 15, 2013

There has been boundless cynicism about the recent American terror alert with many people finding its timing all too convenient, and suggesting that it was intended to justify NSA’s controversial collection activities. Now that the alert is apparently winding down, it seems like a good time to a look at this claim with the benefit of at least a little bit of hindsight.

At its heart, the claim that the alert was somehow bogus is a cui bono argument.  We are asked to consider who benefits from the timing.  “Well, of course it’s the Obama administration,” comes the answer.  However, cui bono arguments unsupported by any substantial evidence are silly, particularly because they can be constructed to point in any direction necessary.  To wit, one could, with equal plausibility, argue that the Administration would actually benefit from a successful terrorist attack.  After all, such an attack would make any significant rollback of the NSA surveillance programs a political non-starter.

But let’s think about this the way that an intelligence analyst might.  An analyst might ask, “If this terrorism alert is bogus, what evidence would I expect to see, and does that evidence exist?”

First off, if the alert were bogus, one would expect to see debate, finger-pointing, whistle-blowing, all the bells and whistles that Capitol Hill has to offer.  After all, there are incentives within the government to motivate people to blow the whistle or otherwise find a way to get the word out.  These incentives fall into several categories:

  • Moral and ethical imperatives.  Falsifying intelligence is about as unethical a form of behavior as you can think of among intelligence officers, a class of people who quest after the holy grail of “truth.”  No intelligence officer would want to be a part of this.
  • Self-protection by the people involvedLeaks to the press have told us what much of what is allegedly behind the terror alert: some form of electronic communication between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  If the story is fake, that means that somewhere in the Intelligence Community’s databases is a falsified intelligence report (at least one, possibly many) laying out the details of that Zawahiri-Wuhaysi communication.  Getting fake intelligence into those databases would involve quite a number of people.  And remember that everybody involved would be at risk of being fired for cause (or worse).  It would be a giant game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: everybody would be incentivized to rat out the others.
  • Interagency competition.  On the other hand, if intelligence officials didn’t even bother to forge the raw intelligence, then some agency not in on the plot would have cried BS already and told the Hill or a reporter that “we’ve looked at the available evidence and we can find no basis whatsoever for this claim that our rival across town is making.” The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (State/INR), for instance, has a long history of being contrarian.  They’d love to do this.

It could be, of course, that people are objecting and we haven’t heard about it yet because those objections are being handled in classified channels.  That’s possible.  However, there’s no evidence of it and a rich tradition of inside knowledge—classified or merely backbiting—finding its way into the open.  Consider:

  • Many analysts believed that Robert Gates liked to cook the books to make the Soviets look bad when he was the head of the CIA’s analytic arm in the 1980s.  I’m sure that the reporters on the intelligence beat back then knew it and were not surprised when it came out in the open a few years later in Congressional testimony.
  • In 1996, CIA analyst Patrick Eddington went public with his accusations that the Intelligence Community was suppressing information about the Gulf War Syndrome.
  • Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the word came out that Vice President Cheney had met multiple times with CIA analysts and that multiple complaints of politicization had been filed with the CIA’s ombudsman..
  • Senior NSA official Thomas Drake leaked information to the media about dysfunctional surveillance programs after he was unable to get what he viewed as a satisfactory hearing within the agency.
  • Everyone who was interested in Washington knew that Porter Goss was a very unpopular director at the CIA.

Despite all these incentives to cry foul and the history of information getting out, nobody on the inside has said boo about this terror alert. I’ll admit that in some instances it takes time for the truth to surface, so I will happily recant if the time comes…but it won’t.

Now, maybe the Administration or the Intelligence Community exaggerated the degree of the threat.  This is certainly much more likely than a fabrication. While they might have done this to provide a justification for the NSA surveillance programs, there are also simpler motives: Americans are highly intolerant of losses due to terrorist attacks so no administration would want to sit on credible threat data.  Forget the moral issues of allowing innocent Americans to go about their normal routines and get blown to bits or crushed under rubble as a result, the political downside alone would be enormous.  The government has been flogged for not stopping the Boston bombers and for not stopping the Benghazi attackers.  Why would they be eager for more such beatings?  Bereaved and angry widows and orphans live on CNN are the last things that the administration wants.

As more details come out about the current terror threat, it’s becoming clearer that while there may have been an “abundance of caution” in issuing the recent alert and closing so many embassies, there was not much more to it than that.  To that extent, this posting is too late.

But there will be another alert someday.  Maybe it will come on the heels of a scandal.  Or shortly before an election. Or just as NSA is presenting its budget on the Hill.  Remember this column then.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo Credit: Elliott Brown