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In bin Laden hunt, all the pieces mattered

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"We're building something here, detective. We're building it from scratch. All the pieces matter."

Economist blogger JF hits the nail on the head when he calls last week’s bin Laden operation “Lester Freamon’s finest hour.”

Regular viewers of HBO’s The Wire will remember Freamon as the veteran detective “with a gift for the paper trail,” who pored through reams of property records and campaign donation filings to uncover corruption, and listened to hours upon hours of banal wiretapped conversations to catch the one veiled reference to a contract killing necessary to bring down a drug lord. If it had an iconic image, it was Freamon sitting at a desk, painting dollhouse miniatures and peering over the rims of his glasses as gangsters’ pager numbers flashed across a computer screen.

The Wire didn’t traffic in car chases or shootouts, like other cop shows. It turned the drudgery and bureaucracy of police work into drama just as gripping as action shows like 24 — sometimes even more so.

Similarly, while SEAL Team 6 certainly deserves every plaudit they’re getting for their derring-do, the contributions of thousands of civilian intelligence analysts and operators should not be overlooked. What they did was slow, frustrating and decidedly unsexy work, but after thousands of late nights, it gradually added up to victory. Forget James Bond and Jack Bauer — that’s real intelligence work, and the Lester Freamons of the world deserve our thanks.

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Fed Times on the air: Intel pay and the politics of raises

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Shameless self-promotion time: I’ll be on News Channel 8′s Federal News Tonight program this evening at 7:30 to talk about a few controversial issues we’ve been covering lately.

I’ll first talk about Federal Times’ exclusive look at an upcoming report on problems with the intelligence community’s pay-for-performance system. And then we’ll discuss the growing controversy about federal pay raises and the Republican push to cut them to help balance the budget.

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CIA’s Iraq propaganda apparently run by 14 year old boys

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425_ad_SouthPark_Saddam_Satan_041009The Washington Post’s SpyTalk blog reports today that the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group was mulling some hairbrained schemes for discrediting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before the 2003 invasion. Their most outlandish idea was to play the homophobia card and create a phony video that appeared to show Saddam having sex with a teenage boy, two CIA officials told the Post.

The Post said that and other psychological operation, or PSYOP, ideas went nowhere, partly because the CIA didn’t have the money and expertise to carry them out and partly because they were, well, stupid. What they should have done was buy a few hundred DVDs of the South Park movie, which (explicitly) shows Saddam and Satan as feuding gay lovers, and airdrop those into Baghdad.

The CIA apparently actually did create a video that purported to show Osama bin Laden and his buddies “sitting around a campfire, swigging bottles of liquor and savoring their conquests with boys.” One CIA official told the Post that the agency used some of its “darker-skinned employees” to play the reminiscing terrorists. Something tells me that’s not what former chief human capital officer Ronald Sanders had in mind when he talked about the need to diversify the intelligence community.

EDIT: It’s also worth noting that the CIA may have been stealing from the Weekly World News, which once ran a series of articles on Saddam and Osama’s alleged romance.

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DNI Blair’s resignation statement

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Adm. Dennis Blair

Adm. Dennis Blair

Adm. Dennis Blair is officially stepping down as Director of National Intelligence. Here’s the statement he just sent out to the intelligence community:

It is with deep regret that I informed the President today that I will step down as Director of National Intelligence effective Friday, May 28th. 

I have had no greater honor or pleasure than to lead the remarkably talented and patriotic men and women of the Intelligence Community. 

Every day, you have worked tirelessly to provide intelligence support for two wars and to prevent an attack on our homeland. 

You are true heroes, just like the members of the Armed Forces, firefighters, and police whose job it is to keep our nation safe.

Your work over the past 16 months has made the Intelligence Community more integrated, agile, and representative of American values.  Keep it up – I will be cheering for you.

Dennis C. Blair

 Roundup of other reaction after the break:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Intel community gets new CHCO

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Paula Roberts, the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s human development directorate, will be the next chief human capital officer of the intelligence community. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said Roberts will oversee the design, development and execution of human resource strategies and policies to support the 16 agencies in the intelligence community.

“Paula will continue our efforts to build a diverse workforce with the technical and linguistic skills and cultural understanding necessary to help us meet our wide-ranging mission requirements,” Blair said in a statement released today.

Roberts has worked at NGA since 1978, and joined the Senior Executive Service in 1996. She will replace Ronald Sanders, the community’s first CHCO, who is retiring.

Sanders was a major proponent of creating a pay-for-performance system for all intelligence agencies based on NGA’s Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System. Congress last October suspended that system for all agencies except NGA. But by promoting the head of HR for NGA, who helped oversee and administer DCIPS, Blair might be signaling his confidence in the system.

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CIA Director Panetta on his way out?

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CIA Director Leon Panetta

CIA Director Leon Panetta

ABC News today reported that strife is growing between CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and the White House, and said Panetta might not be at Langley for much longer. The CIA and Obama administration are officially denying any shakeup, but ABC says Panetta let loose a profanity-laced tirade at the White House last month over the Justice Department’s possible investigation into CIA torture of terrorism suspects and threatened to quit. And that’s not all:

In addition to concerns about the CIA’s reputation and its legal exposure, other White House insiders say Panetta has been frustrated by what he perceives to be less of a role than he was promised in the administration’s intelligence structure. Panetta has reportedly chafed at reporting through the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, according to the senior adviser who said Blair is equally unhappy with Panetta.

“Leon will be leaving,” predicted a former top U.S. intelligence official, citing the conflict with Blair. The former official said Panetta is also “uncomfortable” with some of the operations being carried out by the CIA that he did not know about until he took the job.

[...] Six other current and former senior intelligence officials said they too had been briefed about Panetta’s frustrations in the job, including dealing with his former Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives.

One of the officials said the White House had begun informal discussions with candidates who were runners-up to Panetta in the CIA director selection process last year.

One of the candidates reportedly has begun a series of preparatory briefings.

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WSJ: "Democratized intelligence" through Google Earth

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The intelligence community has talked about using open-source data for years, but a George Mason University doctoral candidate and his cohorts are taking the concept to the next level. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Curtis Melvin and about a dozen other “citizen snoops” — some of whom are former military analysts — have spent the last two years using Google Earth’s satellite images to map out the infrastructure of North Korea.

It’s not easy, since North Korea is perhaps the most secretive country on the planet. Melvin and others sift through news reports, photographs and eyewitness accounts, and then try to match landmarks to the satellite photos from Google Earth. They’ve pinpointed what they believe are nuclear reactors, nuclear missile sites, transportation and electrical infrastructure, more than 1,200 dams, 47 restaurants, palaces and a water slide for Kim Jong Il and other North Korean leaders, and the country’s massive gulags:

Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington who once served in the U.S. military in South Korea, used Google Earth to look for one of the country’s notorious prisons. In early 2007, he read an international news report about a mass escape from Camp 16, which the report mentioned was near the site of a nuclear test conducted the year before.

No pictures of Camp 16 are believed to have been seen outside the country. But Mr. Stanton had pored over defector sketches of it and combed the map for familiar structures. “I realized I had already noticed the guard posts” on Google Earth the previous year for the nuclear test site, he says.

Mr. Stanton traced what he believed is Camp 16′s boundary, enclosing nearly 300 square miles, and those of other large North Korean prisons and shared them with Mr. Melvin. The fences aren’t easy to follow because they go over mountain ridges, he says. But satellite images often reveal gaps in the vegetation along the fence line, because trees are cleared on either side to prevent people from climbing over.

The project, North Korea Uncovered, can be downloaded here.

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Controversial intel appointee withdraws

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Charles Freeman, who was President Barack Obama’s pick to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, is blaming a so-called “Israel lobby” for orchestrating strong online opposition to his appointment. Freeman was criticized for his connections to the Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council, past statements critical of Israel, and his perceived leniency on the Chinese government’s repression of political dissent.

Freeman released a statement Tuesday after taking himself out of the running:

I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country.

The National Intelligence Council advises the President and the Director of National Intelligence on mid- and long-term strategy.

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Blair, Panetta officially tapped to run intelligence

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Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta

President-elect Barack Obama just formally named Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta as his picks to be the next Director of National Intelligence and Director of Central Intelligence, respectively.

The choice of Panetta has been especially controversial, since he has no experience inside the intelligence world. In his comments today, Obama said that Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget director, was chosen for his management skills and to restore the CIA’s clout:

He has handled intelligence daily at the very highest levels, and time and again he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire and complete integrity. … He will be a strong manager and a strong advocate for the CIA. He knows how to focus resources where they are needed, and he has a proven track record of building consensus and working on a bipartisan basis with Congress.

Obama also said that the current DNI, Michael McConnell, will advise him as a member of the Foeign Intelligence Advisory Board. Michael Leiter will remain as head of the National Counterterrorism Center. And John Brennan — who was expected to head the CIA until concerns over his attitudes towards torture caused him to take his name out of the running — will be Obama’s homeland security advisor and deputy national secretary adviser for counterterrorism.

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Brennan bows out of CIA consideration

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MSNBC is reporting that John Brennan has just taken his name out of the running to be the next Director of Central Intelligence. Speculation that Brennan, a member of president-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, was a leading candidate to run the CIA sparked serious criticism from some who believed Brennan supported torturing terrorism suspects.

In today’s letter to Obama, Brennan firmly denied those accusations:

It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush Administration such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding. The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored.

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