Germany’s announcement last week that it uncovered United States spying activity in the German defense establishment raises deep concerns as to whether our intelligence agencies are in need of a major overhaul.
In just about every aspect of the spying business, even the basics, U.S. intelligence has been failing miserably of late.
Rule number one of spying is to not get caught, especially when snooping on friends. And if that rule is broken, it’s absolutely imperative to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Not doing so puts an alliance at risk.
In the span of approximately a year, U.S. intelligence agencies were caught spying on Germany not only once — but twice. First, the NSA scandal broke, which revealed that the U.S. was snooping on Chancellor Merkel’s Nokia cell phone. Now, in the latest blunder, Germany alleges that two German security agents were working for American intelligence, handing over top-secret documents. In retaliation for the espionage, Germany expelled the CIA station chief.
U.S. intelligence has also faltered badly in upholding one of the cardinal principles of intelligence agencies, which is enforcing the “need to know” rule. Spy agencies are supposed to compartmentalize classified information so that if someone decides to blab all he knows to an enemy, the damage will be isolated and contained so that only a slice of a covert operation will be compromised. No individual should have more information than he needs to carry out an intelligence operation.
That this rule has been flagrantly breached first became apparent with the Wikileaks scandal, in which it was discovered that a private in the U.S. military, Bradley Manning, had access to thousands of diplomatic cables on extremely sensitive topics from around the globe. The revelation that a low-level intelligence analyst was given access to such a broad range of classified information should have sent alarm bells ringing throughout the U.S. intelligence community and triggered a thorough review of who has access to what. Instead, we found out that Eric Snowden, a relatively low-level NSA contractor, had similar unwarranted entrée to a treasure trove of classified intelligence. He knew how the U.S. was monitoring al-Qaida, how it was tapping the phones of foreign leaders, and that it was tracking Chinese military investments.
These fiascos, while damaging, might be tolerated if U.S. intelligence was getting the job done in its mandate to gather intelligence — but it is failing there as well. A lack of good intelligence led to the death of an American ambassador and four other Americans in Benghazi. The CIA has been doubly blindsided over events in Syria. First, they were not aware of the groundswell of support for the Syrian rebels. Once the rebellion was underway, and the rebels were capturing major cities, U.S. intelligence services were predicting Assad’s downfall as imminent. In 2012, the CIA was predicting that the Assad regime was doomed. Then it appeared the rebels were in retreat. Wrong again.
A more recent intelligence failure has been during the last several months, where we have seen a new terrorist whirlwind, known as ISIS, coming out of Syria and into Iraq. ISIS has taken control of several strategic cities in Iraq, routing the Iraqi army, taking over former U.S. military bases and weapons, and threatening Baghdad. In a near-panic to stem this scourge from taking over the capital, the president has sent several hundred advisers to Iraq. It’s bewildering that our intelligence agencies were clueless regarding the impotence of the Iraqi army and to the maniacal ferocity of ISIS.
What also emerges from the latest intelligence disaster in Germany is the U.S. government’s hypocrisy about how friends who spy on friends expect to be treated. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted to the eavesdropping operation on Merkel, but has said that the U.S. would never agree to sign an agreement that would renounce spying on its allies; that it was standard operating procedure.
Such a stance reveals the double standard that Israel and Jonathan Pollard have had to endure. While the U.S. remains unapologetic in its espionage activities against its allies, it has berated Israel and punished Pollard excessively for his spying on behalf of an ally. In the 30 years since the Pollard case broke, Israel hasn’t been implicated in any espionage cases on American soil. Pollard has been imprisoned for more than 28 years for passing classified information to Israel about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program — information that the U.S. had promised to provide but never did.
The Obama administration is embarrassed over the latest intelligence failure in Germany. They should be equally embarrassed over their hypocritical treatment of Israel and Pollard.