Counter-Terrorism: The Curse Of The Internet

January 6, 2012:

Last year, several Islamic terror organizations make a major effort to recruit via the Internet. Apparently this was not very successful. This is partly because supporters of Islamic terrorism are more inclined to talk about it, than actually take action. That’s partly because Islamic terrorists have earned themselves a bad reputation within the Islamic community because of all the publicity given to the many Moslems killed by terror attacks. Another bit of unappetizing reality is the fate of so many Islamic terrorists, especially if they catch the attention of the Americans. There, the best you can hope for is a quick death. If you are really unlucky, you get captured, prosecuted and sent to a supermax prison for a life of isolation and not much else.

Another reason for fearing recruitment calls over the Internet is the fact that multiple intelligence and police agencies monitor the Internet for signs of recruiting, and any other terrorist activity.

While it was initially believed that the Internet was a boon to Islamic terrorists, this has not been the case. The main reason for this is that the Internet gives terrorists the illusion that they have a safe, secure form of communication. But there are so many eavesdropping tools available to police, that can detect this communication, that the net result is the Internet has become a prime counter-terrorist weapon.

There are techniques terrorists can use to make their communications more secure, but most don’t know them, or don’t bother to use them. Things like leaving email as a draft, rather than sending it, or using encryption. But even techniques like these make your messages vulnerable to interception. In the end, any use of the Internet can be intercepted. Often this is accomplished with commercial software and hardware designed for network administration, not spying.

The general public, and many journalists, are unaware of this situation. Terrorists tend to be better informed about the dangers of using the Internet, because so many of their cohorts have been taken down when their Internet communications were intercepted. But because Islamic terrorists tend to be rather too cocky, or too confident because they are on a mission from God, many continue to employ the Internet despite the obvious dangers.

One of the alleged great strengths of al Qaeda, after their Afghan bases were lost in 2001, was the dispersed quality of the organization. The problem with that was that most of these “dispersed” members were untrained in the need for OPSEC (Operational Security, things like not using the Internet for critical communications.) The higher up the food chain you go, the less use of the Internet you encounter. At the very top, people rely on human couriers, often to deliver memorized messages verbally. While the lower ranks of al Qaeda are entranced by the Internet, and other communications technology, the guys at the top are terrified of it. Mostly, it’s a matter of experience. See enough of your chums get caught, or killed, because of cell phone, email or beeper use, and you get a bit paranoid of this stuff.

Often, the small fry are allowed to keep emailing and using their cell phones, just to monitor their “chatter” for useful bits of information. Out of many tiny pieces of data, often comes a picture of what the leaders are up to, and where they are. The Internet gives many terrorists the illusion that they are in touch, without realizing that the people at the other end have arrest warrants, not tickets to paradise.

Mexico: Electronic Warfare By The Gangsters

January 6, 2012:

Mexico is concerned about illegal immigration from its southern neighbor. In the first eleven months of 2011 the government deported over 46,700 Central Americans. The overwhelming majority of the deportees (over 41,000) were men, 23,560 of the deportees came from Guatemala.

January 5, 2012: 31 convicts died in a gang fight in a prison in Altamira (Tamaulipas state, northern Mexico). Another 13 were wounded. Prison guards had to force their way back into the jail to restore order. Los Zetas cartel and the Gulf cartel are locked in a bitter turf war over Tamaulipas, which borders on the US. Officials suspect jailed members of the two gangs started the fight.

January 4, 2012: Several groups of college-age students took control of five radio stations in Guerrero state and broadcast demands that the state governor resign. The students expressed outrage at the death of two students in an incident that occurred December 12. The broadcast also included demands that the December deaths be investigated. This year is an election year and the government is increasingly worried that student and labor violence will increase as the election approaches.

January 3, 2012: Mexican media have produced several estimates of the number of people killed in drug cartel-related violence during 2011. One major paper published the figure of 12, 539. Two others reported 12,284 and 11,890. There is no official figure, but given the levels of violence in several states (Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Veracruz, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas) somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 dead appears to be a credible figure. The figure for 2010 was around 15,000. That would mean around 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since the Cartel War began in December 2006.

January 1, 2012: What will the 2012 presidential election mean for the Cartel War? No one knows, but President Felipe Calderon cannot succeed himself. Calderon touts the fact that 22 of the top 37 drug gangsters have been killed or arrested in the last three years, but he has also said, repeatedly, that the war against the drug cartels and criminal syndicates will continue for decades. That’s because winning the war requires systemic change in Mexico, such as an end (or at least diminishment) of corruption in the police forces and judiciary.

Five men the federal police arrested for crimes in Ciudad Juarez (Chihuahua state) were believed tortured in order to elicit confessions. The men were arrested on charges of launching a car bomb attack and killing two police officers. The July 2010 car bomb attack was a very high-profile crime.

December 27, 2011: The security commander of the Sinaloa cartel, Felipe Cabreara Sarabia, was captured in Sinaloa’s state capital, Culiacan.

Mexican Army troops found 13 bodies stacked in an abandoned truck in Tamaulipas state.

December 24, 2011: In an operation in Veracruz State earlier this fall, Mexican marines discovered a sophisticated radio communications center being operated by Los Zetas drug cartel. It turns out that commo center was part of an elaborate alert network run by the cartel. The network included street salesmen and cab drivers with mobile radios who would pass on information about police and military vehicles. Since the initial discovery, Mexican soldiers and marines have found several more communications centers and relay transmitters, some located deep in the desert and powered by solar panels. The network was installed to give Zetas operatives an alternative communications system to use in lieu of cell phones. Intelligence agencies have become very adept at detecting cell phone calls. The radio and radio-relay system operates outside the cell phone system. Authorities speculated that Los Zetas began developing the system as early as 2006 and was largely built with commercially-available equipment. Zetas operatives could encrypt their conversations, making eavesdropping even more difficult. The system extended through several eastern Mexican states.

December 23, 2011: Security forces, under direction of the Mexican Navy, killed five armed robbers who were involved in an attack on the villages of El Higo and the ambush of three civilian buses. The gunmen had slain eleven people in the incidents. The security forces located the gunmen after the bus ambush and killed them in a firefight.

December 22, 2011: In the city of Veracruz-Boca del Rio, the federal government has fired the entire police force (over 900 officers) and officially disbanded the police. The reason is rampant corruption. The Mexican Navy will assume responsibility for protecting the area. Federal police will work in conjunction with the navy. Around 600,000 people live in the city.

December 18, 2011: Security forces arrested 28 state and local police officers in Guerrero state. The action was part of a major government effort to root out police corruption. The arrests came as Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, said that corruption in security and justice institutions were national “weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”

December 17, 2011: A new study of Mexico’s oil industry claimed that the decline in crude oil production is ending and that output may stabilize. Mexico has been producing 2.55 million barrels a day, a slight decline from 2009 when it produced 2.6 million barrels a day. However, in 2004 Mexico was producing 3.4 million a day.

SYRIA –Terrorist Explosion in al-Midan district in Damascus causes tens of victims most of them are civilians

Terrorist Explosion in al-Midan district in Damascus causes tens of victims most of them are civilians

DAMASCUS- A terrorist explosion on Friday hit al-Midan quarter in Damascus, causing tens of victims among civilians and law-enforcement forces, the majority were civilians.

The explosion took place near Hassan al-Hakeem Basic Education School.

Preliminary information indicated that a suicide bomber exploded himself at a traffic light in al-Midan quarter.

Reports said that an Arab League observer mission delegation visited the site for examination.

The area of explosion is densely populated and witnesses heavy traffic   
   
The Syrian TV said that preliminary results indicated that at least 25 people were martyred and more than 46 wounded. 

Friday 06-01-2012

BBC News – Iraq: Bombings in Baghdad and Nasiriya kill scores

At least 72 people have been killed in bomb attacks targeting Shia Muslims in southern Iraq and the capital Baghdad.

Officials said 45 pilgrims died in a suicide attack in Nasiriya and 27 people died in Shia areas of Baghdad.

The attacks were the deadliest since the last US soldiers pulled out of Iraq on 18 December.

Sectarian tensions have risen since the US pullout and since an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi.

The BBC’s Rafid Jabboori in Baghdad says Iraq is going through a severe political crisis and the situation in the country is tense.

Regional health chief Hadi Badr al-Riyahi said hospitals in Nasiriya had received 45 killed and 68 wounded.


Recent attacks in Iraq

The scene of one of the blasts in Kadhimiya
  • 5 January – At least 27 die in blasts in two Shia areas of Baghdad. A roadside bomb kills 45 pilgrims near Nasiriya
  • 4 January – At least three die in bombings and grenade attacks in Baquba and Abu Ghraib, north of Baghdad
  • 26 December – At least seven killed in suicide car bomb attack outside Iraq’s interior ministry
  • 22 December - 68 killed in multiple blasts in Baghdad
  • 5 December - At least 30 killed in attacks targeting Shia pilgrims in central Iraq
  • 27 October - 38 killed, 78 injured in twin bomb blasts in a Shia area of Baghdad
  • 12 October - 28 killed by car bombs and roadside bombs around Baghdad
  • 15 August - At least 60 killed in co-ordinated attacks in several Iraqi cities

A provincial government website said pilgrims had been walking towards the holy city of Karbala when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt at a rest stop. The blast happened in the run-up to Arbaeen, a Shia holy day.

The Baghdad attacks targeted civilians in the Sadr City and Kadhimiya areas, the Interior Ministry said. At least 70 people were wounded.

The first two explosions struck Sadr City, killing at least 12 people. The first bomb was on a motorbike which exploded near where labourers were gathering to look for work.

“There was a group of day labourers gathered, waiting to be hired for work. Someone brought his small motorcycle and parked it nearby. A few minutes later it blew up, killed some people, wounded others and burned some cars,” a police officer told Reuters at the scene of the attack.

Some 30 minutes later a roadside bomb exploded near a tea shop.

Less than two hours after that blast, two car bombs exploded simultaneously in the Kadhimiya district killing 15 people, officials said.

Iraqi military spokesman Maj Gen Qassim al-Moussawi said the aim of the attacks was “to create sedition among the Iraqi people”.

He said it was too early to say who was behind the bombings.

The attacks were condemned by the US.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described them as “desperate attempts by the same kind of folk who have been active in Iraq trying to turn back the clock”.

Iraq’s power-sharing government has been in crisis since an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges two weeks ago. He has denied the accusations against him.

The al-Iraqiyya group, the main Sunni bloc in parliament, is boycotting the assembly in protest. It accuses Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shia, of monopolising power.

Mr Hashemi is currently in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, under the protection of the regional government. Mr Maliki has demanded that they give him up.

However, Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani recently told BBC Persian that they had not received a request to extradite Mr Hashemi, only a letter to say he is forbidden from leaving the country.

Mr Barzani said “distrust” of Baghdad’s judicial system was hampering efforts to resolve the crisis.

Labourer Ahmed Khalaf, speaking to AFP at the site of one of the Sadr City explosions on Thursday, said: “Political leaders fight each other for power, and we pay the price.

“How is it our fault if al-Hashemi is wanted, or someone else is wanted?” he asked. “Why should we pay instead of them?”

Baghdad map

Social Media Carries Prison Message From Iranian Activist

A well-known Iranian political activist, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, has managed to send out an unprecedented video message from the Rajayishahr prison in which he dismisses Iran’s repressive measures aimed at silencing dissent and predicts they will fail.

“Freedom is the essence of human being I believe, in fact without freedom no choice has a meaning,” he says in the 15-minute-plus video.

The video was recorded recently on a mobile phone and posted on YouTube. It was then quickly shared on Facebook, blogs, and other social media sites.

Tabarzadi the head of the banned Democratic Front of Iran who has been in and out of prison for the past several years, is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence after being convicted of security charges that are often being brought against Iranian political activists.

In the video, Tabarzadi says the Iranian leadership fears individuals like him who have resorted to nonviolent means to bring change in the country.

He says the harsh methods Iran uses against political activists, students, and human rights advocates are doomed to failure:

“We are not terrorists; we are not promoting violence; we have said certain things based on our basic rights; we’ve expressed our views. The establishment issues heavy prison sentences against us out of fear, it fears what we have to say — the things we’re saying here between us. I don’t believe the crackdown, violent measures, prison and other things will stop us. We’re determined, we have paid a price, and we’re [ready] to pay an even higher price, we know our rights, and we will definitely reach our demands. “

Tabarzadi adds that Iranians deserve a democratically elected secular government that will respect the rights of all citizens.

Tabarzadi’s video message is an example of social media providing Iranian activists a platform on which they can express themselves more freely than through other, frequently heavily censored media.

It comes just a few days after another video was posted on YouTube that shows a number of prominent Iranian political prisoners in the courtyard of Gohardasht prison.

It is still unclear what repercussions the outspoken Tabarzadi might face over his video message, which is likely to draw the ire of Iranian authorities.

Activists have been increasingly using social media, particularly Facebook, to spread news and bring attention to the plight of Iranian political prisoners since the crackdown began after the 2009 presidential vote.

An increasing number of prisoners of conscience have in recent months issued open letters from prison in which they have described mistreatment and torture by the hands of their interrogators. The letters have been distributed widely through social media.

A number of them have dared to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate political and religious power in the country.

We reported recently about the efforts of former political prisoner Mohammad Nourizad, who used to be a columnist for the ultra-hard-line “Kayhan” daily, which is said to reflect Khamenei’s views.

Nourizad has challenged Khamenei in 15 open letters, including several from Evin prison. He has called on others to do the same.

Another prisoner of conscience, Abolfazl Ghadiani, who was arrested in 2009, last week in an open letter issued from prison called on the Iranian leader to step down and give up power.

“People like myself have not given our life, livelihood, and freedom in the path of the revolution for Ali Khamenei to reign over the country,” Ghadiani, a member of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution party, wrote in the letter. He blamed Khamenei for Iran’s dire economic situation, sanctions, and the specter of war that has spread its shadow on Iran.

— Golnaz Esfandiari

Think Again: Intelligence

I served in the CIA for 28 years and I can tell you: America’s screw-ups come from bad leaders, not lousy spies.

BY PAUL R. PILLAR | JAN/FEB 2012

“Presidents Make Decisions Based on Intelligence.”

Not the big ones. From George W. Bush trumpeting WMD reports about Iraq to this year’s Republican presidential candidates vowing to set policy in Afghanistan based on the dictates of the intelligence community, Americans often get the sense that their leaders’ hands are guided abroad by their all-knowing spying apparatus. After all, the United States spends about $80 billion on intelligence each year, which provides a flood of important guidance every week on matters ranging from hunting terrorists to countering China’s growing military capabilities. This analysis informs policymakers’ day-to-day decision-making and sometimes gets them to look more closely at problems, such as the rising threat from al Qaeda in the late 1990s, than they otherwise would.

On major foreign-policy decisions, however, whether going to war or broadly rethinking U.S. strategy in the Arab world (as President Barack Obama is likely doing now), intelligence is not the decisive factor. The influences that really matter are the ones that leaders bring with them into office: their own strategic sense, the lessons they have drawn from history or personal experience, the imperatives of domestic politics, and their own neuroses. A memo or briefing emanating from some unfamiliar corner of the bureaucracy hardly stands a chance.

Besides, one should never underestimate the influence of conventional wisdom. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his inner circle received the intelligence community’s gloomy assessments of South Vietnam’s ability to stand on its own feet, as well as comparably pessimistic reports from U.S. military leaders on the likely cost and time commitment of a U.S. military effort there. But they lost out to the domino theory — the idea that if South Vietnam fell to communism, a succession of other countries in the developing world would as well. President Harry Truman decided to intervene in Korea based on the lessons of the past: the Allies’ failure to stand up to the Axis powers before World War II and the West’s postwar success in firmly responding to communist aggression in Greece and Berlin. President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China was shaped by his brooding in the political wilderness about great-power strategy and his place in it. The Obama administration’s recent drumbeating about Iran is largely a function of domestic politics. Advice from Langley, for better or worse, had little to do with any of this.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Bad Intelligence Led to the Iraq War.”

No, bad leadership did. Intelligence may have figured prominently in Bush’s selling of the invasion of Iraq, but it played almost no role in the decision itself. If the intelligence community’s assessments pointed to any course of action, it was avoiding a war, not launching one.

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations in February 2003 to make the case for an invasion of Iraq, he argued, “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction,” an observation he said was “based on solid intelligence.” But in a candid interview four months later, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that weapons of mass destruction were simply “the one issue that everyone could agree on.” The intelligence community was raising no alarms about the subject when the Bush administration came into office; indeed, the 2001 edition of the community’s comprehensive statement on worldwide threats did not even mention the possibility of Iraqi nuclear weapons or any stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. The administration did not request the (ultimately flawed) October 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraqi unconventional weapons programs that was central to the official case for invasion — Democrats in Congress did, and only six senators and a handful of representatives bothered to look at it before voting on the war, according to staff members who kept custody of the copies. Neither Bush nor Condoleezza Rice, then his national security advisor, read the entire estimate at the time, and in any case the public relations rollout of the war was already under way before the document was written.

Had Bush read the intelligence community’s report, he would have seen his administration’s case for invasion stood on its head. The intelligence officials concluded that Saddam was unlikely to use any weapons of mass destruction against the United States or give them to terrorists — unless the United States invaded Iraq and tried to overthrow his regime. The intelligence community did not believe, as the president claimed, that the Iraqi regime was an ally of al Qaeda, and it correctly foresaw any attempt to establish democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq as a hard, messy slog.

In a separate prewar assessment, the intelligence community judged that trying to build a new political system in Iraq would be “long, difficult and probably turbulent,” adding that any post-Saddam authority would face a “deeply divided society with a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so.” Mentions of Iraqis welcoming U.S. soldiers with flowers, or the war paying for itself, were notably absent. Needless to say, none of that made any difference to the White House.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images 

“Intelligence Failures Have Screwed Up U.S. Foreign Policy.”

Hardly. The record of 20th-century U.S. intelligence failures is a familiar one, and mostly indisputable. But whether these failures — or the successes — mattered in the big picture is another question.

The CIA predicted both the outbreak and the outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states, a feat impressive enough that it reportedly won intelligence chief Richard Helms a seat at President Johnson’s Tuesday lunch table. Still, top-notch intelligence couldn’t help Johnson prevent the war, which produced the basic contours of today’s intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and U.S. intelligence completely failed to predict Egypt’s surprise attack on Israel six years later. Yet Egypt’s nasty surprise in 1973 didn’t stop Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from then achieving a diplomatic triumph, exploiting the conflict to cement relations with Israel while expanding them with Egypt and the other Arab states — all at the Soviets’ expense.

U.S. intelligence also famously failed to foresee the 1979 Iranian revolution. But it was policymakers’ inattention to Iran and sharp disagreements within President Jimmy Carter’s administration, not bad intelligence, that kept the United States from making tough decisions before the shah’s regime was at death’s door. Even after months of disturbances in Iranian cities, the Carter administration — preoccupied as it was with the Egypt-Israel peace negotiations and the Sandinistas’ revolution in Nicaragua — still had not convened any high-level policy meetings on Iran. “Our decision-making circuits were heavily overloaded,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, later recalled.

Imperfect intelligence analysis about another coming political upheaval — the collapse of the Soviet Union — did not matter; the overriding influence on U.S. policy toward the USSR in the 1980s was Ronald Reagan’s instincts. From the earliest days of his presidency, the notion that the Soviet Union was doomed to fail — and soon — was an article of faith for the 40th president. “The Russians could never win the arms race,” he later wrote. “We could outspend them forever.”

AFP/Getty Images

“U.S. Intelligence Underestimated al Qaeda Before 9/11.”

No, it didn’t. Like any terrorist attack, Sept. 11, 2001, was by definition a tactical intelligence failure. But though intelligence officials missed the attack, they didn’t miss the threat. Years before 9/11, the intelligence community, especially the CIA, devoted unusually intense attention and effort to understanding Osama bin Laden’s organization. The CIA created a special bin Laden-focused unit in early 1996, when al Qaeda was just beginning to take shape as the anti-American, transnational terrorist group we now know. President Bill Clinton stated in 1998 that “terrorism is at the top of the American agenda.” He also launched a covert-action program against al Qaeda that included developing plans to capture bin Laden, even before the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

When Clinton’s national security officials handed over duties to their Bush administration successors, they emphasized the threat that would materialize on 9/11. Sandy Berger, the outgoing national security advisor, told Rice, “You’re going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al Qaeda specifically than [on] any other issue.” If more was not done in advance of 9/11 to counter the threat, it was because rallying public support for anything like a war in Afghanistan or costly, cumbersome security measures at home would have been politically impossible before terrorists struck the United States.

The most authoritative evidence of the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 understanding of the subject is that same February 2001 worldwide threat statement that never mentioned Iraqi nukes or stockpiles of unconventional weapons. Instead it identified terrorism, and al Qaeda in particular, as the No. 1 threat to U.S. security — ahead of weapons proliferation, the rise of China, and everything else. Bin Laden and his associates, the report said, were “the most immediate and serious threat” and were “capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.” It was all too correct.

STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images

“Hidebound Intelligence Agencies Refuse to Change.”

You’d be surprised. Criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies — at least the non-paranoid kind — tends to portray them as stodgy bureaucracies that use their broad mandate for secrecy to shield themselves from the oversight that would make them do their jobs better. But the great majority of effective intelligence reforms have come from inside, not outside.

The organizational charts of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have undergone frequent and sometimes drastic revision, a recognition of the need to adapt to the rapidly changing world the agencies monitor and analyze. The CIA merged its analytic units covering East and West Germany in expectation of German reunification well before German unity was achieved in 1990. Other measures, such as developing greater foreign-language ability or training analysts in more sophisticated techniques, have been the focus of concentrated attention inside the agencies for years. The most effective, and probably most revolutionary, change in the intelligence community’s work on terrorism was the creation of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center in 1986 — a successful experiment that broke bureaucratic crockery, gathering previously separated collectors, analysts, and other specialists together to work side by side.

Reforms pursued from outside have received more public attention but have accomplished far less. After 9/11, the intelligence community underwent a reorganization when Congress acted on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to make all spy agencies answerable to a single director of national intelligence. But the move has not, as hoped, unified the intelligence community, instead creating yet another agency sitting precariously atop 16 others. Because both the new director’s office and the National Counterterrorism Center — another commission recommendation — added to, rather than replaced, existing government functions, they have further confused lines of responsibility. This much was made clear when would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day 2009. The incident led to the same sorts of recriminations as those after 9/11, about information not being collated and dots not being connected — only this time they were aimed at the 9/11 Commission’s own creations.

Tom Williams/Roll Call

“Intelligence Has Gotten Better Since 9/11.”

Yes, but not for the reasons you think. Having a veritable blank check for a decade makes a difference, of course. The big post-9/11 boom in the intelligence budget — which has doubled since 2001, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee — has at least marginally improved the odds of discovering the next nugget of information that will enable the United States to roll up a major terrorist plot or take down a bad guy.

But it was the dramatic and obvious change in U.S. priorities following 9/11 that made the most difference. Counterterrorism, more than any other intelligence mission, depends on close collaboration with other governments, which have the critical firsthand knowledge, local police, and investigative powers that the United States usually lacks. Prior to 9/11, those governments’ willingness to cooperate was often meager, especially when it meant discomfiting local interests. After 9/11, however, U.S. officials could pound on the desks of their foreign counterparts and say, “This time we really mean it.” Some results of this sea change — successes in freezing or seizing terrorists’ financial assets, for example — have been visible. Many others have been necessarily less so. Future success or failure in tracking threats such as anti-U.S. extremism in South Asia will similarly depend more on the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations than on the performance of the bureaucracy back in Washington.

Cooperation among governments’ counterterrorism services has often continued despite political differences between governments themselves. Ultimately, however, such cooperation rests on the goodwill the United States enjoys and the health of its relationships around the world. As 9/11 recedes into history, states’ willingness to share information is a depleting asset. We appropriately think of intelligence as an important aid to foreign policy, but we also need to remember how much foreign policy affects intelligence.

Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“Good Intelligence Can Save Us From Bad Surprises.”

We wish. Early last February, barely a week before the Arab Spring ended the three-decade presidency of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, grilled a CIA official in a Capitol Hill hearing room. “The president, the secretary of state, and the Congress are making policy decisions on Egypt, and those policymakers deserve timely intelligence analysis,” Feinstein told Stephanie O’Sullivan, then the CIA’s associate deputy director. “I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area.”

Feinstein was hardly the only one to criticize U.S. intelligence agencies’ inability to predict the speed at which the fire lit by Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself on Dec. 17, 2010, would spread throughout the Arab world. But all the bureaucratic overhauls and investigative commissions in the world can’t change one incontrovertible fact: Many things we would like our intelligence services to know are too complex to model or predict. What the community should be expected to provide — and, based on the limited publicly available evidence, apparently did provide — is a strategic understanding of conditions and attitudes that, given the right spark, could ignite into a full-blown revolution.

The most recent recriminations and inquiries are only the latest in a long line dating back to the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The resources devoted to intelligence have increased substantially over the past seven decades, and intelligence agencies are continually looking for ways to improve how they do their business. But no amount of moving around boxes on a flowchart can eliminate unpleasant surprises, and there will always be new challenges — especially in an age of endlessly proliferating information.

Intelligence can help manage uncertainty, defining its scope and specifying what is known and what is likely to stay unknown. It can distinguish true uncertainty from simple ignorance by systematically assembling all available information, but it cannot eliminate uncertainty and it cannot prevent all surprises, including some big ones. Leaders must accept this reality; they must expect — and prepare — to be surprised.

With due acknowledgment to Donald Rumsfeld, it also means expecting unknown unknowns. Not only will we not know all the right answers — we will not even be asking all the right questions.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call