• Richard Murff

The Rise of Op-Ed Intelligence

...It doesn't look good.


While the FBI has its secrets it does operate, more or less, in the daylight of transparency and accountability. That FBI director Christopher Wray held a press conference ahead of the election in October wasn’t remarkable. What made it bizarre was that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe joined him to warn Americans that both Russia and Iran were acquiring voter registration data and running disinformation campaigns to scramble the hearts and minds of the American voter. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) waded into the video streams to explain similar threats and assure that public that they were on the job. To put this in context, for most of its history, the very existence of the NSA was denied by the government – insiders used to joke that it stood for “no such agency.”


True, this was about the same time that President Trump stopped taking his intelligence briefings – begging the question, for whom were they collecting information? Still, the culture of America’s 17 intelligence agencies is hardwired for the cloak and dagger – even among themselves. They leave no finger prints, much less to post PSAs on YouTube. Unprecedented, yes, but perhaps not that surprising – we’ve been heading this way for a long time.


It was in 2015 when more than 50 intelligence analysts working for the U.S. Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) signed a formal complaint that their intelligence reports were being manipulated and altered to reflect the Obama administration’s public stance. Specifically, it was intelligence al Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) and the upstart terror group ISIS. Understand that to accuse President Obama administration of willfully altering intelligence is wide the mark. This was more a case, albeit a deep-rooted systemic one, of those high-level bureaucrats not wanting to tell the man in the big chair something he doesn’t want to hear.


According to the investigation opened by the Pentagon’s inspector general not only were intelligence reports being manipulated by political appointees and senior officials, but that further down the line analysts are being pressured to make rosy assessments of a situation that was in fact, going to hell. Officials called it a “revolt” in part triggered by the memories of 2002/03 when reports originating from MI6 shifted up the chain of command from we don’t know that that is to proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. “They were frustrated because they didn’t do the right thing then.” A defense official said at the time.


Despite what you’ve read on Facebook, George W. Bush probably didn’t lie, but was more likely a princeling manipulated his father’s advisors by feeding him misleading analysis. Barack Obama wasn’t being a moron when he called ISIS the “JV” team, but an academic desperate to have his undergrad theories validated, which made it professionally expedient to tell him what he wanted to hear.


Other intel Obama was getting was trickier, politically. Like the alarming proliferation of Russian active measures during the 2016 election cycle – which put the president between a political rock and a hard place, not wanting to be seen as influencing the election for his creature. For their part, the then-DNI and secretary of Homeland Security were so alarmed that they felt compelled to issue a statement warning of Russian hacking and leaking on sites like DCLeaks, Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0. Unfortunately, the release went up against the Hollywood Access tapes where a reality TV star cum presidential candidate bragged about sexually assaulting women. Which will, excuse the pun, trump a story about pissed off bureaucrats every time.



For everything else 2016 will be remembered for, it was the year that both American politics as well as its watch dogs in the American press jumped the shark. The media largely abandoned journalistic objectivity, in both form and ideal, for simple choosing a side and cherry-picking facts to support their favored narrative. Then, of course, being righteously offended when people accused them of propaganda.


Never one to be outdone – certainly not by the press - President Trump did his best to cut the intelligence community out altogether. He nominated John Ratcliffe who failed to get confirmed for lying on his CV and a seeming inability to grasp the core concept of the purpose and function of intelligence agencies. Never an unqualified fan of the truth, Trump nominated him a second time. Ratcliffe was pushed through and set about passing off what were certainly active measure fakes as actual intelligence at the behest of his boss. And it’s really saying something when the most trustworthy professionals in the country are the spies.


This isn’t entirely the fault of the politicos. Big Tech, the weapon of choice for running disinformation operations, is in the hands of the private sector. Whereas US intelligence has traditionally been produced for “first consumers” - executive and then legislative administrations – today it is increasingly being tailored for business leaders and the “end user” – the voter. To this end, Christopher Krebs, who ran the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyberspace and Infrastructure Security Agency published a public web page dedicated to “rumor control.” After the election Trump fired Krebs by tweet, presumably for not telling the guy in the big chair what he wanted to hear.


This end run around the “first consumer” to the “end voter” of intelligence is largely what the cyber-punks of the 80-90’s, as well as people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden envisioned for the world. They saw an open-source utopia where all state secrets were in the hands of the voters. The reality of shining a light into this world, however, isn’t going to be as pretty as the anarchist utopia they envisioned. It sounds great, of course, but the agonizing death of print media tells a different story. The atomization of journalism from professionals within organizations that worried about the ideal (or at least perception) of objectivity, as well as the reality of avoiding libel with proof and the marketing pull of their reputations, to a hell-scape of desperate click-bait op-eds has not been the unqualified boom to the discourse of the republic that Big Tech promised.


Likewise, it is difficult to see how the Intelligence community breaking out of the protocol of the shadows to appeal to fickle, shouting voters will help the current situation. Krebs’ twitter account has 13,500 followers and RT – Russia’s fairly overt disinformation bullhorn, has around 3 million. In a free society it is always hard to argue for more secrecy: The unaccountability of the shadows led to escalation in Vietnam and a pointless invasion of Iraq that is the root of so many of our problems a generation on. The wisdom of the mob, though, is looking pretty ill-advised as well.


The anarchists very well may think that this is beautiful revolution a long time in the making, but practically the application of op-ed intelligence may not be so elegant.