The echo chamber: The politics of intelligence

2015-03-01 15:00

Secret cables acquired by Al Jazeera reveal that spies often share ‘intelligence’ that furthers their national interests rather than disseminating verifiable facts, writes Phil Rees

Among a trove of leaked spy documents obtained by Al Jazeera is a secret missive from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) warning of a dramatic plot by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).

The cable, sent to African intelligence agencies, claims Aqim has prospective plans to create a 60-man marine unit to expand the group’s operational capabilities to the Mediterranean Sea.

“It comprises suicide operatives trained in underwater sabotage techniques”, the cable warned, and would use “fast craft as strike weapons (‘floating bombs’) against seaborne targets”.

The cable also described a laboratory in eastern Algeria that developed “biological weapons to be used for terrorist purposes”. It told a story of Aqim operatives trying to isolate the “pathogenic culture of pneumonic plague” or Black Death. They failed, and around 40 fighters were contaminated and died as a result of “improper hermetic conditions at the laboratory”.

This story was reported via leaks from anonymous sources in media outlets in January 2009. Antiterror bosses and a security source were quoted in The Sun newspaper in Britain.

A US government official then confirmed part of the story to The Washington Post, but spoke “on the condition he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue”.

This incident may be true, but there is one certainty: it has not been verified by anyone who is publicly accountable.

The source of the FSB account, in common with most analyses contained in the so-called spy cables, is not divulged. Its origin is probably, of course, Algeria’s department of intelligence and security (known by its French acronym, DRS).

The DRS was previously shown to be sharing intelligence of fearful plots that never panned out.

This writer gathered evidence from an Algerian intelligence source in 2003 that the DRS had supplied Britain with intelligence concerning a series of planned attacks in the UK. These included plans to bomb New Year’s celebrations in Scotland, to release cyanide gas in the London Underground and a plot involving the poison Ricin.

There were no explosives and there was no cyanide or Ricin – but there certainly was a plethora of hyperventilating newspaper headlines suggesting Britons were about to be attacked.

This served the Algerian regime in two ways. British security services began to focus on Algerian dissidents in the UK who had sought refuge from their government’s oppression of Islamist movements in Algeria. And promoting the threat of Islamist-inspired violence globally legitimised that selfsame oppression at home.

The enlisting of convenient intelligence findings in the cause of national interest or strategic goals has a tragic recent history, of course, in the build-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

British journalist David Rose, an early and passionate advocate of the case for war in Iraq, later admitted he was duped by intelligence sources into believing Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Rose told this writer the world of intelligence sharing between different countries created an “echo chamber” conducive to spreading misinformation.

“Bum information” from an original source circulated through different intelligence agencies and acquired a life of its own, its echoes serving to “verify” the bad intelligence from that original source. “At that point, one is extremely vulnerable,” said Rose. “And to my great regret, I failed to see I was being fed lies.”

Iraq in 2003 remained the poster child of espionage failures, not only at the analytical level but also in the form of the deliberate manufacture and use of faulty intelligence by politicians to justify predetermined decisions.

The US presidential commission charged with examining intelligence failures related to WMD in Iraq noted: “Collectors and analysts too readily accepted any evidence that supported their theory that Iraq had stockpiles and was developing weapons programmes, and they explained away or disregarded evidence pointing in the other direction.”

Policy directives from political masters appeared to box in the intelligence analysts; eventually, the politicians got the spies to give them the answers they desired.

The spy cables suggest that the world’s intelligence agencies continue to share information on the basis of political agendas, particularly to amplify the threat from groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, despite statistical evidence showing that fatalities resulting from violence by self-styled jihadist groups outside theatres of conflict remain negligible in comparison with other unnatural causes of death.

Agencies from allied countries that pool knowledge on “jihadist” groups often do so without clearly sourced evidence. And the scale of the threat from such groups grows in the “echo chamber” to reinforce a siege narrative.

For example, in September 2012 a delegation from Jordan’s general intelligence department briefed their counterparts from South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) to the effect that “the main interest of mutual concern for both services is that of Islamic extremism”. According to the briefing, this threat was amplified by the Arab Spring democracy rebellion – a narrative suited to King Abdullah’s authoritarian rule in Saudi Arabia.

The loudest voice in this particular echo chamber appears to be Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad. It issues a relentless stream of alerts and demands for information on suspects, secret notices about Iran’s nuclear programme and weekly “Middle East intelligence summaries”. Its agents repeatedly warn the SSA of unspecified risks to local Jewish targets, as well as a continent-wide menace of bombings by Iranian or Hezbollah operatives.

A “top-secret” cable was sent from Mossad to the SSA in August 2014 with information from one of their human intelligence (Humint) sources.

A Humint source of unclear reliability indicates plans by al-Qaeda elements in South Africa to attack synagogues with car bombs during September 2014.

“Since this is alert information regarding al-Qaeda elements, we attach great importance to receiving your comments on the report about possible attack plans in your country.”

There is no further information in the spy cables about this report. It would be difficult, however, for any intelligence agency to disregard such a request altogether, given the potentially devastating consequences. All we do know is that there were no attacks that month in South Africa on Jewish targets.

Of course, intelligence agencies must be aware that their counterparts peddle their national interest as factual intelligence assessments.

But there is a danger that agencies are forging a consensual world view and, like water on a stone, future global threat assessments are shaped less by verifiable fact and more by an echo chamber of poorly sourced and politically motivated intelligence.

It is difficult to prove direct intent to manipulate intelligence by any agency or politician. Such is the murky world of espionage – whose currency is analysis rather than established truths.

But based upon the spy cables, it is clear that intelligence agencies don’t only communicate genuine security threats, but also further their own national interests by exploiting every country’s fear of attack.

And let’s not ignore the possibility that an intelligence organisation has a vested interest in promoting threat and fear. In a peaceful world, it is the agency itself that faces an existential threat.

Rees is investigations manager at Al Jazeera Media Network

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