Able Danger Blog

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Interesting detail from the CIA IG report

From Newsweek:

The report found that U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda were damaged by a fierce turf battle between the CIA and the National Security Agency (then under Hayden’s leadership) over access to transcripts of intercepted communications picked up by the government’s spy satellites and listening posts. Throughout the late 1990s right up to 9/11, the two U.S. intelligence agencies appear to have sharply feuded over the issue. The NSA eavesdropped on the conversations of top Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe. It then prepared verbatim written transcripts of this raw “signals intelligence” (known as SIGINT in the intel world).

But Hayden’s NSA apparently wouldn’t share the transcripts with the CIA, which was responsible for tracking Al Qaeda operatives overseas. The NSA’s “unwillingness to share raw SIGINT transcripts with CIA…made it more difficult for CTC [the Counter-Terrorism Center] to perform its mission against Al Qaeda,” the report stated. (The NSA also snubbed the FBI, whose job it was to hunt down terrorist operatives within the United States.)

Some in the intelligence community take issue with the report's characterization of the disagreement. “It was a question of law, not turf,” one U.S. intel official said Tuesday when asked why Hayden’s NSA had refused to share such vital information with another U.S. intelligence agency. “The most efficient way to ensure compliance with the law when it comes to raw transcripts was to have the SIGINT reviewed inside NSA spaces.”

The practical impact of the feud was first glimpsed three years ago when Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee complaining that the NSA would only provide his office written “summaries” of the Al Qaeda conversations, which were “much less” useful for operations than the actual transcripts. The NSA repeatedly rebuffed CIA requests to see the transcripts, Scheuer wrote. One senior NSA officer, he claimed, told the agency that the National Security Act of 1947 gave the NSA “control” over the raw signals intelligence and she therefore would not share it with any other branch of the government. “They were stonewalling us,” Scheuer said in an interview Tuesday. “We came back and told Tenet that people were going to die without these things.” A one point, Scheuer told NEWSWEEK, the agency's bin Laden station lost out on a chance to capture a senior Al Qaeda leader visiting Holland because the NSA provided its summaries of SIGINT too late.

From Tony Shaffer's Congressional testimony:

REYES: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

In the context of your comments about sharing information, what were the Department of Defense procedures for sharing the Able Danger information with other agencies? Were there -- and I'm interested in finding out were there clear-cut guidelines, procedures and processes on how that was to be done and what criteria?

SHAFFER: Right. The answer, I'll give you in two parts.

First, there were standing agreements between intelligence organizations regarding information sharing. For example, one of the roles my unit provided to Able Danger was to provide the DIA whole top secret database and the NSA whole top secret database. Regarding the fact we got that and we gave it to SOCOM -- and keep in mind, SOCOM was a Title X organization. The intelligence committee is Title 50. So that took some doing.

So we legally found ways to bring information out of the intelligence community, provide it to SOCOM for the purposes of Able Danger.

REYES: When you say database...


REYES: ... is this the lookout classified system?

SHAFFER: We did a combination of things. We actually obtained raw data from both NSA and DIA which were essentially copies of the IDB, which is the DIA's big database -- and then also NSA's databases regarding their SIGINT searches.

I have to go more into this in closed session. But suffice to say, we played this concierge role, essentially as a kind of a middle man, to get these databases. So we did have agreements.