Return to

Sept. 18, 2014
Notes from the Pentagon

CIA goes to war against the Islamic State
Behind the scenes of the U.S. military preparations for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the al Qaeda offshoot terrorist group Islamic State, the CIA is gearing up for new drone strikes and a surge in intelligence-gathering operations to support it, according to U.S. officials.

The agency is beefing up its presence in countries near Syria, including Jordan, as part of increased U.S. military operations in the region, said officials close to the agency. Liaison with regional spy services also is being increased.

The agency is slated to provide traditional clandestine support to the U.S. military through intelligence-gathering on Islamic State leaders, training bases, communications networks and other targets. The agency also is expected to set up new Predator and Reaper drone bases.

The agency already is supplying intelligence gathered from Islamic State social-media accounts, both official and unofficial, on outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. The social media networks are a moving target but have provided some valuable intelligence and targeting data.

The National Security Agency also is involved in electronic efforts to locate and target Islamic State leaders.

But CIA-operated missile-firing drones have proved to be some of the U.S.’ most effective counterterrorism tools.

The aircraft have had a devastating impact — both in killing terrorist leaders inside their residences or vehicles, and as psychological influence, namely, instilling fear among terrorists.

U.S. drone attacks have forced terrorists to remain under cover and limit their public exposure and movement. The aircraft have forced terrorists to remain on constant alert for the signature hum of propeller-driven Predators and Reapers, never knowing whether the drones are unarmed surveillance aircraft, or whether the next sound they hear will be the blast of a Maverick missile hitting their position.

Analysts say drone strikes over the longer term have demoralized the Islamist terrorist groups that have been targeted.

The CIA has scored major successes using drones against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade, and many analysts credit the aerial strikes with severely weakening al Qaeda central.

The CIA’s major shift to drone operations has prompted some agency critics to comment that the CIA is becoming too much of a counterterrorism agency at the expense of its traditional spying missions. Agency defenders say the CIA is doing both jobs well.

In a recent month, CIA drone operations in Southwest Asia were scaled back by the Obama administration, under pressure from Pakistan after Islamabad complained that too many civilians were being killed by the strikes.

Under current rules, drone strikes require a relatively high level of confidence in the identification of a target before missile strikes are carried out, a standard that requires good intelligence from all sources — aircraft, satellites and people.

The agency’s role in Syria and Iraq will be similar to the CIA’s significant covert missions in counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, in support of U.S. commandos and other military forces.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

The CIA is reviewing a highly classified report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that, according to sources close to the panel, will largely support the Obama administration’s version of events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

The report is expected to be released “in the coming days,” and will contain “additional views” by Democrats and Republicans who challenge some of its findings, said committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen.

According to congressional sources familiar with the report, the final unclassified version is expected to largely exonerate the Obama administration of covering up and lying about the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Some Republicans on the committee are said to be upset that the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, did not allow dissenting views to be adequately represented in the main report.

One senior congressional insider said Mr. Rogers, who will step down as chairman at the end of the year, has been overly accommodating to Democrats.

Mr. Rogers also has been highly critical of some fellow Republicans in the House, notably Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that has been hammering the Obama administration on several issues such as the IRS targeting conservative groups.

Although the House intelligence report is still classified, key elements have been leaked.

For example, Rep. Mike Thompson, California Democrat and intelligence committee member, last month told the San Francisco Chronicle that the report exonerates U.S. intelligence agencies by stating that they were warned about an increased threat of attack but lacked specific details to stop the Sept. 11 assaults.

Mr. Thompson said the report will identify the attackers as a mixed group that included al Qaeda-affiliated militias and former supporters of Moammar Gadhafi. He also revealed that the report will state that no U.S. official ordered a military “stand-down” that prevented a rescue or counterattack, and that no illegal activity or arms transfers were taking place with the help of U.S. personnel.

One of the unanswered questions about the Benghazi attack is what role was played by more than a dozen CIA officers and contractors operating out of the Benghazi annex.

In January 2013 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed ignorance about the CIA operations at the annex.

Asked during a hearing by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, whether the CIA in Libya was running guns to Turkey, presumably for later transfer to Syrian rebels, Ms. Clinton said: “Well, senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex.”

The director of the National Counterterrorism Center told Congress on Wednesday that gathering intelligence on terrorism threats has become more difficult as a result of disclosures of National Security Agency documents by renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“The final point I’ll make on this is that identifying and disrupting threats is increasingly challenging,” Matthew Olsen, the center’s director, said during a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

“The groups are adapting their tactics to overcome our defenses, to avoid our intelligence collection,” he said. “They’re looking for simpler, less-sophisticated attacks that are on a smaller scale and that are easier to pull off, such as the al-Shabab attack at the Westgate Mall last year in Nairobi.”

Mr. Olsen said that “terrorists are changing how they communicate” in the aftermath of Snowden’s release of electronic intelligence-gathering methods through pilfered NSA documents released to the press.

“They are moving to more secure communication platforms,” Mr. Olsen said. “They are adopting encryption. And they are avoiding electronic communications altogether. We see this in our reporting. And this is a problem for us in many areas where we have limited human collection and depend on intercepting communications to identify terrorists and disrupt plots.”

Among the encryption software used by terrorists to communicate in coded emails, according to non-government analysts, include three programs known as “Mujahideen Secrets” and more recent programs called “Tashfeer al Jawwal” and “Asrar al Ghurabaa.”

The software is not unbreakable but complicates efforts to spy on terrorists’ communications.

The Syria and Iraq-based terrorist group Islamic State has been using social media to communicate and spread propaganda. Initially the group utilized Twitter but was shut down for violating the social media outlet’s terms of service.

The group then switched to the small Diaspora social media outlet and finally to the Russian social networking outlet Vkontakte. The Russians then took steps to shut down official Islamic State accounts on that medium Sept. 12.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

  • Return to