- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Admiral Michael McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, says there is “overwhelming evidence” that Tehran is supporting insurgents in Iraq and “compelling” evidence that the same is happening in Afghanistan. McConnell cites insurgents’ increasing use of effective roadside bombs known as Explosively Formed Projectiles that are clearly traceable to Iran.
Speaking about challenges faced at home, McConnell says the intelligence community is “still learning” how to collect domestic intelligence in a way that provides security without infringing on Americans’ rights.
Admiral, just yesterday the Senate subpoenaed the White House for documents relating to domestic surveillance—underscoring the point that this is still a sensitive issue for the American public. I’m wondering how you reconcile the very real need for effective, efficient security with the nation’s desire to preserve civil liberties.
The bill that we have on the Hill at the moment to modernize FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is looking forward and is a request to get us in the position we need to be in to do two things: protect the nation from threats that we know—they’re planning mass casualties in the United States. We know that, we have clear information, clear indications, publicly stated, and we have good intelligence. And the second part is to protect American citizens from any kind of intrusive intelligence that would invade their privacy. The way to do that is very simple. The law needs to be updated so that we can target foreigners, regardless of where [communications are] intercepted in the world, and at the same time, if a U.S. person is ever a subject of surveillance for any reason, it would require a warrant.
There’s actually a third piece of the legislation, which we have to get corrected, and that is to cause the carriers or providers—those who provide telephone service, Internet service and so on—to collaborate and cooperate with the United States. They have to be protected [so that] if they provide that cooperation they’re not subject to suits.
The threat has increased, the intent is stated, and the way the wording in the current law is captured inhibits or prevents us from being successful. We have to do two things: capture the communication of foreign targets without warrants because they’re threats to the United States; and if it involves a U.S. person, a warrant should be required.
One of the more specific threats that we’ve seen, especially this summer, is the threat of homegrown terrorism. This is a relatively new problem for people in your industry to tackle, and so I’m wondering how you’re moving to overcome some of these new challenges. How do you incorporate state and local law enforcement agencies in attempting to deal with the homegrown threat?
This is a particularly challenging problem for us because our communities have always been involved in foreign intelligence, targeting things overseas. Because we had great oceans and certain insularity from the rest of the world, it would be difficult for someone to invade us. So for the most part, we didn’t pay much attention from an intelligence perspective to what was inside the United States. What we were not prepared for was when terrorists left a foreign location and came inside the United States. My personal view is that was why they were successful at 9/11, because they were virtually invisible to foreign intelligence, [and] they hadn’t broken a law so they could do what they needed to do to plan.
The Iranians today, we have clear evidence, are providing the very weapons that are causing U.S. servicemen and women to die. That’s clear, that’s not refuted, that’s not hawkish, that’s not shaded. That is the fact.
This is exactly the challenge for us today. Probably the nation that has the best experience with dealing with this is the United Kingdom in the context of the Irish Republican Army. They had to do domestic surveillance to contend with that problem. We’re still learning how to do that. Now, if someone in the United States is a terrorist, and has a connection with a terrorist located in a foreign country, the intelligence community should be able to target something going on in a foreign country that might involve someone in this country. Once it involves somebody in the United States, that should be a warranted situation, we should conduct appropriate surveillance.
It’s not widely known, many of the details are classified, but there have been any number of events that involved a domestic terrorist—homegrown—who was attracted to and coordinated and connected though some foreign nexus. We gained the insight on the foreign side, and then we made it a criminal situation for observation and bringing it to closure. A number of Americans are alive today because we were successful in making that connection. Now, what happens when a domestic terrorist has no foreign connection? And probably the most famous case is Timothy McVeigh [Oklahoma City bomber]. The way the system works, the way it’s designed by Congress and approved by the executive branch, is that’s a criminal situation.
In recent months U.S. officials have claimed to have evidence that Iran is providing support to insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s been a lot of hawkish rhetoric thrown around Washington toward Tehran. In light of the prewar intelligence failures in Iraq, how much stock you put in these reports?
Interesting choice of words, the way you framed it—you said “claims,” as if it’s alleged, and not true, and you said “hawkish,” as if somebody has a political agenda. I have no political agenda. My mission is to speak truth to power. My mission is to be apolitical and to examine the data and provide a report.
There’s very clear evidence—overwhelming evidence—that Iranians are providing support and munitions and capability—the most heinous of those are referred to as EFPs, that’s shorthand for Explosively Formed Projectile. What does that mean? If your method of attack that is most effective turns out to be a roadside bomb, and the response on the part of the forces that are being attacked is to build it heavier—more armor—then what you need to be effective is some way to penetrate armor or to push through. There’s a technique in the munitions business: If you can explosively form the projectile it can penetrate many, many inches of armor. So when the Iraqi insurgents were proving to be less successful, what the Iranians provided were these specially designed machines. The Iranians today, we have clear evidence, are providing the very weapons that are causing U.S. servicemen and women to die. That’s clear, that’s not refuted, that’s not hawkish, that’s not shaded. That is the fact.
On the Afghanistan side, it’s a little less clear. Clearly, we have found munitions that, based on the stenciling, the labeling, are manufactured in Iran; they came from Iran, and they’ve been captured in the recent timeframe. Now, the Iranian government, [which is] Shia, and the old Taliban, [which is] Sunni, were not friends. In fact, they’re enemies. So why would the Shia regime of Iran be supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan? The only conclusion I can draw is what they’re attempting to do is raise the price for the United States and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] for our presence in Afghanistan; to inflict casualties on Americans and Germans and Dutch and French and British and New Zealand and other players that are there; to cause reaction in the home countries from which those forces came. The evidence is overwhelming in the Iraq situation, and it’s very plain and, to me, compelling in Afghanistan.
In your Foreign Affairs article, you mentioned the intelligence community is harnessing new Internet technology such as blogs and wikis. I’m wondering what sort of incentives you’re creating to get intelligence professionals to buy into these new technologies, and how much faith you have that they will make a difference in the work that you do.
In my business I was required to do it, to understand it, and it was a matter of survival. So I became an early addict and an early convert. More than half of the national intelligence community today came in since 2001, so this is not something we’re doing because we’re forcing people. They’re making [it] a condition of continued employment with the United States government, they demand these things. So it’s not hard to do. You just provide the right tools.
In some cases, we’ve had the resources to invent some of the technologies, so some of the capability we have is even more advanced. This is a very definite march. It’s not a trend, it’s not something that’s being forced. We have to go there. And when we go there, we’re incredibly more effective. Because a machine can do things in milliseconds that a human being could never do. And so if you have the machine do what it does best, what it does is enable the human being. Think of it this way. I used to work with analysts who had a mechanical process to get the information displayed. They spent 80 to 90 percent of their time preparing the information, and 10 percent analyzing—and now that’s upside down. The machinery can prepare the information in 10 percent of the time; they can spend 90 percent of their time thinking and understanding and developing nuance and insight. So we’re going there. We have to do this to survive—and to do our job effectively, we have to do it in essentially the way U.S. industry is doing it.