3:46 a.m. September 26, 2013

CIA's Former Man In Central America: Assad Didn't Do It

"There is not a shred of intelligence to substantiate that this attack that occurred was carried out by the Syrian government, and in fact I am told by a good friend who's still at senior levels inside the CIA that we know for a fact that Assad didn't do it." - Larry C. Johnson

On Tuesday, I spoke to Larry C. Johnson - a veteran of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. In an astonishingly candid exchange, Johnson castigated the Obama Administration for its alleged use of fabricated intelligence as it made the case to attack Syria, and he scathingly referred to intelligence agencies as a way to "put white people to work."

Johnson was the CIA's "regional analyst for Central America", working "directly on the Contra Issues," meaning, "I covered both the Guerrilla War in Salvador and Guatemala." Intelligence back then, he told me, would have been comprehensive in the wake of a high-profile attack, such as the one involving chemical weapons in Syria.

“Immediately, as an analyst, you would have intelligence available through either imagery, through liaison reporting [reporting from other intelligence services], through signal intercepts, things from the National Security Agency. [You would be] able to piece together a picture of what happens. You'd be able to say, 'These particular military units are involved.' You'd be able to describe the types of weapons those units had. You'd be able to give some account of casualties; where those casualties occurred; what time the attack occurred; what direction the attack came from. What we've had with respect to Syria? None of that.

"Either the intelligence community is incompetent, [it] has the information and is sitting on it, or what the administration is claiming happened did not really happen," Johnson says. "I know for a fact that the latter is the case."

Asked if he could elaborate, Johnson said "I cannot." However he did say that he has "seen the intelligence, or the lack thereof. There is not a shred of intelligence to substantiate that this attack that occurred was carried out by the Syrian government, and in fact I am told by a good friend who's still at senior levels inside the CIA that we know for a fact that Assad didn't do it… I think it's the administration putting pressure on the intelligence community to not do its job. [Syria's] an example where you see nothing from the U.S. intelligence community to corroborate the administration's case. It's been extremely misleading.

"I am impressed by [the administration's] incompetence. This was really amateur hour, the way they carried it out. They were following the George W. Bush playbook for going to war in Iraq, but they couldn't get a consistent message and they didn't have the benefit of 9/11 and 3,000 bodies laying around to use to persuade Americans that they needed to go to war. George W. Bush and company effectively played that hand."

Although many problems with intelligence are actually problems with politics, Johnson believes that there are only a small number of intelligence organizations that are truly necessary. They are departments that either collect their own intelligence or perform their own, original intelligence analysis. The rest, he explained, "are just people repeating what they've heard…for their own bureaucratic purpose."

"If you think of intelligence agencies like a daily newspaper or magazine, who puts out a daily publication? Well, the CIA is a principal publisher. The DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) is a principal publisher. The FBI will put out information dealing with threats. The NSA will polish a digest, but it doesn't really do an analytical summary piece… A lot of people get lumped into the intelligence community [when] all they do is regurgitate. They're considered part of it because they bureaucratically fall under it, but they do second-hand stuff. You could eliminate them, and nobody would ever notice they were gone except for the folks who were sucking off the hind tit."

Johnson explained that it's not easy to determine who is producing original intelligence, which is why it is unlikely that agencies who don't actually serve a real function will ever be dismantled. “Even most members of Congress are just woefully ignorant of this. It requires some thinking anytime anyone has to do some thinking; they usually opt not to do so because it's difficult."

All of these sub-agencies that regurgitate intelligence information "put white people to work," Johnson said, perhaps half-jokingly. "My partner calls it 'white man's welfare' - largely, it's just an employment boondoggle. You could eliminate 20 percent of the so-called intelligence community tomorrow, and you would not notice a thing missing…[the intelligence community has] just become a great jobs program. Particularly an agency like the National Counter Terrorist Center. I mean, we didn't set up a National Soviet Communist Center…NCTC was set up to deal with terrorism which is still a very inconsequential threat - it's very rare.

"When it happens, it gets lots of news play, but generally doesn't really affect everybody. It was quite inconvenient for people who were caught in that shopping mall in Nairobi, but there are other shopping areas in Kenya that are not under attack. But, through the beauty of television, we get to create the immediacy of threat and everyone thinks, 'Oh god, that could be me!' so that fear is used to persuade Americans that we need to put together a bureaucracy like NCTC. They go to work every day and pretend that they're fighting terrorism. They don't have their own military units to go out and kill terrorists, and they don't have their own sources to go out and collect information. All they do is they take information collected and assembled by everyone else and regurgitate it."

Johnson says that the intelligence community's ineffectiveness is "much worse now" than when he was a part of it. "We've known Syria's at war; that the rebels are there trying to get their hands on chemical weapons. So you would assume the U.S. would devote intelligence assets to monitor what's going on at chemical weapons sites. Why didn't we have any forewarning that they would release chemical weapons on August 21st? Zero warning. Or if they were warned, we did nothing, which also isn't a good thing. We've got all this good collection by the NSA? Really? And CIA? Really? Then how do you explain that these guys were able to mount this attack in Nairobi without anybody knowing about it?"

Johnson is sympathetic to the individuals currently in the intelligence community, and blames most of the problems not on a lack of quality in personnel, but on an overwhelming quantity of information. "There’s so much information flowing in now, it's almost …[im]possible to sort it out and identify what’s important - and this is not a matter of just throwing more people to work at it." Johnson explains that when he "was working as an intelligence analyst 20-plus years ago - this was in the early days of the computer coming in - I would start my day by having to read through roughly 300 messages in an hour and a half, and each message could be a page or longer. So you'd have to get good at just looking quickly… and then put it aside, or if it was something important you needed to read it and absorb it. During the course of the day, I'd get another 600 to 700 messages. So 20-plus years ago, I'm dealing with 1,000 pages - at least - a day, to read and stay on top of. Today, the average analyst is dealing with an excess of maybe 2,000 or 3,000 pages a day…part of it’s the technology, there's more collection.

"The irony here is some of the best information is in unclassified channels and folks are not able to readily access those from their desk. The events like Edward Snowden actually make it more difficult because they end up restricting what you can see on the inside. Or like Bradley Manning…after Manning came out, the State Department eliminated military access to its cables. So now, instead of more integration of information, there's stove piping."

"If you wanna boil it down to any one thing, the biggest problem with the intelligence community, apart from its size and lack of focus, is the complete lack of accountability… There's no effective oversight. Not a single person was fired, demoted, punished over the 9/11 attacks. There’s some evidence that there were ample warnings and those warnings were ignored. In many cases, the intelligence community can do its work, but if they're ignored because the information they're presenting doesn't fit with what is politically popular or politically convenient, then it’s shut out."

"Realistically," Johnson says, "You'll never get it remedied. Hell no. It’s too big, You've got too many institutional assets, you've got too many people’s livelihoods dependent on it. We'll keep doing it until the thing collapses of its own weight."