Human Intelligence Failures


Human Intelligence FailuresLooking back on the Boston Terror attack, it’s clear that the lessons from past have not been learned by intelligence organizations.

After 9/11, then-President George Bush enacted the US PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) which was signed into law in October 2001.  This vital and ever-evolving law allowed federal law enforcement to monitor terrorist activity both inside the United States and around the world in order to keep us all safe.

Part of those powers included the expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that allowed law enforcement to monitor outgoing electronic communications to Jihadist and radical websites and blogs that railed against the West.  In order to keep the citizenry safe, particular attention would be directed to those located in the US as a way of identifying individuals or groups who would commit terrorist acts

Two of the more widely-known terrorist acts in the United States were the Fort Hood Massacre of November 2009 and the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010.  In both cases, the terrorists who committed these acts were being monitored under the FISA law while communicating with a known terrorist named Anwar al-Awalki, eventually killed by a US drone strike in Yemen.

Fast forward to the Boston Marathon.  US federal law enforcement officials were notified by Russian Intelligence Services regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Jihad radicalization as a precautionary and professional warning.  This warning was not the forecasting of a local weatherman: “Chance of Rain – 50%”, but rather from a renowned intelligence agency.  Prior to the Cold War’s and becoming an ally, Russian Intelligence Services was of great concern to the United States and around the world.  They were masters of the spy realm, actively involved in countless acts of espionage and assassinations.

Of the three (3) disciplines of intelligence;

1.      Image Intelligence (IMINT) Satellite, Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) Geospatial (Mapping)

2.      Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Phone (cell/landline), Email, Satellite Intercept

3.      Human Intelligence (HUMINT)

HUMINT is the most critical and least employed.

Whenever an investigation is conducted after a terrorist event, the common refrain from members of the intelligence community is “we just couldn’t connect the dots” or “we did the best we could with the information we had.”

In the 11 years since the 9/11attacks, not only has the process of sharing information remained unchanged, moreover those charged with the keeping us all safe remain unaffected by the tragedies.

As an example of a missed opportunity, on May 9th, 2013, Boston’s Police Commissioner Edward Davis testified before Congress.  When asked a direct question from a member of Congress: “Were you ever made aware of the FBI’s investigation into the Tsarnaev brothers activities?” Commissioner Davis responded “No, but to be fair, I’m not sure that is would have made a difference”.  That response is both political and self-serving and lacks the clarity demanded and due to Boston’s citizens, in particular, those who lost loved ones.

The FBI’s response to Commissioner Davis tacit answer “They (the 3- Detectives and 1-Sergeant of Boston Police Department assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force JTTF, a composition of Federal and local law enforcement) had accesses to the same databases we (The FBI) did”

For folks not involved in law enforcement that statement might sound as a legitimate response.  In reality, it is a complete deflection and abject lie to the American public. The accessibility of a “database (s)” is not the same as having access or being “read-on” to an active terrorist investigation.  It is the equivalent of giving someone a map without telling them the destination.

Massachusetts ranks 20th in overall Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending on  the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  The state is ranked 21 out of the 50 (50 being the lowest threat) states based on a 2009 Department of Justice threat in terms of human suffering: the cost is immeasurable.

As a former section lead with the NYPD Intelligence Division, the unit under my supervision was tasked with investigating complaints of suspected terrorism or any case with a potential nexus to terrorism and the running of human sources.  In order to remain effective, the investigators were required to actually speak with complainants.  If needed, they conducted some form of surveillance of the subject.  The Intelligence Division’s standing was under no circumstances were terrorism cases to be closed from the detective’s desk or information bases from a computer screen.  Detectives in my unit had to leave the building and document their findings.

Invariably, if the investigator’s case took on some promise, members of the JTTF would descend and claim primacy citing “a parallel investigation or a subject/source in common”.  This practice continues to this day.  This is a huge morale killer, both for the investigator and supervisor of the respective non-JTTF unit.

Recently, a formerly classified program entitled “Prism” was disclosed in which volumes of electronic information are being collected from ordinary citizens, all without warrant or cause and at a cost of billions of dollars to the taxpayer, with the intent keeping us safe.

I contend that spending more money on electronic surveillance has never equated to a better result as it relates to an accurate intelligence.  As a Tactical Debriefing Officer in Iraq, many times I was given an intelligence product where the perspectives from an analyst were based solely on electronic signature, thought to be the leader of the terrorist cell.  It was only after the capture and subsequent interview of the intended target that the analyst’s theory was debunked and found to be in inverse order.

No sane person would knowingly board a plane piloted solely by a computer and yet we have some members in the intelligence community basing life and death decisions from unvetted information in exactly the same fashion.

Author: Christopher Strom served in the Marine Corps and is a retired NYPD Sergeant from the Intelligence Divisions Counter Terrorism Unit. He served 15 months in Iraq as the lead tactical debriefing officer.  He continues to instruct on domestic/counter terrorism strategies and Executive Protection to U.S. Special Forces, law enforcement, and college campuses around the country.  Chris’ next 3-day Executive Protection seminar is planned after Labor Day weekend in Staten Island New York. You may reach Chris via LinkedIn at


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