Last fall, US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 30 more. In the days after the shootings, information emerged about Hasan’s strange behaviour at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, where he had trained as psychiatrist and warned commanders they should allow Muslims to leave the Army or risk “adverse events.”
He had also exchanged emails with a well-known radical cleric in Yemen being monitored by US intelligence.
None of this reached the one organisation charged with handling counterintelligence investigations within the Army.
Up the road from Walter Reed, the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threats. Instead, the 902nd’s commander had decided to turn the unit’s attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the US, not knowing that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work.
The 902nd, working on a program named Radical Islamic Threat to the Army, had quietly been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and Al Qaeda student organisations in the US. The assessment “didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already,” said a senior army counterintelligence officer.
Secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defence and intelligence officers. For the Defence Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is limited to specially trained security officers.
These are called Special Access Programs — or SAPs — and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authoriced to know anything about them.
“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs — that’s God,” said James Clapper, the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence. Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.
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