The US intelligence community is in a state of disarray-most recently illustrated by the Boston Marathon Bombings-and the idea of a more structured cooperation with Russian intelligence as a direct result of this incident is a paper tiger.
The mainstream US media has latched on to the idea of a new era of US-Russian intelligence cooperation as a result of the Chechen connection to the Boston bombing because this is an attractive post-Cold War idea that makes for good headlines.
The reality is clearly less dramatic. The mounting US intelligence failures since 9/11 can in large part be contributed to a lack of cooperation among US agencies themselves. Adding increased cooperation on a clearly structured level with external agencies simply isn’t feasible.
This idea is even trumping the blame game over Boston that will seek to determine whose intelligence failure this really was and who was responsible for the root causes of the incident: Russia or the US?
Last week, police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (of Chechen origins) after a shootout that left the other suspect, his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan, dead. There are, however, varying versions of this story, some of which say the shootout was against an unarmed man. According to investigators, Dzhokhar has admitted under interrogation that he and his brother were on route to New York to conduct a second attack when they were stopped by police. They blame the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for their radicalization. But there are plenty of unanswered questions here.
Both brothers were on Russian and US watch lists, and a six-month trip a year ago to Dagestan, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Russia’s North Caucasus, was on everyone’s radar.
Russia says it didn’t have any substantive evidence to hand over to US intelligence agencies on the two brothers; likewise, US agencies had nothing conclusive prior to the attack. Indeed, Dzhokhar, by all accounts, was nothing more than a student studying marine biology at a Boston University, on an academic scholarship.
Try as it might to get the US to become more fully engaged in what the Kremlin calls the “international terrorist threat” emanating from its North Caucasus, the US is not positioned to take the bait.
US intelligence services remain only partially reformed and budgetary warfare among other things keeps agencies from sharing their intelligence to prevent incidents such as the Boston Marathon Bombing.
A brief look at the intelligence failures from 9/11 onwards illustrates this predicament clearly. The 9/11 attack itself represented the failure of the US intelligence community to determine the wider threat posed by transnational terrorism, but the 9/11 Commission also strongly noted the prevailing problems of bureaucratic rivalries. The information was there, but politics and inter-agency rivalry kept it from being spread.
Likewise, the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear” bombing attempt by a Nigerian on board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was only thwarted because of the passengers. US intelligence played no role in the event, and a Senate Select Committee noted 14 intelligence failures over this incident. Among those failures were competing intelligence priorities. The suspect, after all, was on the US database of suspected terrorists, but his name was not on a “no-fly” list or other lists that would have subjected him to more security scrutiny. None of these lists is synchronized.
That same year, we have the Fort Hood shooting, when US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the Texas military base, killing 13 people. Information that Hasan was actually being monitored by US intelligence prior to this shooting was never shared with Army counterintelligence, which could have prevented the incident.
Then we have the Arab Spring, which snuck up on the US intelligence community. It went viral on the internet before US intelligence caught on.
The bottom line is that there are too many turf wars among US intelligence agencies to boost cooperation between US and Russian intelligence in any structured manner. The two countries already share intelligence to some extent in relation to the “war on terror”, but this will remain limited for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the US intelligence community itself is not cohesive.
And in terms of “competing intelligence,” it would be wise to keep in mind that the FBI was monitoring Tsnaraev for five years, and still asked the US public to help them identify the suspects.
There are also a number of reports that will never been truly confirmed that a counter-terrorist drill that included bomb-sniffing dogs was actually taking place during the Boston Marathon.
The flurry of stories about a potential ramp up of US-Russian intelligence cooperation present a topical diversion from the chaos surrounding the Boston bombing-and little else.