The Year in Intelligence

And the most important national security story you missed in 2012.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

2012 was a strange year for spy agencies. Between the government’s secret drone program, David Petraeus’s sex scandal, and a new Mao-suited, Disney-loving, nuclear saber-rattling North Korean dictator, intelligence news often seemed like it was right out of a Hollywood script. Meanwhile, film glitterati were busy insisting that "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" hewed to historical reality. Except for those made-up parts — like Argo’s dramatic escape from Iran (not so dramatic in real life) and ZD30’s misleading torture scenes suggesting the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods led straight to bin Laden when they didn’t. (I guess when director Kathryn Bigelow boasted that, "What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film," she had a very creative view of journalism or a very heavy reliance on the word "almost").

Below I’ve listed my picks for the top five most important intelligence stories of the year. I am also giving honorable mention to the most important national security speech that you probably didn’t hear or read but should.

1.  Cyber fail. Despite an ominous warning from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the United States faces a "cyber Pearl Harbor," Congress failed to pass cyber security legislation protecting America’s critical infrastructure. As Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman wrote in a December New York Times op-ed, a cyber attack "is not a matter of if, but when." Digital networks, from banks to dams to electrical grids to defense contractors and Internet behemoths like Google, are being hacked daily by a rogue’s gallery of bad actors — including individuals, criminal gangs, and nations like Russia, China, and possibly Iran. Roughly 80 percent of America’s critical infrastructure is privately owned and still frighteningly vulnerable. Why? Because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders lobbied aggressively against even the watered down, voluntary cyber security measures proposed in the Collins/Lieberman bill.

2.  Year of the drones. You know something has gone global when Libyan rebels can order one off the Internet and kids can make their own out of Legos. It seemed like every week this year, a drone strike was taking out al Qaeda’s #3. Two key longer-term trends also emerged in 2012. The first was the Pentagon’s massive expansion of drone bases around the world. The second was the Obama administration’s halting first steps toward codifying its targeted killing policy. Together, both trends suggest that drones have moved from an interim band-aid fix to a permanent fixture in the U.S. national security arsenal. Refining the legal and policy architecture for lethal drone strikes (when, where, and how should the CIA vs. the military be in charge?) will be a major issue in the year ahead. So too will debates about domestic drone uses and international norms for targeted killing as the proliferation of drone technology accelerates.

3.  Torture debate redux: Just when you thought those Abu Ghraib photos and waterboarding discussions were history, "Zero Dark Thirty" and a much lesser known, 6,000-page classified Senate report have reignited the torture debate. Most interrogation experts have long argued that torture does not work. And while social scientists cannot conduct torture experiments in a lab, related research on sleep deprivation finds that subjects are less able to think clearly and divulge accurate information even if they want to when denied sleep. Yet polling shows that Americans are decidedly more pro-torture now than they were in the Bush administration. Spy-themed entertainment appears to be the reason why. My August 2012 national poll (which surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 Americans) found that spy TV show and movie watchers are significantly more likely to approve of assassinating terrorists, waterboarding them, chaining them naked in uncomfortable positions, and transferring them to countries known to use torture than people who haven’t watched fictional spies vowing to do "whatever it takes."

4.  Petraeus’s fall. The headlines were all about the former CIA director’s extramarital affair with his fit and fawning biographer, Paula Broadwell. But the real story here is about the militarization of intelligence and the dangers of assuming that generals can run anything. Petraeus was never a good fit for leading CIA. He was a general used to giving orders in an agency that valued questioning and dissent. He came from the Army, which trains people to fight, and went to the Agency, which trains people to learn. He cultivated celebrity in a CIA culture that prizes secrecy above all. The CIA’s yet-to-be-named next director comes at a pivotal moment: the agency has become more focused on killing and less focused on old fashioned human intelligence collection and analysis than it has in decades.

5.  DOD’s spy grab and congressional smackdown. Late last year, word leaked to the Washington Post that the Pentagon was planning a huge expansion of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service. But Congress stopped the madness and quickly put the kibosh on this turf grab, noting that the Defense Intelligence Agency was notoriously bad at training and managing the spies it already had — so bad in fact, that two former defense secretaries had recommended transferring recruitment and management of DOD’s spooks to the CIA. Stay tuned. The Pentagon is designed to take and deny territory. Beltway bureaucratic turf is no exception.

Honorable Mention: The most important national security speech of 2012 you probably never heard of.

On November 30, outgoing Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson delivered a provocative speech to the Oxford Union pondering how the war against al Qaeda and its associated forces will end. At its core, Johnson’s speech was a plea to resist treating the post-9/11 counterterrorism war footing as the "new normal." War, he says, "must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs." Some day (presumably not far off), Johnson says the United States will reach a "tipping point" when so many al Qaeda and affiliate leaders have been captured or killed that the organization can no longer launch a "strategic attack against the United States." I don’t know what strategic attack means other than something big and scary. (Does a cyber attack that kills nobody directly but cripples the U.S. economy count? What about foiled or failed plots? And isn’t the crux of the terrorist problem that small bands of enemies can wield enormous destruction with little warning, making strategic attacks always possible?) Whatever it means, Johnson thinks strategic attack capacity is the key standard. When al Qaeda lacks it, it can be considered "effectively destroyed," our military approach to terrorism should end, and we will have to confront the fate of terrorist detainees being held without criminal convictions.

These are strong, if ironic, words from someone who helped forge "the new normal" counterterrorism legal policies in the Obama Pentagon. What Johnson said, why he said it, whether he was right, and why on earth he said it at Oxford instead of at home will be grist for counterterrorism policy wonks for years to come. 

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola