It appears that a gentleman was selling the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology information that he claimed he could pull out of Al Jazeera broadcasts using his special proprietary (and non-existent) software. A comment on another site (NPR?) noted that he was doing much the same as the scientists did in Carl Sagan’s book Contact to extract the aliens’ message out of a TV broadcast. Hmmmmm.
And just to make things better, this man has received money for questionable services from other parts of the US Government, as well. He claimed to have software that would automatically detect weapons pictured in video feeds, and to have other software that could detect submarines from photographs of open ocean. All of this apparently was bogus.
On the terrorism threat information, the article alleges that CIA’s counterterrorism analysts and operators were kept in the dark about the nature of the source. Reportedly, the Directorate of Science and Technology was playing this close to the vest, treating it as a very sensitive source.
This is a fascinating example of the costs of compartmentation. Compartmentation allows scams like this to happen, among the many other costs that it imposes. On the other hand, the lack of compartmentation comes with completely different costs paid in different currencies. Striking the proper balance is the real trick. There’s no formula for doing that and there is (necessarily) very little oversight, whether by Congress, the media, or the judiciary. As a result, you should expect that screw-ups like this will happen not infrequently, but you won’t hear about them. Richard Betts’ has correctly noted that intelligence failures can never be completely eliminated: there are just too many irreconcilable imperatives embedded in the business. This observation holds true not just for intelligence analysis. It applies to other parts of the endeavor, as well.
Oh, and to make things EVEN better, read the story at Playboy’s site and you will also receive a polite invitation to “Click Here” to “See all of Playboy’s classic military-themed nude pictorials.”
UPDATE 3 January 2010: Michael D. Seller’s blog has a similar comment about the tension between security and efficiency. He writes from the perspective of having been a “field officer” in the CIA.