Originally Published on March 8, 1999
Source: Stratfor Worldview
Four Intelligence Scandals and a Culture War
Mar 8, 1999 | 06:00 GMT
Four intelligence scandals blew up in the past week or so: A blown U.S. intelligence collection operation in Iraq; Chinese theft of nuclear weapons secrets from Los Alamos; the claim that Israel’s Mossad had taped Clinton having phone sex with Monica Lewinsky and was using it to blackmail Clinton into stopping a mole hunt for an Israeli agent in the White House; and suspicion that Greece had traded U.S. and NATO jamming codes to the Russians. However true each of these is, somebody has clearly launched a campaign against the Clinton White House. Depending on your point of view, this is either another in an endless series of attempts by a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit the President or a desperate attempt to warn the country about the incompetence or malfeasance of the Administration. But it does not strike us as accidental that these four reports all hit the major media within a few days of each other. We see a “culture war” underway between the Clinton Administration and the national security apparatus. Underlying it is a fundamental disagreement as to the nature of the international system, the threat faced by the United States and the appropriate policies that ought to be followed.
What made last week remarkable was the sudden, simultaneous emergence of four completely unconnected stories of espionage and international duplicity. The stories varied widely over content and time frame. What they had in common was that each involved the United States in some way and all broke into the headlines within a few days of each other. We present them here in no particular order:
A report in the Washington Post asserted that the Central Intelligence Agency had placed agents on the staff of UNSCOM, the United Nations unit that had been assigned to inspect Iraqi weapons production facilities under UN Security Council resolutions. Claims that the weapons inspectors were being used by the CIA had been circulating for months. Indeed, Saddam Hussein had created a major crisis when he decided not to permit American members of the team into Iraq because they were, according to him, CIA agents. Two things made the Post story interesting. First, it provided some hints as to how the U.S. had used UNSCOM remote monitoring to intercept Iraqi communications. Second, the Post story appears to have originated within official Washington circles and has not been met with a spate of denials.
The New York Times broke a story late in the week that claimed that Chinese intelligence had penetrated Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and that it had, over many years, extracted technical information on the construction of miniaturized nuclear warheads. Such miniaturization is critical for the construction of warheads with multiple, independently targeted, re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which the United States and Soviet Union had built, but which China had not been able to construct until they had allegedly stolen plans from Los Alamos. Apparently, the theft had been discovered in 1995, but according to these reports, the Clinton Administration had deliberately ignored the warnings because creating a public crisis would interfere with the Administration’s plans for engagement with China. The Administration did not deny the espionage claim, but did state that they had tightened security.
The New York Post published a story claiming that a book written by Gordon Thomas would claim that Israel’s Mossad had tapped Monica Lewinsky’s phone (along with another, unnamed intelligence agency) and had recorded her having phone sex with the President. The story went on to claim that Mossad had used the tapes to blackmail Clinton. The President then called off a hunt for a suspected Israeli mole in the White House because of Israeli threats that they would release the tapes. In a later interview, Thomas backed off the blackmail claims, stating that Danny Yatom, head of Mossad at the time, had ruled out blackmail. He continued to maintain that Mossad had obtained the tapes.
Last weekend, the Washington Post broke a story stating that the United States had temporarily halted the sale of aircraft to Greece. The reason was that evidence had come to light that Greece, a U.S. ally and member of NATO, had provided the Russians with extremely sensitive codes that would enable someone to jam NATO aircraft. In exchange, according to the reports, Russia gave Greece a system known as SPN-2, which would interfere with the targeting capabilities of NATO aircraft. Presumably, Greece would have used this system against Turkey. Once the reports surfaced, Washington asserted that weapons sales to Greece would resume, because the reports were inaccurate and the transaction had not taken place.
So it was quite a week for fans of espionage and intrigue. Two stories seem pretty much confirmed. No one is denying that the U.S. used UNSCOM as a vector for U.S. espionage activity, nor is anyone denying that China had stolen extremely sensitive information about U.S. nuclear technology. The White House is denying and Israel is saying nothing about the Lewinsky wiretaps and even the author is backing off the blackmail charge. The U.S. is confirming the suspension of weapons sales to Greece but is claiming that investigation has shown that the Greeks did not do what they had been charged with. So two of the stories seem to be pretty much confirmed and two are being denied with varying degrees of plausibility.
We could spend days trying to untangle each of these events without getting to the bottom of them. Let’s, therefore, look at what we know for certain. First, last week saw a surge of very public assertions about espionage being conducted either by the United States or directed toward the United States. Second, while each of them appear unconnected, there is a single, underlying theme: that the Clinton Administration, through the personal actions of the President and through his foreign policy, has left major national security breaches that have materially damaged the United States. Third, that the very existence of these leaks in this concentrated form is proof of the second claim, which is that the Clinton Administration does not know how to conduct a coherent, professional, national security policy.
What emerged from the week was an extremely embarrassing, blown intelligence operation against Iraq that essentially confirmed that Saddam Hussein was telling the truth and the U.S. was lying when Saddam charged that UNSCOM was a tool of U.S. intelligence. It also created a huge credibility gap for all future UN operations with U.S. participation. So, the week revealed that even when the U.S. mounts an effective espionage operation, it cannot control it well enough to keep it from blowing up very publicly.
The other three leaks tended to show enormous recklessness by the White House in pursuing its policies. The China story seemed to show that the White House was so eager for good relations with China that it would not confront China with clear evidence of espionage directed toward securing some of the most vital secrets of the United States. The Greek story carried this theme further by implicitly claiming that the failure of the United States to redefine NATO had enabled the Greeks continuing access to U.S. technology in the post-Cold War world. This, in turn, left U.S. security in the hands of unreliable nations whose interests had dramatically diverged from U.S. interests. Finally, the Lewinsky-Mossad story left the impression of a White House not only casual about national security issues, but willing to open itself to blackmail for the most frivolous of reasons.
In other words, either by coincidence or intention, someone worked very hard to make it appear that the Clinton Administration was wholly incapable of protecting either U.S. secrets or vital, on-going espionage operations. Now, coincidences happen, and it is certainly possible that this avalanche of leaks about U.S. intelligence failures, or successes turned into failures, was coincidence. But what an avalanche of coincidence it was to have all four of these stories breaking into the media within days of each other. What a further coincidence that two of these stories broke in the Washington Post while a third broke into the New York Times. The fourth, the Lewinsky-Mossad story, may well have been a coincidence since we suspect the story was planted by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, as pre-publication publicity. The Chinese, Greek and Iraqi stories, however, all went to major, national media. That meant that the leakers had credibility and access. They were not mid-level officials.
The leakers on the Greek story appear to come from Congress. The structure of the stories made it clear that congressional sources were dissatisfied with the results of the Department of Defense examination and one can infer from that that the source was on either the Senate or House oversight committees. Indeed, those committees are possible sources for both the Iraq and China story as well. Again, assuming that the avalanche was not a remarkable coincidence, we can expand our hypothesis to claim that elements in Congress and in the intelligence communities decided this week to go public with an extraordinary record of something between malfeasance and incompetence far more damaging than anything to do with sex in the Oval Office.
That may well be the trigger to this week’s events. It is now clear that President Clinton has survived the Lewinsky affair. The final shot, the story that he had actually raped a women years before in Arkansas, seems not to have hit the mark. Whatever personal damage was done to Clinton, he is not going to be forced from office. But lurking behind Lewinsky and Whitewater have been charges that the Administration, particularly in its dealings with China, traded national security for business opportunities for politically connected corporations.
But even behind this, even behind the hints of corruption and malfeasance, there has been a deep-seated sense within the defense and intelligence communities that the Administration was simply not sensitive to the national security needs of the United States. From the beginning, there has been a deep policy and cultural divide between the national security apparatus that was honed and seasoned during the Cold War and the Clinton Administration. For the Clintonites, the need to maintain engagement with China and Greece, for example, outweighed archaic concerns about weapons system security. Attention to the fine details of covert operations, which would dictate not operating within the easily exposed milieu of UNSCOM, was not seen as a priority. Maintaining communication security and not calling a mistress on an open telephone line was not taken seriously. Someone in the national security community, or among its congressional allies, decided this week to open a new campaign against the President.
Whoever the leakers were this week, they are trying to paint a picture of an Administration that was simply indifferent to the classical concept of national security. The end of the Lewinsky affair has, it appears to us, opened a new battlefield in which the stakes are much higher. The President and his Administration are being charged with being either fools or knaves when it comes to defending the security interests of the United States. Now, there is the obvious question as to whether the charges in their particulars are true. But it is clear that the Iraq and China stories are true. The congressional oversight committees will probe the truth of the Greek story. And if Mossad didn’t tap Monica’s phone, it was only because of pure luck and not by Presidential caution.
The real issue here is cultural. On one side, those leaking these charges are claiming that the national security state is not archaic, that protecting the integrity of U.S. military and covert operations remains a priority above all other considerations. On the other side, there is the view of the world in which national security considerations, properly understood, have created a new hierarchy of values. In this view, cooperating with China on maintaining financial stability in Asia is more important than weapons technology theft and working with Greece as a conduit to Serbia or the Kurds is more important than keeping jamming codes out of Russian hands. The argument is that maintaining operational security over a covert operation in Iraq is less important than the short-term goal of getting the information needed, since the U.S. has the ability to live through the embarrassment of exposure and the loss of exposed collection systems. Indeed, in the extreme, the argument is that the existence of an Israeli mole in the White House is less important than keeping Netanyahu at the bargaining table with Arafat.
Rulers have traditionally compromised intelligence operations for higher, policy goals. That is to be expected. What surfaced this week, however, has been the charge that the Administration systematically ignored national security issues such as collection systems, jamming codes, and even nuclear technology, in favor of policy goals of dubious value. This is the real debate: were these trade-offs worth it? What did the United States achieve by ignoring foreign operations or failing to maintain its own operational security?
Apart from the truly sensational revelations of the last week, there is a deep policy debate that involves how the United States views the world. If we view the world as having genuinely evolved to a point at which traditional security issues are now marginal, then the Clinton Administration’s behavior (assuming the stories are true at all) is understandable. If, on the other hand, the world continues to behave today much as it did for the past few centuries, then national security considerations remain central. Scandals aside, this is what was being debated in Washington this week.