When Intelligence Isn’t – By Patrick Armstrong


I know a lot of people on this blog have experience in the intelligence world. I would be very interested in hearing what you think of my theory.

In my career in the Canadian government I was never formally in "intelligence" but I did participate in writing many "intelligence assessments". Facebook, Twitter and other kinds of social media didn't much exist at that time but, even if they had, I can't imagine that we would have ever used them as sources of evidence: social media is, to put it mildly, too easy to fake. In writing intelligence assessments, while we did use information gathered from intelligence sources (ie secret), probably more came from what was rather pompously called OSInt (Open Source Intelligence; in other words, stuff you don't need a security clearance to learn). What was, however, the most important part of creating an assessment was the long process of discussion in the group. Much talk and many rewrites produced a consensus opinion.

A typical intelligence assessment would start with a question – what's going on with the economy, or political leadership or whatever of Country X – and would argue a conclusion based on facts. So: question, argument, conclusion. And usually a prediction – after all the real point of intelligence is to attempt to reduce surprises. The intelligence assessment then made its way up the chain to the higher ups; they may have ignored or disagreed with the conclusions but, as far as I know, the assessment, signed off by the group that had produced it, was not tampered with: I never heard of words being put into our mouths. The intelligence community regards tampering with an intelligence assessment to make it look as if the authors had said something different as a very serious sin. All of this is preparation to say that I know what an intelligence assessment is supposed to look like and that I have seen a lot of so-called intelligence assessments coming out of Washington that don't look like the real thing.

Intelligence is quite difficult. I like the analogy of trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when you don't know what the picture is supposed to be, you don't know how many pieces the puzzle has and you're not sure that the pieces that you have are actually from the same puzzle. Let us say, for example, that you intercept a phonecall in which the Leader of Country X is telling one of his flunkeys to do something. Surely that's a gold standard? Well, not if the Leader knew you were listening (and how would you know if he did?); nor if he's someone who changes his mind often. There are very few certainties in the business and many many opportunities for getting it wrong.

So real raw intelligence data is difficult enough to evaluate; social media, on the other hand, has so many credibility problems that it is worthless; worthless, that is, except as evidence of itself (ie a bot campaign is evidence that somebody has taken the effort to do one). It is extremely easy to fake: a Photoshopped picture can be posted and spread everywhere in hours; bots can create the illusion of a conversation; phonecall recordings are easily stitched together: here are films of Buks, here are phonecalls. (But, oddly enough, all the radars were down for maintenance that day). It's so easy, in fact, that it's probably easier to create the fake than to prove that it is a fake. There is no place in an intelligence assessment for "evidence" from something as unreliable as social media.

An "intelligence assessment" that uses social media is suspect.

So why are there so many "intelligence assessments" on important issues depending on social media "evidence"?

I first noticed social media used as evidence during the MH17 catastrophe when Marie Harf, the then US State Department spokesman, appealed to social media and "common sense". She did so right after the Russians had posted radar evidence (she hadn't "seen any of that" said she). At the time I assumed that she was just incompetent. It was only later, when I read the "intelligence assessments" backing up the so-called Russian influence on the US election, that I began to notice the pattern.

There are indications during the Obama Administration that the intelligence professionals were becoming restive. Here are some examples that suggest that "intelligence assessments" were either not being produced by the intelligence professionals or – see the last example – those that were were then modified to please the Boss.

If one adds the reliance on social media to these indications, it seems a reasonable suspicion that these so-called intelligence assessments are not real intelligence assessments produced by intelligence professionals but are post facto justifications written up by people who know what the Boss wants to hear.

We have already seen what appears to have been the first example of this with the "social media and common sense" of MH17. And, from that day to this, not a shred of Kerry's "evidence" have we seen. The long-awaited Dutch report was, as I said at the time, only a modified hangout and very far from convincing.

Russia "invaded" Ukraine so many times it became a joke. The "evidence" was the usual social media accompanied by blurry satellite photos. So bad are the photos, in fact, that someone suggested that "Russian artillery" were actually combine harvesters. In one of the rare departures from the prescribed consensus, a former (of course) German Chief of Staff was utterly unconvinced by thse pictures and explained why. By contrast, here is a satellite photo of Russian aircraft in Syria; others here. Sharply focussed and in colour. The "Russian invasion" photos were lower quality than the Cuban Missile Crisis photos taken six decades earlier! A hidden message? See below.

The so-called Syrian government CW attack on Ghouta in August 2013 was similarly based on social media; heavily dependent, in fact, on "Bellingcat". Quite apart from the improbability of Assad ordering a CW attack on a suburb a short drive away from arriving international inspectors, the whole story was adequately destroyed by Seymour Hersh. (Bellingcat's "proofs", by the way, can be safely ignored – see his faked-up "evidence" that Russians attacked an aid convoy in Syria.)

A dominant story for months has been that Russia somehow influenced the US presidential election. As ever, the Washington Post led the charge and the day after the election told us "Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House". But when we finally saw the "secret assessments" they proved to be laughably damp squibs. The DHS/FBI report of 29 December 2016 carried this stunning disclaimer:

This report is provided “as is” for informational purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the DNI report of 6 January 2017 was the space – nearly half – devoted to a rant that had been published four years earlier about the Russian TV channel RT. What that had to do with the Russian state influencing the 2016 election was obscure. But, revealingly, the report included:

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

In other words, DHS told us to ignore its report and the one agency in the US intelligence structure that would actually know about hacking and would have copies of everything – the NSA – wasn't very confident. Both reports were soon torn apart: John McAfee: "I can promise you if it looks like the Russians did it, then I can guarantee you it was not the Russians". (See 10:30). Jeffrey Carr: "Fatally flawed". Julian Assange: not a state actor. Even those who loath Putin trashed them. In any case, as we now know, the NSA can mimic Russians or anyone else.

In April there was another suspiciously timed "CW attack" in Syria and, blithely ignoring that the responders didn't wear any protective gear in what was supposed to be a Sarin attack, the Western media machine wound up its sirens. The intelligence assessment that was released again referred to "credible open source reporting" and even "pro-opposition social media reports" (! – are the authors so disgusted with what they have to write that they leave gigantic hints like that in plain sight?). Then a page of so of how Moscow trying to "confuse" the world community. And so on. This "intelligence assessment" was taken apart by Theodore Postol.

So, we have strong suggestions that the intelligence professionals are being sidelined or having their conclusions altered; we have far too much reliance of social media; is there anything else that we can see? Yes, there is: many of the "intelligence assessments" contain what look like hints by the authors that their reports are rubbish.

  • Absurdly poor quality photos (maybe they were combine harvesters!).

  • Including a photo of damage to the port engine intake which contradicts the conclusion of the MH-17 report.

  • DHS "does not provide any warranties".

  • The one agency that would know has only "moderate confidence".

  • Irrelevant rants about RT or assumed nefarious Russian intentions.

  • "Pro-opposition social media reports".

There are too many of these, in fact, not to notice – not that the Western media has noticed, of course – they rather jump out at you once you look don't they? I don't recall inserting any little such hints into any of the intelligence assessments that I was involved in.

In conclusion, it seems that a well-founded case can be presented that:

Where done? By whom? That remains to be discovered. More Swamp to be drained.

About Patrick Armstrong

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39 Responses to When Intelligence Isn’t – By Patrick Armstrong

  1. Ghostship says:

    Ah, Bellingcat – it strikes me that they decide on the conclusion and then “fix” the evidence to validate that conclusion – anything that invalidates that conclusion is ignored. In that respect, they’re just like Blair’s infamous “dodgy dossier”.
    It almost like a religious cult – what they are doing is so good that if they lie in the process then so what.

  2. ked says:

    Patrick, is there anything new under the intel sun? I think your argument’s chronology begins far too recently.
    There is an underlying trend, agnostic in nature, that’s made a mess of fact-gathering and analysis on all fronts.
    – facts are created as-desired based upon non-scientific criteria… belief (& desire & will) defines evidence.
    – logic is a tool in service to the creation of proofs for pre-selected conclusions – which are emotional constructs driven by beliefs.
    I note a state of civilization that’s moved further from Enlightened Science towards Engineered Emotions.

  3. Brunswick says:

    Booman Tribune noted that the latest Intel “leaks” exposed the US ability to monitor Russian secure communications,
    And points out that the Intel Community wouldn’t “burn” that asset, unless they thought that Trump/Russia was the greater danger.
    Rather than taking a “wait and see” attitude, a lot of people are staking out “extremist” positions and investing a lot in defence of Trump.
    If it turns out that Trump is a “useful Idiot”, and some members of Team Trump were much more than that, I don’t think they are going to quietly pack their bags and move to Russia, they can’t pretend Trump Who like they did with BushII,
    Gonna be interesting to watch, no matter what happens.

  4. LeaNder says:

    There are indications from her e-mails that then US Secretary of State Clinton listened more to private advisors and newspaper editorials than intelligence sources.
    Strictly, I met a rather large amount of dubious actors in the post 9/11 universe, via a web guide, I have to admit. They seemed quite eager to helping or making a business out OSINT.
    But while I haven’t read Clinton’s emails, or related matters, I found a narrative–don’t ask me by whom–pretty convincing or realistic. She met a couple of expats. Were? Was it Italy?

  5. Bemused Deplorable says:

    The alphabet agencies in the US have become totally politicized and worse than a bad joke, but this didn’t begin under Obama: remember how Cheney had the intel cooked to “justify” his wars in the Middle East under Shrub. And it probably goes back to at least Bush Sr, who was head of the CIA at one point in his career.
    I don’t know how one would put the toothpaste back in the tube at this point. Cleaning out the Obama leakers would be a good start, but getting back to a time when intel analysts worked like Patrick described may be beyond doing now.

  6. VietnamVet says:

    I was never anywhere near intelligence in my 42 years with the federal government. But, I agree totally with Colonel Lang that this is unprecedented.
    I also agree that it is not being done by the career employees. In the federal science agencies, the worker-bees are pointing out that science facts are being wiped off the internet and are hoping to get a buy-out and retire.
    Whoever is leaking to corporate media is high enough up to know what they are doing is illegal, have access to classified information, and feel the risk is worth the reward. They are actively seeking to remove Donald J. Trump as President. The only ones driven ideologically are Eastern European descendants with generational hatred of Russians; plus, upper management who are on the globalist corporate revolving door payroll who need to keep the profits from the new Cold War flowing and the USA as the sole hegemon.
    This is a conflict between nationalists and globalists. If there was any collusion with the Trump Administration; I think the first thing that the Russian Ambassador would have told Jared Kushner that he is now in the battle of his life and his survival is at stake. In fact, I don’t think the Trump Administration has grasped yet the danger that they are in. When pointed out by The Powers That Be, they flip-flop their election promises 180 degrees, every-time.

  7. mauisurfer says:

    bradley for president
    still can’t believe dems chose gore/leiberman
    today’s trainwreck was easily avoidable
    Ray McGovern says:
    The relentless expansion of NATO greatly bothered former Sen. Bill Bradley, a longtime expert on Russia and a sober-minded policy analyst. On Jan. 23, 2008, in a talk before the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he sounded an almost disconsolate note, describing NATO expansion a “terribly sad thing” … a “blunder of monumental proportions. …
    “We had won the Cold War … and we kicked them [the Russians] when they were down; we expanded NATO. In the best of circumstances it was bureaucratic inertia in NATO – people had to have a job. In the worst of circumstances it was certain … irredentist East European types, who believe Russia will forever be the enemy and therefore we have to protect against the time when they might once again be aggressive, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
    As tensions with Russia heightened late last decade, Sen. Bradley added, “Right now we are confronted with something that could have easily been avoided.”

  8. Of course there has always been pressure from the top; there is no Golden Age of Purity. But I think the proportion changed in the Obama Admin to something very high indeed. As to Saddam and his WMD, well he did have and use Mustard and nerve agents, he did have a nuke and bio program. The question was did he still; a question that I think reasonable people could disagree about. The fact that one (reasonable) answer was made more certain than it should have is not, IMO, quite the same as entirely making it up.

  9. If this is what you’re t6alking about, I would give it zero credibility. http://www.boomantribune.com/story/2017/5/27/10331/3082
    The fact, if it is a fact – iff it is a fact: it is the WaPo after all — that JK phoned the Russian Ambo and somebody overheard him says nothing at all about the RF Emb’s secure comms with Moscow Centre.

  10. ToivoS says:

    There is no way that I have any inside views on this problem Patrick describes. But from a formal analysis of career advancement inside a bureaucracy wouldn’t this kind of development encourage young analysts to gather their information from the net after determining the political views of their superiors? They could then report back any false flags that the clandestine services planted. What could go wrong with that?

  11. Simplicius says:

    Mr Armstrong,
    Sadly this will not be news to any Brits. We had the whole ‘dodgy dossier’ episode in the lead up to the Iraq war which ‘sexed up’ intelligence to suit the agenda of Blair & his cabal. The Chilcot report acknowledged that known uncertainties had been ‘spun’ and that untrustworthy source intelligence had been presented as factual beyond doubt. The rot is so deep that ex-MI6 staff now apparently produce the pre-sexed up stuff to order. They call it ‘Business Intelligence’ I believe.

  12. Some years back I was interviewing candidates for my outfit (not Int, per se, but analysis). One of the questions was “you do a report and your boss disagrees, now what do you do?” Correct answer (to an old fart like me) was you talk, you argue, you defend but you don’t cave unless he gives a strong argument. One candidate’s answer was to brightly say “you change it to fit”.
    Ahhhh. Modern education where th only thing you learn is The Correct Answer.
    In short, I’m sure you’re right. One of the things I took out of the final was “written by 25-year-olds in the basement”.
    I can just see it.

  13. Barbara Ann says:

    In the previous post pl says WaPo article implies (decrypted) intercepts of Kislyak’s comms to Moscow were the source, not an intercept of JK’s conversation with him – hence the apparent bombshell. Perhaps you could share your views on that post.

  14. FB Ali says:

    Thank you for this (and your many other similar contributions on your website).
    I am sure that, for many of us, voices of sanity such as yours (and Col Lang’s), are all that keep us still frequenting the public commons.

  15. Walker says:

    Thank you for the beautiful explication of intelligence analysis. It’s a reminder of why this site is so worth visiting.
    On the other hand, this take on the intelligence assessment of Saddam’s WMD seems too kind. Even before the invasion, practically every piece of evidence made public (aluminum tubes, “yellow cake” from Niger, Powell’s UN speech, etc) had been discredited. It was a dodgy dossier in the US as well.

  16. different clue says:

    Booman has long been famous as a Clinton supporter. I would regard his explanation as a retro-excuse to cover up his real belief that burning America’s ability to monitor Russian secure communications was worth doing in order to restore Clinton to the throne which is rightfully hers.
    But he can’t say it that way. Maybe not even to himself.

  17. different clue says:

    I remember on a past thread David Habakkuk writing a very long comment explaining in part how the Chilcot report was itself a qualified limited hangout in the Nixonian sense. I don’t remember when it was. The only way I could think of to find it would be to read all of David Habakkuk’s comments from 1-3 years ago . . . beginning with the visibly longest one and then the next-longest one and then the next-longest one after that . . . and so on till the relevant comment is found.

  18. Brunswick says:

    If there is a there there, some of it will in a year or two, play out in court, some of it in the House and Senate.
    and there is probably a there, there,
    These are not leaks to try to get intel out into the public and past the White House Office of Special Plans,
    These are not Team B leaks to make the “other party” look weak in Defence and boost US Missile Plans,

  19. Bart says:

    Mr Armstrong,
    Check out this video from a popular Turkish series. Watch from the 1 hour mark, do you notice anything. And you can check the date when it was made.

  20. mauisurfer says:

    I once worked for a very wise man, his rule was:
    I will listen to all you have to say, I will argue with you whenever I disagree so you will know exactly my views. But once I decide, it will NEVER go beyond the two of us.
    He also said that he never discussed his work with anyone not even his wife, because he wanted to be able to truthfully say that any leak could not have come from him.
    I thought that very reasonable.

  21. optimax says:

    What did you see?

  22. Bandit says:

    Judge to Kerry, “where is the incontrovertible evidence that Russia took down MH17?”
    Kerry to judge, “it is a state secret, that, if revealed, would jeopardize the very foundations of our government. Take my word for it.”
    Judge to Kerry, “Ok, no problem.”

  23. LeaNder says:

    I think your argument’s chronology begins far too recently.
    Me too, ked. Maybe since I sense this underlying idea, all will be good as long as Trump is given a chance to mend relation with Russia. Everything else will neatly fall fall into line. I am a big fan of the German General a.D. Harald Kujat, by the way, whom he links to. Not only concerning Russia but on Syria too. Not sure, if had been hadn’t I read Pat’s blogs for such a long time.
    OK, so troubles started with Obama. Fair enough. But how again did the elusive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi get into Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the UN? Not that he drew as much attention at the time, or definitively less then Curveball, the Niger yellow cake, the GB student’s paper or more generally the mushroom clouds. But he surely helped to establish the link between 9/11 and Iraq. Iraq as the world’s top sponsor of terrorism. Do we shift to Iran being the same now?

  24. Bart says:

    From the 1:01:46 mark it is the Jihadi John video down to every fine detail that was filmed before he appeared on the scene but was not yet aired. They also made a mistake with the Japanese hostage showing two different light sources.

  25. leveymg says:

    So far, we have seen nothing that’s patently illegal except the leaks.
    Never before have so many security clearances been violated for so little. “Russia-gate” is nine parts attempted Washington political coup, with only a fraction of one part the quantity and quality of evidence that would normally be required to successfully prosecute a real foreign espionage operation.
    It’s almost as if there are no rules in this game, and nobody really cares anymore.

  26. Old Microbiologist says:

    I am left wondering if any of this actually means anything at all outside the beltway. I recently returned from 2 weeks traveling in the greater southwest, an area perhaps even poorer than much of Africa, and no Americans I spoke with had a clue about any of it. They mostly seemed focused on getting along with their lives and all of this stuff was very far away from real life. One thing is for certain and that is no Congressman ever steps foot into these regions.

  27. turcopolier says:

    Patrick Armstrong
    In re JK’s supposed call to the Russia ambassador you are saying that maybe JK discussed his liaison proposal on the phone rather than at a meeting at Trump Tower with Flynn sitting there? pl

  28. turcopolier says:

    Patrick Armstrong
    “The question was did he still; a question that I think reasonable people could disagree about” IMO there is no doubt that they (Iraq) did not still have a nuclear program, a chemical program and the bio weapons program was never anything more than research. I was still in government after the first Gulf War and was in a position to know that in conjunction with the UN inspectors we all thoroughly destroyed these programs. as I explained in “Drinking the Koolaid” the implications made by the Bush 43 Administrations as to the continued existence of these programs were known by them to completely false wen they made their lying statements on TV. The culprits being Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and many others. pl

  29. Mark Chapman says:

    Speaking of MH-17, Sputnik now claims that Russia has copies of SBU documents – leaked to them by an undisclosed source – which prove that Ukraine took energetic and aggressive steps to cover up what it knew was a criminal act on its own part.
    Sputnik is clear that it is not vouching for the authenticity of the documents, but scans of them are available for perusal. Of course the western analysis camp will scream that they are fakes just because they are so convenient to the Russian case, but I prefer to think of them as timely reminders that once something is in writing and the possibility there may be another copy exists – either electronically or otherwise – it’s never really gone no matter how energetic your efforts to destroy all traces of it. I’ve always believed Ukraine did it; the only question for me was if it was deliberate, or an accident which was quickly repurposed. Much hangs on the answer, especially if it is eventually made public.
    Epiphanously, at about the same time, Australia and its fellow Great Democracies are redoubling their efforts to gin up an international tribunal to try Russia and Russian soldiers in absentia for the murders of the MH17 passengers and crew, with their guilt a foregone conclusion. The circling of the vultures appears to be tightening; I wonder why?
    On the subject of fake news, I have a similar post up at my own blog, here:
    My reference – a previous employee of Pheme, a multinational online project funded by the European Commission to define, evaluate and model fake news – walks us through an example of what he says is fake news generated by Putin apologists. I found it fascinating, not least because he appears to conclude that as soon as an opinion is injected, the item becomes ‘fake news’ if the opinion does not parallel western ideology.
    Patrick never disappoints, and even when he writes something which already has wide acceptance, there is always some detail buried in there which was right in front of your nose, but you didn’t notice. In this case, for me, it was the reminder that American satellite photography of Russian targets is nearly always razor-sharp and crisp, while its photography from inside Ukraine looks as if it had been lifted from “The Outer Limits”. As he asks, rhetorically – why?

  30. optimax says:

    Thank you.

  31. NO idea. It’s the the WaPo so it’s probably, at the very most stringent, just a rumour popped out by somebody who heard somebody and knows what the Bezos Blog wants to hear. I mean to say, on some subjects, the only true thing about WaPo, NYT, Economist et al is that they printed it.

  32. I wasn’t close to it — I do know our guys said he didn’t have it — but my personal view was that there might well have been some. But, as it truned out, other than a few bits left over, there wasn’t.

  33. A Buk warhead has something like 6000 lethal fragments; if one exploded a metre and a half from the side, there would be a lot more of these fragments in the wreckage than were found. So I’ve never been a fan of the Buk theory.

  34. Mark Chapman says:

    And yet there are a lot of holes in the Ukrainian Air Force fighter theory as well; for one, and airliner is typically bopping along at over 400 knots, around 550 mph. A fighter can do that, of course, and many types have the ceiling although for some bizarre reason, defenders of the theory keep sticking with the SU-25. But most would be struggling and combat engagements at that speed would likely be limited to one pass. It’s possible, but sketchy.
    If an SA-11 exploded a meter and a half away from the cockpit, most of the fragments would pass right through – an airliner is pretty thin-skinned despite how strong it is, and most of whatever hit it hit the cockpit, much of which is just lexan polycarbonate and which shattered, so we do not have those surfaces to assess for holes.
    The part that always bugged me was ‘surprise’ discoveries after the fact of ‘Buk missile parts’ in the wreckage. This would absolutely not be the case – the missile, as you know, disintegrates when it explodes and no part of the missile touches the aircraft except for the fragments from the exploded warhead. All pieces of the missile body, engine, stabilizer fins, whatever, as well as all the warhead fragments which did not hit the aircraft at all would fall to earth where the attack occurred. And that was miles from where the plane’s wreckage hit the ground.
    I’m not sure how it was done, but I am sure it was Ukraine who was responsible. And I am confident the west at least suspects it, as well, and is complicit in covering it up by letting the prime suspect chair the investigation and have unsupervised access to all the evidence.

  35. Procopius says:

    While I agree with this article, I think the author is confusing propaganda material being passed to the loyal government media with actual “intelligence assessments.” The “assessment” of 6 January was certainly an embarrassment, but do you see any indication that anyone remembers it? If these clumsy attempts at persuasion are really reflective of the “intelligence” our “leaders” are getting, then the country is in much worse danger than we had already realized, and not coming from the incompetent clowns in the Trump administration. Unfortunately my own brief exposure to intelligence was 60 years ago and I have no way to assess the current practitioners.

  36. Procopius says:

    I keep trying to remember where I saw Powell’s speech — I was living in Thailand at the time (still am), so it must have been on the internet. Anyway, I was appalled, because I am retired Army and I had, prior to that, greatly admired Colin Powell for restoring sanity to military doctrine. I had also believed he was a man of integrity, which is not so often encountered in the ranks of flag officers. It was such a mish-mash of mendacity and unpersuasive argument that I have never believed either Gen. Powell or his former aide COL Lawrence Wilkerson since then.

  37. sid_finster says:

    A MiG 29 has a radar signature similar to that of a Su-25.
    MiG 29s are in Ukrainian service.

  38. Thomas says:

    Interesting that Russia is beginning to finally play this card to the western public.
    It is one of the explanations for the Neo Con meltdown and no holds barred (and incompetent) attempt for a Purple and Pink Cupcake coup. Their Ideal Fantasy of Global Domination is falling off the pedestal for a massive face plant. While this story is small piece to the puzzle, it is the keystone.

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