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On Thursday, November 6, 2008, two days after he was elected president of the United States, Senator Barack Obama arranged to meet in Chicago with Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence (DNI).
McConnell, 65, a retired Navy vice admiral with stooped shoulders, wisps of light brown hair and an impish smile, had come to present details of the most highly classified intelligence operations and capabilities of the vast American espionage establishment he oversaw as DNI. In just 75 days, the formidable powers of the state would reside with the 47-year-old Obama. He would soon be, as the intelligence world often called the president, “The First Customer.”
McConnell arrived early at the Kluczynski Federal Building, an austere Chicago skyscraper, with Michael J. Morell, who had been President George W. Bush’s presidential briefer on 9/11 and now headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s analysis division.
Two members of Senator Obama’s transition team from the last Democratic administration greeted them: John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff for the final two years of his presidency, and James Steinberg, a former deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House.
“We’re going to go in with the president-elect and hear what you guys have got to say,” Podesta said.
McConnell paused awkwardly. He had received instructions from President Bush. “As president,” Bush had told McConnell, “this is my decision. I forbid any information about our success and how this works” except to the president-elect. McConnell knew Bush had never been comfortable using the terminology “sources and methods.” But what the president meant was that nothing should be disclosed that might identify human spies and new techniques developed to infiltrate and attack al Qaeda, fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and defend the nation.
“John, sorry,” McConnell said. “I’d love to be able to accommodate, but I didn’t make these rules.” He related Bush’s instructions—only the president-elect and anyone designated to take a top national security cabinet post could attend. “Neither of you are designated. So I can’t. I’m not going to violate the president’s direction.”
“Okay, I got it,” Podesta said, barely concealing his irritation. Podesta had had all-source intelligence access before, as had Steinberg. He thought this was not helpful to Obama, who was largely unfamiliar with intelligence briefings.
Obama arrived still in full campaign mode with ready smiles and firm handshakes all around. He was buoyant in the afterglow of victory.
Two months earlier, after receiving a routine top secret briefing from McConnell on terrorism threats, Obama had half joked, “You know, I’ve been worried about losing this election. After talking to you guys, I’m worried about winning this election.”
“Mr. President-elect, we need to see you for a second,” Podesta said, steering him off to a private room. When Obama returned, his demeanor was different. He was more reserved, even aggravated. The transition from campaigning to governing—with all its frustrations—was delivering another surprise. His people, the inner circle from the campaign and the brain trust of Democrats he had carefully assembled to guide his transition, were being excluded. The first customer–elect was going to have to go it alone.
McConnell and Morell sat down with Obama in a private, secure room called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. It was an unusually small room in the center of the building where a bathroom might normally be located. Designed to prevent eavesdropping, the SCIF was windowless and confining, even claustrophobic.
At first, this would be something of a continuation and amplification of the earlier briefing McConnell had given candidate Obama. There were 161,000 American troops at war in Iraq and 38,000 in Afghanistan. Intelligence was making significant contributions to the war efforts. But the immediate threat to the United States came not from these war zones, but from Pakistan, an unstable country with a population of about 170 million, a 1,500-mile border with southern Afghanistan, and an arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons.
Priority one for the DNI, and now Obama, had to be the ungoverned tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network, and branches of the extremist insurgent Taliban had nested in 150 training camps and other facilities.
Combined, the seven regions forming Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were about the size of New Jersey. The extremist groups and tribal chiefs ruled much of the FATA and had footholds in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province.
In September 2006, Pakistan had signed a treaty ceding full control of the FATA’s North Waziristan region to Taliban-linked tribal chiefs, creating a kind of Wild West for al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents attacking the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In the earlier briefing, McConnell had laid out the problem in dealing with Pakistan. It was a dishonest partner of the U.S. in the Afghanistan War. “They’re living a lie,” McConnell had said. In exchange for reimbursements of about $2 billion a year from the U.S., Pakistan’s powerful military and its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), helped the U.S. while giving clandestine aid, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban. They had an “office of hedging your bets,” McConnell said.
Dealing with the ISI would break your heart if you did it long enough, McConnell had explained. It was as if there were six or seven different personalities within the ISI. The CIA exploited and bought some, but at least one section—known as Directorate S—financed and nurtured the Taliban and other terrorist groups. CIA payments might put parts of the ISI in America’s pocket, McConnell had said, but the Pakistani spy agency could not or would not control its own people.
The Pakistani leadership believed the U.S. would eventually withdraw from the region, as it had toward the end of the Cold War once the occupying Soviet forces retreated from Afghanistan in 1989. Their paranoid mind-set was, in part, understandable. If America moved out again, India and Iran would fill the power vacuum inside Afghanistan. And most of all, Pakistan feared India, an avowed enemy for more than 60 years. As a growing economic and military powerhouse, India had numerous intelligence programs inside Afghanistan to spread its influence there. Pakistan worried more about being encircled by India than being undermined by extremists inside its borders.
The best way out of this would be for Obama to broker some kind of peace between India and Pakistan, the DNI had said. If Pakistan felt significantly more secure in its relations with India, it might stop playing its deadly game with the Taliban.
In his September overview, McConnell also discussed strikes by small unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predators that had sophisticated surveillance cameras and Hellfire missiles. The covert action program authorized by President Bush targeted al Qaeda leadership and other groups inside Pakistan. Although classified, the program had been widely reported in the Pakistani and American media.
Only four strikes had been launched in the first half of 2008, Obama had been told. The U.S. had uncovered evidence that the Pakistanis would delay planned strikes in order to warn al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, whose fighters would then disperse. In June 2008, McConnell had taken human and technical intelligence to President Bush showing multiple conversations between an ISI colonel and Siraj Haqqani, a guerrilla commander whose network was allied with the Afghan Taliban.
“Okay,” Bush had said, “we’re going to stop playing the game. These sons of bitches are killing Americans. I’ve had enough.” He ordered stepped-up Predator drone strikes on al Qaeda leaders and specific camps, so-called infrastructure targets. It was like attacking an anthill—the survivors would run away in the aftermath. These “squirters” were then tracked to the next hideout, helping to build the intelligence data on terrorist refuges.
Bush had directed that Pakistan receive “concurrent notification” of drone attacks, meaning they learned of a strike as it was underway or, just to be sure, a few minutes after. American drones now owned the skies above Pakistan.
In addition, McConnell had given President Bush intelligence showing that the Pakistani ISI had helped the Haqqani network attack the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 7, four months earlier. The U.S. had warned India, which had put its embassy in a defensive posture. But it was not enough. Fifty-eight people were killed and more than 100 injured in a suicide bombing.
McConnell had then moved during the September briefing to one of the most pressing worries. Al Qaeda was recruiting people from the 35 countries who didn’t need visas to enter the United States. It was paying them good money, bringing them into the ungoverned regions by the dozens, training them in all aspects of warfare—explosives and chemical—and trying to have them acquire biological weapons.
“We’re a big open sieve,” McConnell said. “They’re trying to get people with passports that don’t require a visa to get into the United States.” Al Qaeda had not succeeded yet, but that was the big worry. “We can’t find any cell in the United States, but we suspect there may be some.”
That got Obama’s full attention. Some of the 9/11 hijackers had operated for nearly 18 months in the United States before their attacks. As he had said at the end of that meeting, there were reasons to worry about winning the election.
The November 6 briefing to Obama picked up exactly where that earlier presentation had left off. McConnell could now provide him with a fuller description of how the intelligence community culled and collected information.
“Mr. President-elect, we can share anything with you,” McConnell said in the soothing accent of his native South Carolina.
For example, the top secret code words for the Predator drone operations were SYLVAN-MAGNOLIA. The code words set up Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) to which only people with the highest-level security clearances and a need to know were granted access. The president-elect was now, of course, one of those people.
The U.S. had scored an extraordinary intelligence coup in the un-governed regions of Pakistan as the result of blending two intelligence cultures—human sources and technical intelligence such as communications intercepts and satellite and drone imagery.
But, he said, the real breakthrough had been with human sources. This is what President Bush wanted to protect at all costs. The drones were basically flying high-resolution video cameras armed with missiles. The only meaningful way to point drones toward a target was to have spies on the ground telling the CIA where to look, hunt and kill. Without spies, the video feed from the Predator might as well be a blank television screen.
McConnell provided extensive details about these human sources, who had been developed in an expensive, high-risk program over five years. The spies were the real secrets that Obama would carry with him from that moment forward. They were the key, in some respects, to protecting the country.
President Bush had absolute views on protecting them. “His instructions to us are no one except you or one of your designated cabinet officials can be provided the information,” McConnell said. President Bush did not want any “tourists,” as he called them, and no “professors” who might be part of the Obama transition team but later reveal the spies in a speech, a book or a careless comment.
Obama indicated he understood.
The CIA is so guarded with human sources that each one has a randomly selected code name such as MOONRISE. If the source is productive and undertaking great risks, word might get around the agency. He’s doing great, but when too many people know about him he is killed off. There is a burial ceremony, everybody’s sad. MOONRISE paid the ultimate price, his CIA case officer would say. Except MOON-RISE is not actually dead. His code name has changed. And now the CIA has another source called SHOOTING STAR. Same guy, new name. MOONRISE is SHOOTING STAR. It’s an elaborate and manipulative ruse in order to grant MOONRISE the ultimate protection—death.
On the technical side, McConnell explained, the National Security Agency (NSA), which he had headed from 1992 to 1996, had developed a breakthrough eavesdropping capability. It had begun years before with a project code-named SHARKFINN that was designed to speed the acquisition, storage, dissemination and availability of intercepted communications, including cell phone calls and e-mails. The project advanced and was soon referred to as RT10, which increased the speed in real time to factors of up to 10 to the 10th power, or 10 billion times faster. It was now called RTRG—Real Time, Regional Gateway. RTRG meant there was a way to capture all the data, store it, and make it instantly available to intelligence analysts and operators, allowing the U.S. to react quickly in response to the enemy.
In Afghanistan, the program code name was JESTER. Specialized units called JACKAL teams operated countrywide to monitor the insurgency.
“They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally,” McConnell said.
The human and technical intelligence pointed with confidence, McConnell said, to the Quetta Shura Taliban as the central insurgent group in the Afghanistan War. This “shura,” an Arabic word meaning council, was headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader who had fled Afghanistan after the U.S. attack into his country after 9/11. There had been a $25 million reward on his head ever since.
Mullah Omar was in the Pakistani city of Quetta, just about 60 miles from the Afghan border in the province of Baluchistan. Unlike the vast desert of the FATA, Quetta had a population of almost 900,000, which made drone strikes virtually impossible.
“Here’s the center of gravity,” McConnell said.
“Well,” Obama asked, “what are we doing about that?”
Not that much, McConnell indicated.
The problem was sending American forces across the border into Pakistani cities where drones could not strike. Just two months earlier, on September 3, a day after McConnell had given candidate Obama his first briefing, President Bush authorized a cross-border operation into Pakistan. It was supposed to be a quiet, in-out Special Forces ground raid by about two dozen Navy SEALs on a house believed to be used by al Qaeda in the town of Angor Adda in the FATA. The plan was for the SEALs to seize al Qaeda’s documents and computers, their “stuff,” as McConnell called it.
But in that part of the world, people often ran toward automatic weapons fire and explosions—instead of away from the danger—to see what was happening, McConnell explained. Civilians were killed in the raid, causing all hell to break loose in the Pakistani press.
The raid had been poorly planned and coordinated, McConnell acknowledged. The Pakistani government angrily claimed it was a violation of their sovereignty. Bush was extremely upset about the civilian casualties, and said America would not do that again. In the Bush administration, there would be no more ground operations into Pakistan, period.
One important secret that had never been reported in the media or elsewhere was the existence of the CIA’s 3,000-man covert army in Afghanistan. Called CTPT, for Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, the army consisted mostly of Afghans, the cream of the crop in the CIA’s opinion. These pursuit teams were a paid, trained and functioning tool of the CIA that was authorized by President Bush. The teams conducted operations designed to kill or capture Taliban insurgents, but also often went into tribal areas to pacify and win support.
McConnell said a second immediate threat was al Qaeda in Yemen, which was commonly referred to as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group had attacked tourists and in September 2008 detonated two vehicle bombs outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen, killing 19 people, including six of the terrorists.
McConnell and Morell turned to the Iranian nuclear program. It was well known that Iran was trying to get nuclear weapons. Despite the suspension of some of the Iranian nuclear programs, others continued or could be restarted. And there were hidden facilities. McConnell said he was convinced that Iran was going to get a gun-type nuclear weapon—probably primitive—but one that could be detonated in the desert with great dramatic effect. This would be done, in his view, between 2010—less than two years off—and 2015. It would create an incredibly unstable situation in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia would call in their chips with Pakistan, which had been receiving Saudi oil, and try to get help developing a Saudi nuclear weapon. Egypt and other countries in the region could go all out to develop their own weapons.
Another main threat, McConnell said, was North Korea, which had enough nuclear material for six bombs and an effort underway to increase that. The North Korean leaders were loony. Attempts to negotiate with the regime would likely repeat the Bush administration’s experience. It would be “negotiate, prevaricate, escalate and renegotiate,” he said. The North Koreans would talk, they would lie, they would escalate and threaten to walk away, and then they would try to renegotiate. “That’s how it’s going to work,” McConnell insisted.
Iran and North Korea were particularly difficult intelligence targets because of their closed societies. The absence of U.S. embassies in the countries made spying more of a problem. The nuclear programs in both had, in part, been penetrated by U.S. intelligence, McConnell said. But, Iran and North Korea represented serious short- and long-term threats.
“What else?” Obama asked.
“We haven’t talked at all yet about cyber,” McConnell said. “What the Chinese did to you.”
The Chinese had hacked into the Obama campaign computers in the summer of 2008 and moved files and documents out at an astonishing rate.
“Yeah,” Obama said, “they got McCain too.”
Yes, McConnell confirmed. “The point is what they did to you and did to McCain, they took your data. And they’re clumsy, so they got caught.” U.S. intelligence had detected it, and the FBI had warned both campaigns, which had taken some defensive steps. “But the real issue would have been, what if they had destroyed your data?”
That would have been a problem, Obama said.
“All right,” McConnell said, “roll that over to the nation.”
“This is important,” Obama said.
McConnell explained how the Real Time, Regional Gateway gave the NSA an incredible exploitation capability—reading other people’s mail, listening to their conversations, and sorting their data. That was NSA’s traditional speciality. But there was also an attack capability that Bush had approved in 2007 against computers and communications in Iraq. The NSA had argued that it was one of the most powerful capabilities in the world, so it had been used with the utmost care and restraint in order to avoid starting a cyber war.
The NSA’s offensive capability, called Computer Network Attack (CNA), was the most sophisticated stealthy computer hacking. Cyber teams could break into computer systems in foreign countries. Their digital work somewhat resembled the targeted quick strikes by the Delta Force or a Navy SEAL team. The highly secret operations were run through the Army Network Warfare Battalion of the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade at NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters outside Washington, D.C.
There was another tier—Computer Network Defense (CND).
McConnell noted that the United States was vulnerable to cyber attacks. If the 19 terrorists from 9/11 had been cyber-smart and attacked a single bank, it would’ve had an order of magnitude greater impact on the American and global economies than dropping the two World Trade Center towers, he said. The Bank of New York and Citibank each handle about $3 trillion a day in financial transfers. To put that in perspective, the size of the entire American economy, its annual Gross Domestic Product, is $14 trillion. If the bank data was destroyed, there would be financial chaos. People wouldn’t be able to get their money, know whether they had it, or if they had made payments. Imagine if you disrupted that process? Wealth was most often just an entry on a computer. Modern banking was built on assurance and confidence in those digital entries rather than gold and currency. A few people could ruin the U.S. and the global economy and destroy faith in the U.S. dollar, McConnell said. There were no real protections and the system was totally open to attack, he said. Power grids, telecommunication lines, air traffic control—all computer-dependent enterprises—were likewise vulnerable to cyber attacks.
“I want you to brief my entire cabinet,” Obama said. “I want you to give me a roadmap about what the nation should do about this.”
He thanked McConnell and Morell.
Obama later told one of his closest advisers, “I’m inheriting a world that could blow up any minute in half a dozen ways, and I will have some powerful but limited and perhaps even dubious tools to keep it from happening.”
In an Oval Office interview on July 10, 2010, President Obama told me he did not want to confirm or deny specific quotes for this book. “What I’ll try to give you is a general overview of how I was thinking at any particular point in time.”
He said McConnell’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and along the countries’ border region was “sobering” but not “surprising.”
The president explained, “It did corroborate some of my deepest concerns about the fact that the Taliban had strengthened, were controlling more parts of the territory, and that we did not have a strategy in Pakistan for the FATA and the Northwest region.”
He said the briefings “confirmed that fact that you had the Taliban, the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, a whole range of these al Qaeda affiliates, essentially, who were operating very aggressively. And we were not putting a lot of pressure on them.”
“And did you say, okay,” I asked, “this is one of the things I’m going to try to fix?”
“Yes,” he said.
He also generally confirmed the ideas in his comment to an aide about what he was inheriting. “Events are messy out there,” Obama told me. “At any given moment of the day, there are explosive, tragic, heinous, hazardous things taking place. All of which, objectively, you would say, somebody should do something about this.”
Obama acknowledged that after the election the world’s problems were seen as his responsibility. “People are saying, you’re the most powerful person in the world. Why aren’t you doing something about it?”
© 2010 Bob Woodward