Terrorism and Counterintelligence

Title:                  Terrorism and Counterintelligence

Author:                 Mobley, Blake W.

Mobley, Blake W. (2012). Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection. New York: Columbia University Press

LCCN:                    2011046373

HV6431 .M625 2012


Date Updated:  February 10, 2016

Protecting information, identifying undercover agents, and operating clandestinely—efforts known as counterintelligence—are the primary objectives of terrorist groups who hope to evade detection by intelligence and law enforcement officials. Some strategies work well, some fail, and professionals tasked with tracking these groups are deeply invested in grasping the difference.

Discussing the challenges terrorist groups face as they multiply and plot international attacks, while at the same time providing a framework for decoding the strengths and weaknesses of their counterintelligence, Blake W. Mobley offers an indispensable text for the intelligence, military, homeland security, and law enforcement fields. He outlines concrete steps for improving the monitoring, disruption, and elimination of terrorist cells, primarily by exploiting their mistakes in counterintelligence. A key component of his approach is to identify and keep close watch on areas that often exhibit weakness. While some counterintelligence pathologies occur more frequently among certain terrorist groups, destructive bureaucratic tendencies, such as mistrust and paranoia, pervade all organizations. Through detailed case studies, Mobley shows how to recognize and capitalize on these shortcomings within a group’s organizational structure, popular support, and controlled territory, and he describes the tradeoffs terrorist leaders make to maintain cohesion and power. He ultimately shows that no group can achieve perfect secrecy while functioning effectively and that every adaptation or new advantage also produces new vulnerabilities.

Counterintelligence is more marked by failures (when they become public) than successes (which almost never become public.). Stan A. Taylor[1] discusses failures in “Counterintelligence Failures in the United States,” chapter 18 in Handbook of Intelligence Studies.[2]


Counterintelligence is charged to identify, assess, prioritize, and counter intelligence threats to the U. S. In the U. S., counterintelligence is made up of 16 somewhat independent intelligence agencies, and many sub-agencies, each responsible for its own counterintelligence.[3]

The very nature of counterintelligence requires that it must be performed within each intelligence community agency, sub-agency, and inter-intelligence community office, by every private contractor or other entity with sensitive information. All must keep their house clean[4].

Measuring Counterintelligence Failures

This is not an easy task. They come like cereal, in many sizes, shapes, and varieties (some worse for you than others.)

Any time a foreign nation or group gains access to U. S. classified information, sensitive proprietary information, or technology, counterintelligence has failed. Any time opportunities are missed to use agents of hostile nations or groups, counterintelligence has failed. In general, any time a hostile intelligence service has succeeded in diminishing U. S. security, counterintelligence has been inadequate.

Nearly 140 nations and some 35 known and suspected terrorist organizations currently target the U. S. for intelligence collection. Many seek economic advantage, but others seek to compromise U. S. defenses.

The most glaring, often the most damaging, are those failures in which U. S. citizens who are in positions of trust, charted to protect classified information, reveal that information to others.

Counterintelligence Tasks and Failures

Pre-employment background checks. All intelligence community employees, and handlers of classified documents, get background checks before getting access to that information. This involves extensive interviews and possibly a polygraph test. Inadequate checking or vetting can be a source of counterintelligence failure. Unfortunately, pre-employment vetting does not work very well.

  1. It is not intended to detect reason, but suitability to handle classified material.
  2. Not many individuals enter intelligence professions to become traitors.

Larry Wu-Tai Chin was a penetration agent. He worked for the CIA from 1952. He passed on classified material to China for 33 years. Jonathan Pollard entered work involving classified material primarily so he could provide information to Israel. His initial motive for treason gradually changed from ideology to financial gain.

Ana Belen Montes, of Puerto Rican descent, penetrated the U. S. Justice Department to get DIA information Cuba wanted. She refused advancement that might have reduced her access to classified information. Chi Male and Tai Wang Mak represent a vetting failure. They sought work primarily to provide information to China. All 5 of the above were vetted before getting access to classified material and should have been stopped at that stage. There is no information on how many applicants are denied clearance during vetting.

In-Service Security Monitoring

Each agency also monitors its own employees[5]. Polygraphs and questioning tend to intimidate news and younger employees. A polygraph doesn’t detect lies but anxiety about lies. The results also depend on the skill of the person who administers the test.

153 people in the data base are listed as giving up sensitive information. 25% were caught before transmitting information. Only 20% spied more than 5 years. There appears to be a “poor level of tradecraft, even abject stupidity displayed in many cases.”

People with tradecraft training, such as Walker, Ames, and Hanssen, made serious errors while committing treason, brought on by overconfidence.

The record of practicing traitors being overlooked during in-service monitoring is one of the most discouraging aspects of counterintelligence. Aldrich Ames is the best illustration. Ames’ behavior should have alerted the CIA’s counterintelligence officers and his colleagues to his treason. He failed to report contacts and conspicuously displayed wealth. He passed at least two polygraph tests.

Maintaining Employee Job Satisfaction

Many U. S. intelligence officers, particularly over the last 30 years, have taken a first step towards treason when they have become dissatisfied or disgruntled because of career developments. Proactive counterintelligence must examine how various intelligence agencies are treating their employees. Job satisfaction can easily roll in.

Intelligence officers who are unhappy in their careers may turn to treason for revenge or excitement, or they may become prime targets for foreign recruitment. Satisfied people tend to be loyal. Maintaining satisfied employees may become one of the best defenses against treason.

Facility Security

Successful counterintelligence is impossible if facilities where secrets are produced and stored are not secure. Intelligence community counterintelligence officers must monitor security at all sites and take action when security is lax.

Communications Security

NSA is responsible for overall communications security. Information can certainly be lost by a failure to communicate over secure lines or failure to use advanced encryption equipment. Few areas of training are more important than communication security.

Classification and Compartmentalization

Classification is meant to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands. It may be classified both vertically and horizontally. The usual way is horizontal – but top secret documents may have vertical codewords that protect sources. VENONA was such a codeword.

A leak is an unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The leaked information may seem an insignificant piece of a puzzle to the leaker, but it may reveal a clear picture to an adversary. As a result of leaking that NSA was listening in on Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, he stopped using it. It is difficult to stop leaks:

  1. First amendment, freedom of speech;
  2. Freedom of press – cannot force press to reveal sources
  3. Ubiquity and utility of leaks (to favor or hinder legislation).

Intercepting and Decoding Foreign Communications

For counterintelligence purposes, foreign communications must first be intercepted and then, if it is a coded communication, it must be decoded. This is a powerful way to identify foreign intelligence agents, or Americans reporting to them. They can be stopped or used as a source of disinformation. VENONA is a key example. Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, were all confirmed through VENONA. VENONA revealed the depth of Soviet penetration into the highest policy-making corridors of Washing during WWII and into the Cold War.

Prosecuting Traitors

Anti-espionage laws are not effective unless penalties exist for revealing or stealing secret information. Foreign agents caught, under official cover, are expelled from the U.S. They may be arrested if they are employees or illegals – prosecuted and jailed. U. S. citizens are subject to federal prosecution.

Counterintelligence officers are reluctant to take traitors to court:

  1. May allow an adversary to confirm that information received was important and accurate.
  2. To reveal enough information to obtain a criminal warrant might compromise sources and methods.

Counterintelligence Cooperation

While catching foreign agents or their American assets is a complicated task, successful counterintelligence efforts require cooperation between every intelligence agency. The absence of cooperation between the CIA and the FBI is a serious problem. Some of it is a culture clash. The FBI is an investigative and prosecutor agency. The CIA wants information control. Some of it involves old-fashioned turf war. There is always competition for limited resources.

The War on Terror has justified FBI presence in many embassies where they are allowed to recruit and run their own agents.

An irony of the lack of cooperation within the intelligence community is that efforts to fix the problem often make it worse.


The counterintelligence techniques and practices constitute a significant arsenal. Nevertheless, the record of treason in the U. S. suggests it could be much better.

In spite of having the most expensive and extensive intelligence services in the world, the U. S. has suffered from many counterintelligence failures. Various weaknesses have diminished the U. S. counterintelligence shield.

The disjointed and fragmented counterintelligence effort of the U. S. has seldom had more important tasks to accomplish.

This book was recently reviewed by Christina Shelton in “Applying Counterintelligence Tradecraft to Defeat Terrorist Threats,” The Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, (26, 4, Winter, 2013, pp. 813-822). Christina Shelton spent the major part of her thirty-two-year career as a Soviet analyst and counterintelligence branch chief at the United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). In these assignments, she authored assessments on foreign intelligence activities impacting on national security issues in support of senior policymakers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff She was the DIA’s representative on Interagency Damage Assessment Teams and on a National Intelligence Estimate on Foreign Denial and Deception. Ms. Shelton also had tours of duty in the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Support, and as a special assistant to the National Counterintelligence Executive. She is the author of Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason (New York: Threshold/ Simon & Schuster, 2012). Shelton concludes about Mobley’s model: “To the extent that information is politicized in this manner, Mobley’s (or anyone else’s) model will have difficulty succeeding since success depends on procuring and acting on accurate and reliable information about terrorist operations.”

Reviewed by Joshua Sinai[6]

Like the counterterrorist organizations that pursue them, the challenges of counterintelligence in the form of protecting information, identifying undercover agents, and operating clandestinely, also apply to the hunted terrorist organizations. In their attempts to evade penetration by their government pursuers, some of the terrorist groups’ strategies work well, while others (fortunately), do not. These subjects are discussed in this important book, which employs detailed case studies to illustrate the interplay between terrorist groups and their government pursuers. Also discussed are steps for improving the monitoring, disruption, and elimination of terrorist cells by exploiting their mistakes and weaknesses in counterintelligence.

[1] Stan A. Taylor is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University.

[2] Johnson, Loch K. (2007, 2009). Handbook of Intelligence Studies. New York : Routledge

[3] See http://www.dni.gov

[4] As an example of an agency’s CI efforts see the DOE Hanford Counterintelligence site.

[5] Within the Department of Defense, The Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) is the entity dedicated to improving the effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness of the DoD personnel security system. Located in Monterey, California, PERSEREC is a component of the Defense Human Resources Activity (DHRA) under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness). PERSEREC receives direction and research priorities from the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence and Security).

[6] Sinai, Joshua, PhD. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, p. 107). Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based educator and consultant on terrorism and counterterrorism studies. He has provided capsule reviews of important books recently published on terrorism and counter-terrorism-related topics. He can be reached at: Joshua.sinai@comcast.net.



This entry was posted in Counterintelligence and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Terrorism and Counterintelligence

  1. Pingback: Handbook of Intelligence Studies | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s