Monday, December 01, 2008

Missed Signals

To no one's surprise, the investigation into last week's terror attack in Mumbai has already exposed missed warning signs, ignored intelligence and poor coordination among agencies that were supposed to protect residents of India's largest city and its foreign visitors.

Consider, for example, an October warning that was passed from U.S. intelligence agencies to their counterparts in India. American intel officials warned the Indians of a possible attack "from the sea against hotel and business centers in Mumbai."

According to ABC News, the advisory even listed potential targets for the strike, including the Taj Mahal hotel. Those suspicions were largely confirmed a month later, when India's SIGINT organization intercepted a satellite phone conversation from a number linked to Lashkar e Taiba, the terror group believed responsible for last week's attack. That phone call also revealed a possible sea-borne attack in the Mumbai area.

And, if that's not enough, the head of the local fisherman's association claims he wrote a letter to government officials a month before the terrorist strike, asking them to investigate "strange" boats at coastal villages near Mumbai. He never received an answer. It is now believed that the terrorists commandeered a fishing boat for the final leg of their journey from the sea.

In fairness, not all of the information was pigeon-holed by Indian security services. The chairman of the group which owns the Taj Mahal hotel tells CNN that security was temporarily increased after a warning was received in the weeks before the attack. However, the added measures were later removed, and the official claims that even the extra security "could not have stopped what took place."

But it is also apparent that much of Mumbai--including the city's security forces--were completely unprepared for last week's strike. That's one reason the attack dragged on for almost 60 hours, resulting in the deaths of almost 200 people.

Unfortunately, breakdowns in communications and threat warning are almost inevitable, given the fact that most police agencies are not cleared for classified information. Ever wonder why public threat advisories are so vaguely worded? In many cases, they're based on information supplied to law enforcement that is equally cryptic.

Obviously, some of that is by design; authorities don't want to tip their hand to the terrorists, or compromise on-going investigations. But in other instances, vague warnings reflect the classification "wall" that exists between intelligence organizations and local law enforcement. The problem that persists in this country as well, although some larger municipalities are establishing their own intelligence organizations, allowing them to access some classified data. It's almost a sure bet that the police department in Mumbai was unaware of those intercepted phone calls, and their potential implication for local security.

As India begins a lengthy investigation into last week's attacks, there are legitimate questions about what signs might be missed in the coming months. With rising military tensions between India and Pakistan, both governments will rely on their intelligence agencies for accurate detection, tracking--and assessment--of their adversary's intentions.

While intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities have improved on both sides, serious gaps remain. And, the task of keeping tabs with the other side has been made more complex by advances in denial and deception. Pakistan, for example, has invested heavily in D&D technology in recent years, designing and building nuclear storage bunkers that blend easily into surrounding terrain.

Islamabad has also created an elaborate network of shell companies and front organizations to hide its nuclear programs and facilities. In some cases, western intelligence agencies must sort through a dizzying array of phony designations and locations in pinpointing nuclear facilities. Pakistan has also developed a satellite warning program that allows them to conceal sensitive activities when western ISR platforms are overhead.

India has made similar strides in its deception efforts. Delhi's nuclear efforts remain equally close-guarded and its tactical D&D programs are, in some respects, even more advanced than those in Pakistan. The Indian military is one of the leading customers of Saab-Barracuda, the Swedish producer of state-of-the-art deception equipment. Saab-Barracuda actually has a factory in India, and virtually all of its output is for that nation's military.

Elaborate secrecy and lavish spending on D&D technology creates the same problem for India and Pakistan. Neither country has a particularly complete (or accurate) understanding of their arch-rival's intentions. And that leads to further miscalculations, as evidenced by the 1999 Kargil Crisis. Despite significant troop deployments--and fighting--in the region (part of the disputed Kashmir territory), there was no indication that either side was preparing for a full-scale invasion.

But without accurate intelligence, both countries misjudged the situation in Kargil (and its potential consequences). As the crisis continued, India and Pakistan prepared for a possible nuclear exchange. Western intelligence analysts later discovered that nuclear weapons were removed from storage and placed with delivery platforms. The revelation suggested gross miscalculations on both sides, or a much lower thresh hold for nuclear conflict than was previously thought.

In such an environment, the margin for error is extraordinarily high--and the potential consequences are even higher. That's why we should worry about what signs are now being missed on the Asian sub-continent, and in our own intelligence agencies. Imagery evidence of the near-nuclear conflict in Kargil wasn't discovered for almost a year. Concerns about what's being missed in the current India-Pakistan standoff extend well beyond their borders.

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