I have been observing for a while how almost every party in the greater Middle-East is accusing its opponents of benefiting from US support in general and of US intelligence support in particular. The Iranians accuse the US of helping the Kurds, the Kurds accuse the US of being in league with Iran, the Israelis are accused of supporting both Turkey and the Kurds, the Maliki regime is accused of being a puppet to both the USA and Iran, the Afghans and the Pakistanis are US allies, even though they both oppose US policies in the region, etc. etc. etc.
Everybody is accusing everybody of being a “US puppet” (and many of them are), and everybody is accusing everybody of getting US intelligence support. Is that something likely?
Let me make clear from the start that I have no first hand knowledge whatsoever of what the USA, or anyone else, does or does not do. I have never worked for, or with, any US intelligence agency either, but I still have some experience in this kind of issues and I would like to share some of it with you.
Intelligence sharing is a tricky and rather formal process which is very strictly regulated. Since any intelligence sharing does reveal something about methods and means, the decision to pass on intelligence to any foreign national cannot be taken lightly and potentially can land you in jail unless you carefully cover your bureaucratic rear end. So how is it done?
Well, first and foremost, it is done through formal intelligence sharing agreements between two countries or within a formal alliance. There can be no doubt whatsoever that Turkey, for example, benefits from US intelligence sharing and vice-versa. Typically, intelligence which is jointly collected is also shared, although in some cases some are “more equal than others” and my guess is that Turkey gets *less* intelligences from US operations inside Turkey or operating from Turkey (say from the AWACS flights from Incirlik) than, say, the UK . Turkey being a NATO member also entitles it to the intelligence which is typically shared inside the Alliance. Of course, there might be some far more sensitive stuff happening in parallel to these more formal arrangements such as, for example, the intelligence shared between Israel and Turkey. Israel is, of course, a special case to begin with since it has absolutely no formal alliance or treaty of any kind with the USA while at the same time having access to information which other NATO member countries will never get. But let’s set the Israeli case aside for a moment as it is highly atypical for what is the norm in the intelligence world.
Intelligence exchanges happen by various ways including computer access given to various databases, special emailed newsletter style reports, special briefings, etc.. Also, joint seminars are often organized between the intelligence agencies of two or more countries. Sometimes this type of information identifies the country of origin, and sometimes not (in which case the euphemism “partners” is used). What is almost never shared are the sources, means and methods, but any intelligence analyst can make some educated guesses about that based on the type of intelligence received.
To suppose that the kind of intelligence sharing described above can happen between, say, the USA and Iran is utter nonsense, if only because of the highly formal and regulated arrangements needed to make that happen. However, there is another kind of very different intelligence sharing which still might occur between two countries which are officially rather hostile to each other: issue-specific intelligence. For example, if, say, a US diplomat is abducted in Afghanistan, the Americans might decide to approach the Iranians to see if they will agree to share some valuable info. The reality is that all intelligence agencies talk to each other, all of them – even fierce enemies – but that kind of contact will have to be cleared at the very top level and will not be in any way regular or systematic. As an aside here, I would only add that all Western governments stay in informal contact with putatively “terrorist” organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas who, in turn, maintain informal representatives in most Western countries. If it transpired that the German government has been maintaining a regular contact with a PKK liaison officer in Germany I would not be surprised one bit. However, “contacts” does *not* mean “intelligence sharing” and it is important not to conflate the two.
Another, very different, case is the case of the rogue intelligence agency. That is the kind of stuff which can happen in a country in which the intelligence agency is really not controlled by anyone in the Executive Branch, a situation when an intelligence agency is more of a “secret service” kind of outfit. I suppose that the perfect example of this would be the Pakistani ISI which, I suspect, is literally capable of doing anything, including sharing intel with al-Qaeda. Keep in mind that in this case, this does not even need to be an ISI specific issue. It could well be that some branch of the ISI could be sharing intel with al-Qaeda without the top bosses, or the other branches of ISI, even being aware of that. That kind of stuff is dangerous to those doing it, it can land them in front of a firing squad, but in highly dysfunctional countries like Pakistan it can, and does, happen.
But the case of the USA is very different: although the US is not the single actor which it is often assumed to be and the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA might have very different interests there are limits on what this competition entails: they will compete with each other and try to promote their respective proxies, but this kind of stuff will not involve illegal intelligence sharing if only because that can land the people engaged in it behind bars. It is one thing to advance your bureaucratic interests, but quite another to break the law. One should “never say never”, I suppose, but I really cannot imagine this kind of stuff happening in the US intel community (even Pollard got hard jail time for giving info to Israel!).
Then there is the case of tactical or battlefield intelligence sharing. This is far less complex an issue and informal and formal arrangements can be easily made to, say, pass on intel on the movement of refugees, insurgent attacks or the constant flow of various rumors floating around any conflict. Forces operating jointly will always share intelligence, but that is something which is done overtly and is not our concern here.
[I get on my soap box for a short digression…]
All this makes it sound like intelligence is something very valuable and “hot”. It is not. Mostly, it is bullshit. I mean this. Most intel includes utterly boring stuff like personnel lists in various military units, deployment location or a bio of the commanding officers. It might be technical stuff, like photos, schematics of machinery or information about the tire pressure of the trucks of the opposing side. A lot of intel is also analysis and much of that is really a paraphrase of what you would find in the papers. In fact, about about 80 percent of all the intel a government uses is available from open sources, another 10-15 percent is from proprietary sources such as corporate info, and only a small 10-5 percent is really classified stuff and most of the latter is boring anyway (though typically getting this 5-10% of info will cost about 80% of your intel budget). I have always suspected that secrecy laws are often used to conceal the banality of the classified info, or to shamelessly copy newspaper editorials. Of course, secrecy is also the ultimate cover for corruption, but that is another topic.
[I get off my soap box, end of digression…]
Having outlined some – though not all – of the feature of the world of intel sharing, let me know make some guesses about what kind of intel the US might give the various actors in the greater Middle-East by putting countries and forces into several groups:
A) the allies: tier one
Turkey and Israel get the lion’s share of good, actionable, US intel sharing, no doubt here. I suppose that while the US does not share all of its strategic intel with these two countries, they do get the bulk of the info relevant to the greater Middle-East. I suspect that these countries operate many joint intelligence collection and analysis efforts and that they jointly evaluate the intel output with exchanges of liason officers and intel regular seminars. In other words, this is just about as high-quality intelligence sharing as it can get.
B) the allies: tier two
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan. These guys are probably not trusted by the US which has to be very careful about potential leaks from these countries. I suspect that while the US probably gets lots of medium to low quality human intelligence from these countries, it probably only “reciprocates” by passing unto them “bullshit” level intel, mostly stuff which the US wants these guys to have anyway. There might be some more valuable intel exchanges taking place with specific individuals in these countries (such as Bandar), but this is probably more of a White House thing. I might be wrong here, but I just don’t see any critical intel being passed to these hyper-corrupted regimes.
C) the allies: tier three
The Maliki and Karzai government, Fatah, various Kurdish groups, Northern Alliance types in Afghanistan, Syria. These guys are mostly (but not exclusively) puppets of the CIA & Co. so to speak of any kind of intelligence sharing is inappropriate. The US probably gives them only what is needed to have them do whatever it is that the US wants them to do. Think of it as a strategic “need to know” kind of arrangement. The Americans also probably pump them for everything they can just in order to compensate for the traditionally crappy US HUMINT capabilities and to keep an eye on them and keep them in line.
D) the irrelevant good guys
Koweit, UAE, Yemen, etc. These guys get intel for the US for sure, if only to make them feel like they matter, like the US supports them. Reading the Wall Street Journal or the Economist would be just as good, but it would lack the fancy “secret” stamp.
E) the bad guy(s?)
Iran. Iran is the officially designated “bad guy” in the Middle-East. Under the ever watchful eye on the Israelis, the US might share situation-specific intel with Iran if and when the US needs it. This kind of intelligence would in no way include actionable or strategic intelligence such as overhead satellite imagery or the location of anti-Iranian forces covertly operating in Iran or Iraq. The level of anti-Iranian paranoia in the USA is such that I suspect that even info on common enemies such as the Taliban are not shared by the US. I strongly suspect that the Iranians would have approached the Americans on many occasions offering to collaborate against common enemies, but that the Americans stupidly refused, blinded as they are by their Zionist-induced propaganda about Iran. Following the “redirection” – essentially a strategic anti-Shia offensive across the region – I suspect that not only intelligence sharing, but even regular contacts with the Iranians have been stopped. Also, keep in mind that intelligence activities are, at least in theory, overseen by Congress and that no US Congressman or Congresswoman will ever, ever, allow anything which could be even remotely construed as “pro-terrorist” or “unfriendly to Israel” (God forbid!) to ever happen. All this makes any intel exchanges with Iran highly unlikely, if not unthinkable. (As an aside here I would note that, in contrast, exchanges between Iran and Turkey on the Kurdish issue is something quite possible).
Now, I know that the Iran-bashers will retort that the Iran-Contra affair proves just the opposite. It does nothing of the sort, quite to the contrary, in fact. Nevermind that Iran Contra happened a long while ago – the real important thing is that Iran-Contra was *exactly* the kind of rogue operation which does not normally occur in a developed country. If anything, the fact that Iran Contra, as well as Office of Special Plans set up by the Neocons, were abject and embarrassing failures proves that such arrangements are not possible within the “regular” US intelligence community.
As I mentioned in the begging of the piece, all I present here are my “guesstimates” and I freely admit that I might be wrong. If so, I would be most interested in hearing opposing views, hopefully backed by some facts