Where was American counterintelligence?

Where was American counterintelligence?
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We are just days into the investigation of the horrific terrorist attack on Pensacola Naval Air Station in which three American servicemen were killed, and already the predictable is happening: The focus is shifting to the nationality of the gunman, a Saudi military officer and the extremist problem in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How could the Saudis allow this happen?

Saudi Arabia is face-to-face with an extremist threat. It has been for years. It is fighting that threat every day, and its government has made crystal clear that it fully intends to win and to consign this threat to the dustbin of history.

Where is our government, and — more to the point — where is American counterintelligence?


The shooter in the Pensacola attack, Muhammed Al-Shamrani, was a Saudi military officer chosen to attend basic pilot and flight training in the United States. In order to be approved by the U.S. military and to obtain approval to travel to the United States for this purpose, Al-Shamrani would have had to have been processed through both State Department and Department of Defense channels. In the course of that processing, every conceivable database accessible to the United States government would have been queried, containing every scrap of information from the CIA, the DIA, NSA and any and all other agencies.

And, yet, somehow that entire massive structure, including the mass electronic surveillance dragnet operated by the NSA, which we are told is the key to detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, produced absolutely nothing that would have given us a clue as to Al-Shamrani’s ideological leanings or extremist tendencies?

Then, Al-Shamrani came to the United States and began what was, at the time of the attack, over two years of training on an American base. All day, every day, Al-Shamrani interacted with, lived with and trained with U.S. military personnel and other foreign students.

And, no one — as far as we know at this point — reported anything, noted anything or evidenced any concern about his behavior. How is that possible?

This is a man who posted quotations from Osama bin Laden on the internet before staging his attack. This is a man, according to press reports, who hosted a party to watch videos of mass shootings and terrorist attacks only days ago.


Are we really to believe that he remained in place all this time without betraying any indication of his ideological leanings or murderous intent?

History suggests that is unlikely.

A decade ago, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, an Army base in Texas: 13 people were killed and another 30 wounded. Hasan was subsequently convicted of 13 counts of murder as well as numerous other offenses. He is awaiting execution at Fort Leavenworth.

The investigation into the shootings showed that Hasan had been openly expressing anti-American and pro-jihadist opinions for years. Colleagues and superiors had repeatedly expressed grave concerns about his behavior. It was even established that Hasan had been in direct email contact with Anwar Al-Awlaki, a senior Al Qaeda leader who was subsequently killed in an American drone strike. The military and the FBI were aware that Hasan was in contact with Al-Awlaki and concluded that the contact was related to “authorized professional research,” according to a subsequent report on the attacks.

Pensacola Naval Air Station and many other U.S. military bases train thousands of foreign students every year. They train them in the use of some of the world’s most dangerous and advanced weapons systems. Those students come from all over the world, but a great many of them come from nations with significant extremist problems where concerns about jihadist penetration of the military are longstanding.

One would hope that counterintelligence efforts to monitor those students while in the United States would be robust.

One would presume that students would not simply be cut loose to wander around some of the world’s most sensitive facilities without being watched, listened to and scrutinized.

One would assume that our counterintelligence people would have a robust and — when necessary — intrusive presence on all such bases and that any indication of an insider threat from a foreign military student would receive immediate attention.

And apparently, one might be quite wrong.

The investigation into the Pensacola attack is only days old. It will be some time before all the facts are known. Perhaps we will find that Al-Shamrani gave no warning of his intentions. Perhaps but, based on experience, unlikely.

For the last three years we have watched as the top levels of the American intelligence and counterintelligence apparatus have interjected themselves with increasing frequency into domestic politics and stooped to engage directly on matters of dubious import and questionable significance. A dossier filled with hot scoop like the alleged sexual proclivities of a candidate for President of the United States commanded the attention of the then-head of the CIA, John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed Former CIA head, Cruz trade jabs over killing of Iranian nuclear scientist: 'You are unworthy to represent the good people of Texas' MORE, himself. Maybe these men and women ought to have steered clear of kingmaking and focused on doing their jobs.

If they had, maybe three brave Americans would be alive today. Maybe we wouldn’t be asking: Where is American counterintelligence?

Charles “Sam” Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer with decades of experience undercover abroad. He took the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the 2003 invasion and retired in 2008 as head of the CIA counterterrorism unit tracking weapons of mass destruction. He is also a former U.S. Army officer and trial attorney. Faddis is currently a senior partner with Artemis, LLC, a security-consulting firm, and the senior editor for AND Magazine. He’s also the author of “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” and, with Mike Tucker, “Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq.”