A Counterintelligence Perspective on Cesar Sayoc

What follows is a counterintelligence man’s examination of the anomalies in the saga of the bombs mailed to Democratic Party officials and other leftists.

During my years with the Senate Intelligence Committee, as I worked to repair this country’s counterintelligence operations, I sometimes lectured our intelligence community’s leaders on the principles of counterintelligence analysis. Prominent among these is that close attention to an event’s anomalies—to things that don’t seem to quite fit—can reveal more about the event than everything else about it. In other words, if in fact the event contains a lie, it may lead you to understand the deepest truths about that event.

So resistant were these bureaucrats to accept this principle that a mandate to implement it had to be included in the 1983 Intelligence Authorization Act. Soon thereafter, though, an Air Force intelligence team using this principle turned the notice of a wind tunnel in the Moscow suburb of Sharopova, oriented incorrectly, into the discovery of the Soviet Union’s deep underground nuclear war command center.

The obvious account of the bomb drama is that devices were mailed or delivered to prominent critics of the Trump Administration to hurt them or to frighten them into silence.

Not originally knowing anything about who mailed those devices, or why, and assuming that the alleged perpetrator was a competent person who would have covered his personal tracks well—the way that the Soviets had deceived U.S intelligence analysts for a decade about their nuclear command post—noticing anomalies, in this case the ways in which these devices and their deliveries don’t quite fit the obvious story, was the best way of grasping the truth of the matter.

Although it is usually prudent to assume the opponent’s intelligence and rationality, the analyst had to keep in mind that an assumption is only just that.

The devices could not have caused harm, and were unlikely to have caused fear first, because they were unlikely to reach their supposed victims. They were sent through the U.S. Postal Service, which advertises that it checks all packages for explosives, or were delivered to places protected by the Secret Service or known to have other, serious security measures. A rational perpetrator would know that. By the same token he had to know that the undelivered packages were sure to draw the media’s attention.

Nothing about the devices themselves fit the main story of harm and fear. First, they were made of PVC pipe—grossly insufficient for containing an explosion to lethal force. Second, whereas package-bombs are set to go off when the package is opened, these contained outside timers, apparently unconnected to what may or may not be detonators.

But though incapable of hurting the recipients, were they meant to frighten them into silence? Believing that things so obviously harmless could frighten persons protected by world-class security beggars belief. In short, these devices’ anomalies lead the analyst to conclude that they were meant to look like bombs, aimed at a credulous press, just as the Sharopova wind tunnel was aimed at credulous intelligence analysts.

We have a recent domestic example of something like this: In 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock to science class made to look like a bomb. He acted in a way that got him arrested and prompted a media frenzy about American society’s supposed Islamophobia. President Obama made that point by inviting him to the White House.

Hence, counterintelligence analysis’ first hard conclusion: Whoever the perpetrator was, he acted to harm some and help others politically, by leveraging the media. But if the devices were meant to ignite a media frenzy, who were the intended victims and who the beneficiaries?

At this point, the honest analyst must refrain from “post hoc propter hoc” logic lest he fall into a trap of his own making. He may not say, “Look what happened: the media did what any sentient person would have expected them to do; they turned the Democrats and other Leftist recipients into pretend-victims and really victimized Trump and the Republicans on the eve of important elections by imputing to them responsibility for political violence. The bomb story tended to cancel out the reputation for violence that the Left had earned over the years and most recently during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Whoever sent those devices must have known that would happen, if he had any brains at all. Hence that is what he intended to happen.”

But the analyst would have to keep in mind that we did not know whether the sender had any brains at all, that maybe the assumption of the perp’s intelligence and rationality was unwarranted. Maybe the perp was nothing like the almost-perfect Soviet operatives. Maybe he really was just as stupid as he was evil.

The case for stupidity was obvious. He misspelled the names of addressees, just like CNN would expect of an ignorant Trump supporter. But when a counterintelligence analyst comes across mistakes made by an opponent presumed to be intelligent and rational, the default assumption must be that they are not mistakes at all but false trails. In this case, however the mistakes seemed to have been quite simply, mistakes due to stupidity.

Competent counterintelligence analysts accustomed to working in the proverbial “wilderness of mirrors” must always keep in mind that, sometimes, things are what they seem to be.

Though the perp was not so stupid as those who expected he must have licked his DNA onto the stamps on the envelopes (they did not notice that the stamps are of the ready-stick kind), he proved plenty stupid enough to have left his fingerprints for the FBI and ATF to discover. But his biggest stupidity by far was to achieve the very opposite effect of what he presumably intended.

Photo Credit: CNN

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).