American intelligence and fortune-telling

January 7, 2010


— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Hot on the heels of  what President Barack Obama called a potentially disastrous “screw-up” by the civilian intelligence community, here comes a devastating report on shortcomings of military intelligence in Afghanistan, by the officer in charge of it. He likens the work of analysts to fortune-telling.

The report is highly unusual both because of its almost brutal candor and the way it was published, outside military channels. Even more unusual: the three authors hold out journalistic skills as models to emulate for gathering and putting together intelligence.

“Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy,” write the authors, Major General Michael Flynn, the most senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, his advisor Captain Matt Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

“The … vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among the villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers … U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high-level decision makers seeking the knowledge, analysis and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.”

While finding and finishing off enemy leaders is an important part of intelligence work, the report says, there have been only token efforts to acquire knowledge about the population, the economy, the government and other aspects of the environment the U.S. and its allies in the 43-member coalition are trying to secure and eventually leave behind.

The three said they decided to issue their report through a respected think tank — the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, which is centrist and close to the military — “in order to broaden its reach to commanders, intelligence professionals and schoolhouse instructors outside, as well as inside, Afghanistan.”

Making their case through a think tank rather than standard channels speaks volumes about fears that outspoken critiques or straightforward information might get stuck in America’s vast intelligence bureaucracy, both military and civilian, without prompting recipients to act on it. This is what happened in the case of the Nigerian Muslim indicted for attempting to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in the screw-up criticized by Obama.

The report on intelligence gathering in Afghanistan addresses the military and was written long before a suicide bomber killed seven operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a Jordanian agent at a base in Afghanistan on Dec. 30. That, and the failed Christmas Day bombing, raise questions over the effectiveness of the intelligence and security overhaul that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York and Washington.

Those reforms established the Department of Homeland Security, a collection of disparate agencies with some 200,000 employees, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the so-called intelligence czar overseeing 16 spy agencies. They include the National Counterterrorism Center, set up to make sure that the dots that were not connected before Sept. 11 would be connected in future.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, Thomas Kean and John Farmer, respectively the co-chairman and chief counsel of the 9/11 Commission, provided a gloomy answer on the success of the overhaul — despite the best efforts of intelligence reformers, turf battles persist, the drift towards inertia continues, and the system is riddled with “persistent bureaucratic fault lines.”

Much of the problem, intelligence veterans say, is information overload. But in the case of intelligence on Afghanistan, according to the authors of the report (Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan), there is a shortage of information that goes beyond insurgents burying bombs or setting up ambushes.

Dozens of analysts in Kabul and hundreds more in the United States, the three write, are “so starved for information from the field that many say their jobs feel more like fortune telling than serious detective work … It is little wonder then that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth.'”

To get things right requires cultural change: “Analysts must absorb information with the thoroughness of historians, organize it with the skill of librarians, and disseminate it with the zeal of journalists.” Apart from that, intelligence professionals must break away from the notion, dating back to the Cold War, that open-source material is inferior to classified information.

How to improve matters? “To begin, commanders must authorize a select group of analysts to retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work.”

Even the format of intelligence briefings should be revised, write Flynn and his aides. Commanders who think that PowerPoints – “slides with little more text than a comic strip” – and spreadsheets can describe the complexities of the Afghan conflict should think again.

And what if such prescriptions are ignored? “History is replete with examples of powerful military forces that lost wars to much weaker opponents because they were inattentive to nuances in their environment. A Russian general who fought for years in Afghanistan cited this as a primary reason for the Soviet Union’s failures in the 1980s.”


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On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe in the ongoing establishment rigamarole of war, counter-terror, national security et al. seriously enough to issue sheaves of blank checks in perpetual subsidy of their heavy-handed efforts, lending full credence to their dismal Backwater world view.

And yet, we’re supposed to empathize with them every time they screw up, which as it turns out is a daily ritual for them, with deadly consequences.

Fortune tellers, on the other hand, have a relatively pristine success rate.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Obama is taking credit for the lapses in recent news. This is a huge mistake. If we don’t hold those at fault accountable then the same mistakes will continue to occur.

This article sums this up well: telligence-problems/

Posted by pcasinelli | Report as abusive

Who is accountable? The American people, so complacent in their perceived domination of the world will wake up one day to a world that is more concerned with water shortages and diminishing food supplies than Facebook and American Idol.

The fact is your average American doesn’t care, that is until they are faced with tragedy on their doorstep. It is evident in who sits in the seats of Congress and Senate. These ego jockeys with their 40 and 50 year history as representatives and senators are more interested in hearing themselves bitch about the other party than lending any momentum for real change as suggested by our leaders on the front lines. They will continue to blindly throw money at the issue and appoint their brother’s in law and friends to positions in the great money grab known as Homeland Security.

Posted by dragonshound | Report as abusive

Hi, I have a little military-intelligence experience thanks to 19 years in the Israeli army. I am always puzzled at the US lack of knowledge of the ennemy.
This general cultural blindness brings often the USA to overreact
1) Who is the real ennemy ?
2) Where is the ennemy ?
3) What are the aims and the means of the ennemy , its timetable ?
Once the USA will have made up their minds they will be – maybe – able to act with more finesse…
1)Al-Qaeda is no doubt very dangerous but you don’t crush a snake with a sledgehammer. Al Qaeda moves around the globe like a snake so it ‘ s plain stupid to bring a sledgehammer ( The US Afghan corp ) to crush it
Instead the USA should act by proxies ( The Pakistan army and some afghan tribal leaders who are anti Al Quaeda ) The US have a good financial lever over Pakistan and a strategic one by their alliance with India but until now none of those levers has been really exercised . So the presence of 80000 ? US troops is a total waste since you do not control such a vast territory with a midget army . Either you pour 1 Million soldiers or you choose the ” Finesse ” of a war by proxies .
2) So the real ennemy is much more real and evident than the elusive Qaeda. It has a name, a flag, a state , an army , an economy and it is the real ennmey since it arms, finance, encourage anti-western terrorism all over the world and will soon achieve nukes WITH the WILL to USE it – Now guess who ??? IRAN . But Iran is clever enough to wage war by proxies for the moment.( Hamas Hezbollah etc..)
The USA reactions towards Iran has been inept , weak , and shows a total neglect towards the contries facing the iranian threat ( Saudi Arabia Israel Egypt Jordan Irak)and the iranian population crished by a fanatic regime.
3)The timetable , objectives and means of Iran are a thousand times more dangerous that those of Al Qaeda .
Armed with nukes and ballistic missiles Europe will soon be under the threat .The oil flow fromSaudi arabia , emirates, Irak will be disrupted . And recent history prove Europe has no nerves to confront or engage Iran. By engaging elusive and secondary ennemies the US and their allies are showing miopy , weakness, wasting time , energies , allies .
So I think something is rotten in the Danish realm,( Washington D.C ) at a much higher level than the powerless intelligence operators in Afghanistan. The US policy of the last 20 years in the MidEast looks like a blinded King-Kong pounding his chest who want s to be looked as a strong character but does everything either wrong or to avoid confronting the real ennemy.

Posted by Avraham | Report as abusive

[…] Source: bate/2010/01/07/american-intelligence-an d-fortune-telling/   […]

Posted by American intelligence and fortune-telling « Pkrf1end’s Blog | Report as abusive

Among the other problems, dot-connecting seems to be too slow. I suspect that too much of it is being done manually. More should be relegated to computerized pattern-finding and -matching programs. It is essential that the 16 (?) agencies work off a common database. Fire those people who cannot make this happen and replace them with people who can make it happen.

Posted by igiveup | Report as abusive

Successful military Intelligence relies on two aspects: firstly recognising and understanding the specific nature of the immediate ‘fog of war’, and secondly: constructing a responsive system to it.
Criticising the US military without recognising the former, indicates poor journalism, and is usually a political statement ie of worthless value in analysis.
The US military is famous for its inability to embrace ‘humint’ (human intelligence) and for its over reliance upon distant information. Why?
The army is a large corporate style management organisation, this is structurally the antithesis for rapid information movement.
I suspect also the American open culture does not provide a decent cradle for the devious and underhand methods traditionally associated with institutional intelligence gathering.
As the above commentator notes the US needs to outsource some of its methods. Pass intelligence over to the UK or Israel… actually probably not Israel, they don’t handle mutual aid with rubes too well!

Posted by rhoops | Report as abusive

Reading what the Israeli citizen with 19 years of service in the Israeli Army giving advice to the Americans to take on Iran is a selfserving advice that would cause great deal of pain and sufferings on all people including the people of Israel, most of the world problems that the American are facing today are a direct result of being supportive of the state of Israel. Iraq was a planned and and excecuted war to protect Israel, Bush met with sharoon 12 times in the course of a few month to lay down the Israeli plan to invade Iraq. Now they are trying to get us involved in Iran, would that really bring peace to Israel?, I doubt it. Israel must quit the policy of incitement through their representatives in the American political systems to gain a Military,financial and political supports paid for by the American Taxpayers. Americans must understand that Israeli Politics are the cause of the American Problems.

Posted by Americanone1 | Report as abusive

[…] Even more recently, Reuters columnist, Bernd Debusmann, released an opinion piece entitled, “American Intelligence and Fortune Telling“, wherein he describes a recent assessment by military leadership (released through a think […]

Posted by Can Services = Security? Part 1 « VethnoGraphy: herdsourcing the world | Report as abusive

I think the US Government could employ Madame Zora ( for their fortune telling needs!

Posted by saggyboobs | Report as abusive