American intelligence and fortune-telling
— 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.
FORTUNE TELLING AND DETECTIVE WORK
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.”