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Our Strategic Intelligence Problem

By Ralph Peters

Our national intelligence system will never meet our unrealistic expectations, nor can it ever answer all of our needs. No matter what we do or change or buy, intelligence agencies will remain unable to satisfy our government's appetite for knowledge. This isn't defeatism, but realism. We had better get used to the idea.

This does not mean that our intelligence system cannot be improved. It can. Nor does it imply that our leaders should be less demanding. Stressing the system enhances its performance. But our fantastic expectations must be lowered to a level more in accord with our present and potential capabilities.

And we must end the decades-old practice of blaming flawed intelligence for broader policy failures. For all of its indisputable shortcomings, the U.S. intelligence community has become a too-convenient scapegoat for erroneous decisions made by a succession of leaders indifferent to the substance of intelligence, but alert to the advantages of politics. If we want to improve our comprehensive security, we need to begin with a sharp dose of realism regarding what intelligence can and cannot deliver. We do not expect our health-care system to return every patient to perfect health. It is just as foolish to expect perfect intelligence.

While there are real, endemic problems within our intelligence system, the greater problem may be with the expectations of the public, the media, and our Nation's policymakers. From indefensible defense-contractor promises to the insidious effects of Hollywood's long-running fantasy of all-seeing, all-powerful intelligence agencies, the lack of an accurate grasp of what intelligence generally can provide, occasionally can deliver, and still cannot begin to achieve results in reflexive cries of "Intelligence failure!" under circumstances in which it would have been impossible--or a case of hit-the-lottery luck--for intelligence to succeed.

Despite the political grandstanding over a catalytic tragedy, any probability of preventing 9/11 through better intelligence work was a myth. Our enemies out-maneuvered and out-imagined us so boldly that none of those who now insist that they warned us offered any useful specificity before the event. In retrospect, many matters appear far simpler and more linear. We cannot believe that a general was so foolish in battle, forgetting that our privileged view is far different from that confronting the general amid the chaos of war. Looking back, it appears obvious that, by 1999, there was an unsustainable hi-tech bubble in the stock market--but how many of us nonetheless bought in near the top? Charges that "They should have seen it coming!" are usually wrong and rarely helpful. The only useful question is "Why didn't we see it coming?"

Sometimes the answer is that the system's attention was elsewhere. But the answer also might be that a given event was impossible to prevent without a phenomenal stroke of luck. The problem with luck is that it is not very dependable. September 11th was not only an intelligence failure, it was also a law-enforcement failure, an airline failure, an architectural failure, a fire-and-rescue failure, a long-term policy failure, and a failure of our national imagination. Our enemies told us openly that they intended to attack us. From Langley to Los Angeles, we, the people, could not conceive that they meant it. Even those of us who wrote theoretically about massive attacks on lower Manhattan have no right to claim prescience. We did not truly envision the reality. Our collective belief systems needed to be shaken by images of catastrophes on our soil.

Similarly, our military had to undergo a succession of asymmetrical conflicts to begin to shake its cold-war-era mindset. No succession of briefings, books, or articles could have had the impact of the suicide bomber and the improvised explosive device. Likewise, in military intelligence, we are beginning to see a generational divide between yesterday's technology-über-alles managers--who continue, for now, to be promoted--and a younger generation of intelligence officers who have endured the brutal human crucibles of Iraq and Afghanistan, and who do not expect a van full of electronics to do all of their work for them. Because it routinely deals with life-and-death issues, tactical intelligence, long a backwater, might improve more profoundly than strategic intelligence in the coming years.

If the events of the past decade (or century) should teach us anything about the relationship between the intelligence community and our national leadership, it is that the more reliant any policy or action is on the comprehensive accuracy of intelligence, the more likely it is to disappoint, if not humiliate, us with its results.

Intelligence can help leaders shape their views, but it is not a substitute for leadership. Senior members in the intelligence world must share the blame for our unrealistic expectations. In order to secure funding for ever-more-expensive technologies, too much was promised in return. While technical assets, from satellites to adept computer programs, bring us great advantages in amassing and processing data, even the best machine cannot predict the behavior of hostile individuals or governments.

The salvation-through-technology types do great damage to our intelligence effort. They deliver massive amounts of data, but become so mesmerized by what technology can do that they slight the importance of relevance. And humans are messy, while technology appears pristine. Furthermore, there are massive profits to be made on the technology side (and good retirement jobs for program managers); thus, Congress leans inevitably toward funding systems rather than fostering human abilities.

There is no consistent lobby for human intelligence, language skills, or deep analysis. Despite occasional bursts of supportive rhetoric on Capitol Hill, the money still goes for machinery, not flesh and blood. Recent personnel increases remain trivial compared to our investments in technology. Yet, we live in an age when our security problems are overwhelmingly human problems. Despite a half-decade of reorganizations near and at the top of the intelligence system, we remain far better suited to detecting the movements of yesteryear's Soviet armies and fleets than we are at comprehending and finding terrorists. (In Washington, the immediate response to any crisis within a government bureaucracy is to rotate the usual suspects at the top, not to address the pervasive reforms required--and no one in our government understands the concept of "sunk costs.")

Nor do our intelligence difficulties end with our inability to locate and kill Osama bin-Laden, who will be eliminated eventually, just as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was. Our hi-tech intelligence architecture even failed in many of the spheres in which it was supposed to excel. Consider just a few examples of the system falling short when required to perform:

● During the air campaign to break Belgrade's hold on Kosovo, the Serbian military fooled our overhead collectors with decoy targets composed of campfires, old hulks, and metal scraps. Hundreds of millions of dollars in precision munitions went to waste as we attacked improvised charcoal grills. It took the threat of American ground troops to force a sloppy diplomatic compromise--a 6-week air effort hit only a handful of real targets.

● Notoriously, our hundreds of billions in collection systems could neither confirm nor deny that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as we moved toward war. Our intelligence system proved so weak that it could offer nothing substantial to challenge or support the position assumed by decision-makers. Without convincing evidence to the contrary, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq became little more than a matter of opinion. Opinion then attained the force of fact in the build-up to war. The lack of reliable sources in Iraq and agents on the ground left the satellites searching desperately for the slightest hint that the Baghdad regime was armed with forbidden weapons. We were no longer collecting--we were conjuring. Conjecture hardened into conviction. And we went to war focused on finding chemical rounds, rather than on a convulsive population.

● None of our technical collection means detected the wartime threat from the Saddam Fedayeen or other irregular forces. As then-Lieutenant General William Scott Wallace, the Army V Corps commander on the march to Baghdad, observed, the enemy we ended up fighting (albeit successfully) was not the enemy the intelligence community had briefed. Commanders learned as they fought, after our best intelligence had promised them a different war. In Iraq, we couldn't see what we wanted to see, so we refused to see what we didn't want to see. We relied so heavily on technical collection means that we forgot to think.

● Not a single one of over a hundred attempted "decapitation" strikes with precision weapons succeeded in killing the targeted individual during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom--even though most of the sites were destroyed. The concept remains sound in theory, but our ability to hit targets has far outstripped our ability to identify them accurately. It's just plain hard to find people who are doing their best to hide. Even now, our successful strikes against terrorists rely far more often on tips, interrogations, and the processing of captured material than on national collection means. On the ground in Iraq, military intelligence personnel diagram the human relationships among our enemies much as their British predecessors would have done 80 years ago (although we can do our sketching on computer screens).

● Satellites famously can read a license plate (and more). But they rarely tell you whether that battered Toyota contains an innocent civilian, a suicide bomber, or a terrorist chieftain. If the enemy declines to use communications technologies, we are back to the human factor to do our target spotting.

The problem with the human factor is that the technocrats who dominate the intelligence community just don't like it. The "metal benders" see technology as reliable (and immune to personnel management problems), even if that reliability isn't germane to our actual needs. The more our security problems take on a human shape, the more money we throw at technology. A retired psychiatrist I know points out that one form of insanity is to repeat a failed action obsessively. By that measure, our intelligence community is as mad as Lear on the heath.

Only human beings can penetrate the minds of other human beings. Understanding our enemies is the most important requirement for our intelligence system. Yet, "understanding" is a word you rarely, if ever, find in our intelligence manuals. We are obsessed with accumulating great volumes of data, measuring success in tonnage rather than results. Instead of panning for gold, we proudly pile up the mud.

Two things must happen if our national intelligence system is to improve. Within the intelligence community, we need to achieve a more effective balance between our default to technology and the slighted human factor. At the top of the game, intelligence is about deciphering what an enemy will do before the enemy knows it himself. The very best analysts can do this, if only sometimes. But occasional successes are better than consistent failures. However imperfect the results, who would deny that a better grasp of the mentalities, ambitions, fears, jealousies, schemes, and desires of our opponents would have offered us more in the days before 9/11 or in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq (or now, in dealing with Iran) than any series of satellite photos?

If we want to improve the quality and usefulness of the intelligence that reaches our nation's leaders, we need to accept the primacy of the human being in intelligence. Instead of the current system, in which people support technology, we need our technologies to support people.

The other thing that must be done--and this is terribly hard--is for all of us, from the Oval Office, through military commanders, to the Wi-Fi crowd down at Starbucks, to have rational expectations of what intelligence can provide and how reliably it can perform. The technocrats continue to insist, against all evidence, that machines can solve all of our intelligence problems, if only we develop and buy more of them. But this age of Cain-and-Abel warfare, of global disorientation, and of a sweeping return to primitive identities and exclusive beliefs is characterized by its raw, brutal humanity. Far from bringing us together, the computer age has amplified our differences and reinvigorated old hatreds. A new, global ruling class profits, while the human masses seethe.

Nothing is a greater challenge for the intelligence system than the individual human being who hates us enough to kill us. How do we spot him in the crowd before he acts? Why does he wish to kill us--perhaps committing suicide in the process? How do we find him in a city's wretched crowding or amid remote tribes? What happens when he gains access to weapons of mass destruction? The long-term costs to our country from 9/11 proved to be far greater than the 3,000 casualties we suffered that morning. What second-, third-, and fourth-order effects might even a small nuclear blast trigger?

We can defeat states with relative ease. Individuals are tougher. At present, we know approximately where Osama bin-Laden is, but we lack the specific awareness to strike him with a single, politically tolerable bomb. To have a reasonable chance of killing or capturing him, we would have to send in a large ground force, potentially igniting all Pakistan and bringing down the military regime that, tragically, is that country's sole hope. So we wait for the whispered word that will tell us what we need to know. After all of the hyper-expensive collection systems have failed, we find ourselves relying on bribes, informers, and luck, and attacking huts and caves rather than command bunkers and missile silos.

Our intelligence system can do more to protect us than it has done, but, even reformed, it will not detect or stop all of our enemies. We need to do better, but we will never perform perfectly. Intelligence is, at last, about people--on both sides. And human beings are imperfect. Yet, amid the tumult confronting us today, the imperfect human offers more hope for intelligence successes than the perfect machine.

Decision-makers have to accept that they must live with a large measure of uncertainty. (Generals have had to do so since the Bronze Age.) Even the intelligence estimate that captures today's issues with remarkable acuity might be upended by a single distant event tomorrow. There are few, if any, static answers in intelligence. The problems we face from foreign enemies are throbbing, morphing, living, often-irrational manifestations of human problems that are themselves in the process of constant change. Intelligence moves. Even the best strategic intelligence provides only not-quite-focused snapshots and rough-compass bearings, not detailed maps to a predetermined future. The iron paradox of any intelligence system is that to expand its effectiveness you must recognize its limitations.

Blaming faulty intelligence for policy failures is the ultimate case of the workman blaming his tools. Even the best intelligence can only inform decisions. It cannot be forced to make them.

Ralph Peters’ latest book is “Never Quit The Fight.”

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