“Intelligence failures are failures of command.”

I just finished reading Major General Flynn’s “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.”

I have to admit I disagree with the Armchair Generalist and others who see this as indicative of either a crisis in civil-military relations or think that bypassing the bureaucratic machine is always a recipe for bad juju.  I have nothing to support this but given SecDef Gates’ public support of the report and (one can only assume) Gen. McChrystal’s as well I assume this report was disseminated through CNAS because it was decided that going through traditional channels would not deliver a powerful enough message and allow potential opponents time to have to craft countermeasures to blunt its message.  In fact, I see this as potentially as an instance where a pro-intelligence faction engaged in an operation against their own organization in order to force change.  I’ve argued that this may occasionally be necessary (although I’ve only said that for the law enforcement community) given that intelligence is usually not near the top of the food chain in terms of resources or influence.

I don’t see anything in the report that attacks or takes the political leadership (current or previous) to task for any failures, perceived or actual.  The only thing I can see problematic about it is that it offended entrenched interests.  Quite honestly, I don’t give a shit about that.  If things were going well and the old order had things under control I’d cut ’em some slack.  They aren’t however and I see no reason to allow honest critiques to risk getting watered down or lost in the shuffle to preserve somebody’s ego or career.

But, in any case I seriously doubt Gen. Flynn was ‘Going Rogue‘.  This report took some time to research and put together and I doubt very highly that nobody above him knew what he was doing and how he was going to do it.

But enough of that inside baseball stuff.

I can’t speak directly about the content as it relates to Afghanistan since it’s been quite some time since I’ve been there and I really don’t have insight to intel work done there now that you can’t get from open source reporting.

What I do think is interesting and I can (oh, and you know I will!) comment on is how you can also read this document as an equally strong call to action for intelligence analysis improvements within the law enforcement community to adopt something like Intelligence Led Policing.*  I’ve written many times before about how the military and law enforcement can learn lessons from each other in their current situations.  Law enforcement has had some important things to say about tactical operations since insurgencies and organized criminal activity share more in common than say, insurgencies and a conventional, inter-state conflict.  Likewise, the military has a system for integrating its intelligence into its planning and decision making process (even if it doesn’t always work).

In fact, you’d be shocked at how much of this document rings true if you replace references to the military intelligence system with law enforcement intelligence systems, military commanders with their police counterparts and insurgency with crime.

There’s so much to say, in fact that I’m going to have to break this up into a couple of posts.  This first one will deal with the role of leadership.  Flynn sums up one of the problems this way:

Our senior leaders…are not getting the right information to make decisions with … The media is driving the issues.


If intelligence is going to help us succeed…[decision makers] must clearly prioritize the questions they need answered…direct intelligence officials to answer them and hold accountable those who fail.

I’ve written about the difficulty law enforcement has demonstrated in creating clear, definable priorities before**.  Without direction, organizations become inherently reactive and (as commonly seen here in the U.S.) the media drives both the intelligence collection and enforcement priorities.  Essentially what you’ve got then is a system where you voluntarily cede the initiative to criminals AND the media. It’s hard to comment on the accountability part of the equation since there’s so little real prioritization and direction.

Certainly, unforeseen events will occasionally arise and require a reorientation of resources but if you find your organization hopping from fire to fire it can be an indicator of a lack of a good strategy (or a collapsing civilization but I think we can discount that possibility).

…[beacuse] the United States has focused the overwhelming majority of collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, our intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade.

Everything in intelligence really depends on the leadership taking a active role in the creation and direction of any intelligence effort.  Just sitting back and expecting intelligence analysis to happen magically ain’t gonna cut it.  The entire system breaks down because collectors and analysts can’t be sure what the focus of operations are, what questions decision makers are looking to answer.

“Intel automatically defaults to focusing on the enemy if the commander is not involved in setting priorities and explaining why they are important.”

Law enforcement is the same way.  We’ve got a century or more of tradition looking at individual crimes and criminals while ignoring the context in which they occur.  Now, I’m not talking about hugging criminals to death but rather a systematic way of understanding the operating environment so that a law enforcement agency can take steps to prevent crime.  This can be as simple as identifying an area where low light or restricted visibility make it a prime location for muggers or realizing that two rival drug dealing organizations are encroaching on each others territory before the drive-bys start and, in both of those cases, taking preventive action.  Without direction and command guidance however, everyone will fall back to what they know.  Wait for a crime to be committed…try to solve it.

…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 villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers

How many intelligence shops could provide their decision makers with overviews of the civilian equivalents?  I’m not talking about collecting intelligence on U.S. citizens (a big, BIG no-no) but you can gain a wider familiarity of the environment in which criminals are operating.

As a result, “many decision makers rely more upon newspapers than…intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth'”.

Instead, what do most law enforcement intelligence shops do?  Recirculate information from other agencies (sometimes actually taking credit for it, making it appear as if the information has been corroborated by another agency) or regurgitating information back to the very same people who reported it.

The Flynn report concludes by identifying three key things leaders need to do if they want a useful intelligence capability:

Meaningful change will not occur until commanders at all levels take responsibility for intelligence. The way to do so is through devising and prioritizing smart, relevant questions – “information requirements” – about the environment as well as the enemy.

I’ve already discussed this and, therefore, should have thought ahead about how I formatted this post…

Leaders must invest time and energy in selecting the best, most extroverted, and hungriest analysts…

The vast majority of sub-federal agencies with an intelligence component do not have any sort of standardized requirements apart from (maybe) a degree in criminal justice or similar degree (which I happen to think is wrong headed in any case).  Often training involves sitting someone at a desk and expecting them to figure it out.  At it’s worst, analytical positions are still doled out as a way to reward administrative staff with higher pay for the same work or cronyism.  Agencies would do themselves a huge favor if they took a bit of time to figure out what exactly they want in analytical staff, how to identify those qualifications in applicants and hire against them.  Very rarely, do leaders invest that amount of time to that process.

The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate…some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts.

I bit of advise I recently heard at a training session for law enforcement analysts was that no product should be more than 2 pages long since senior leaders simply won’t have the patience to read anything longer.  There certainly is (at least in some circles) a notion that anything longer than a couple of pages is (gasp!) too academic and so has no relevance for law enforcement agencies.

I don’t know if this report will actually stir reforms or not but it’s clear that there’s a great deal of pressure to do something and there are people in charge who are willing to consider novel approaches to solve their problems.  I’m not sure if there’s anything approaching that combination of factors domestically and so don’t hold out much hope we’ll be getting a law enforcement version of the Flynn report anytime soon.

*If we aren’t going to adopt an intelligence centered approach to law enforcement than all this time and money spent of hiring analysts, creating intelligence units and building fusion centers becomes a bit silly.  Unless, of course, the point of it all is an exercise in empire building.

**And no, saying your number one concern is ‘All crimes, all hazards’ isn’t prioritization.


6 responses to ““Intelligence failures are failures of command.”

  1. I’m not going to defend his report, I’m not an MI guy. All I’m saying is that when you buck the process, then either you’re naive to think that you can get away with it or you’re that much of a firebrand that you just don’t care about the consequences. And I don’t know which one Flynn is, but I’m guessing it wasn’t option one.

    As for the fact that he went to CNAS, I am just suggesting that his particular view of MI is very COIN-centric, and that’s why CNAS jumped for the opportunity. Again, don’t know if his argument applies to conventional warfare, and I will admit that operational/tactical intel has a lot of reform to do – let alone the strategic intel.

  2. The more I think about this the more I think this was an attempt to appear to be a firebrand when, in fact, it was a way for the top of the organization to bypass the middle. Well, that’s highly over simplifying it but that’s it in a nutshell.

    Regarding CNAS as the choice of venue, absolutely. It’s COIN central and I’m sure that was a big part of why they went with them.

    I don’t think his argument does apply to conventional warfare (and he seems to say that in the report). In fact, for anti-COIN types there’s some reason to look at this report as a glass is half-full type of thing.

    The report doesn’t talk about the need for Army-wide changes or even CENTCOM wide ones. Instead it talks about Afghanistan only. Now, I expect that’s because that’s Flynn’s lane but you could make the argument that this report is designed to handle these very specific circumstances and once we’re done with that we can dump this whole COIN thing.

    • True, it doesn’t apply as much to conventional warfare (not much of that on the horizon at the moment though not likely to be) other than heralding a long overdue review of intel processes and philosophies. But then, as Mike Scheiern points out, conventional intel is a lot simpler (platform-based) than where we are now (individual-focussed) and are likely to be for a while…

  3. I would expect that is MG Flynn had gone rogue he would be a somewhat unemployed (certainly by DoD) rogue by now. Certainly htere has not been so much as a whimper from senior DoD staff, uniformed or civilian, regarding the process by which the report was developed or released so i think it is safe to assume that the process is kosher. Possibly much of the process angsting is from those who realise that the content of the report threatens their own domains and fiefdoms which is all the more reason to concentrate dialogue and discussion on WHAT the report says and NOT on how it came to say it.

    This blog item is a great analysis of the Flynn paper and some of its implications and I couldn’t agree more with the points raised except some minor philosophical issues re law enforcement and intel. We do need to get more personnel who can read more than two pages and who don’t feel the need to see everything laid out ‘with good use of colour’…i.e. more empahsis on the content than the format…

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