Problems in intelligence (part…uh…I lost count)

If you’re even a casual reader here you’ll be familiar with my rants about the low regard with which I hold most law enforcement and homeland security intelligence, fusion centers and such. I usually chalk up the lion’s share of this poor performance to institutional pathologies of one sort or another. Foreign Policy has an article which highlights one aspect of this spectrum of failure that, while I’ve discussed it before, is worth a relook. Rosa Brooks talks about the divide in government between the military and the civilian cliques. Change the specifics in the following quote from foreign policy to a criminal or homeland security issue and I think it would be familiar to many intelligence professionals. Talking about independence of Southern Sudan and amid general concern of renewed ethnic violence, Rosa observed:

The Defense Department was asked…to produce plans for preventing or responding to mass atrocities. “We need to give the president some options in case all hell breaks loose,” explained White House officials.

…he military response was to express polite frustration. What assumptions and constraints should guide planning? What kind of plans did they want? To respond to what kind of mass atrocities, against whom, and in what likely places? Respond for how long and through what means, and to what ultimate end? Peace in Sudan? Peace on Earth? Would this mean fighting Sudanese government forces on northern Sudanese soil? Going to war with a foreign state?

Or maybe the goals were narrower? Should we be planning to evacuate displaced people? Where to? Should we just focus on protecting a humanitarian corridor?

At best, White House staff members considered their military counterparts rigid, reductions, and unimaginative. At worse, they were convinced that the Pentagon was just being difficult…

The military representatives…were equally exasperated. What was wrong with these civilians? Didn’t they know what they wanted? Without the specificity, the range of possibilities was endless. The United States could use nuclear weapons against the Sudanese regime; we could withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and shift them to Sudan; we could do nothing whatsoever; and we could do a great many things in between.

As I thought about that passage, it occurred to me that these were the very same objections that I had raised time and again. I suppose a great deal of that is because I was raised within the military tradition and my desire for some sort of mission parameters runs deep. What we end up with is a very similar dynamic, however. Intelligence personnel (and not just analysts here but also investigators and others who ‘get’ intelligence – and operations planning for that matter) that don’t ‘get on board’ are seen as being difficult just to be difficult.

The difference between the event Rosa discusses and the dynamic in the law enforcement/homeland security fields is the disparity of power. Intelligence personnel are rarely afforded any real degree of power or influence within the decision making infrastructure and so often don’t even get to ask the questions that need to be asked.

So, where does that leave us? Usually with those in control of intelligence assets asking questions so open ended as to be meaningless in any way except to confirm pre-conceived notions as when I once had someone ask me to ‘List the top 10 threats in our area’ and then refuse to define what they saw as a threat. Violence? Economic? Health? Man-made or natural? All of the above or something different? The answer (I suspect) is that he ‘knew’ what some of those threats were and was looking for some document with a veneer of objectivity to push a particular agenda.

The other quagmire we find ourselves sinking to our chins in is that intelligence personnel find themselves both marginalized and used as props to demonstrate how ‘proactive’ and ‘prepared’ various units are. ‘We’ve got X number of analysts working on this or that.’ is a talking point or PowerPoint bullet designed to instill a sense of confidence in the person(s) being briefed and lend an air of competence in those represented by the briefer. Yet, what doesn’t get seen or evaluated is what exactly those analysts are tasked with, doing and producing.

That in turn, (IMO) is because those doing the tasking usually don’t know or aren’t interested in using intelligence. Analysts are therefore expected to regurgitate news reports (the equivalent in the military is relegating intelligence personnel to reporting on the weather) or engaging in circular reporting. That results in using a fraction of the potential of the intelligence personnel any particular agency or shop has.

It’s like owning a shiny, high performance sports car and only using it to go to the corner store to pick up a loaf of bread. Sure, you can use it for that but it’s kind of a waste. And unlike that sports car, your intelligence personnel can say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and find more meaningful employment.

I don’t have any solution for this. I just thought the comparison was apt.

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