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Managing Intelligence in National Security

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Published: Fri, 13 Jul 2018

At which stage of the ”intelligence cycle” is failure most likely to occur, and why?

The most common, traditional paradigm for managing intelligence ‘flow’ is a cycle of four components: direction, collection, processing, and dissemination. Direction comes from policymakers: heads of government agencies, heads of state, senior government officials tasked with overseeing intelligence, and the like, who provide both specific and general roadmaps to intelligence agencies as to how they should apply their resources to defend national interests both at home and abroad. Collection is the process by which intelligence is gathered in a variety of fashions: via HUMINT – intelligence data collected by personal, human effort ‘on the ground’; electronically, e.g. SIGINT (interception of signals), IMINT (satellite, photographic imagining intelligence), etc. Processing is the analysis of the data obtained in the collection component, the means by which the nature, relevance and relative importance of the collected intelligence is ascertained by means both scientific and intuitive. (Arguably, processing is the most important component of the cycle, but the least amount of money is often budgeted to this component of the cycle.) Dissemination refers to the process by which the relevant information is channeled to the appropriate decision-making party within a timetable commensurate with the importance of the information collected and the results of the processing/analysis.

Each of the four components of the cycle is fraught with peril for failure — and failure in any one component can be catastrophic. The two arenas where failure is most likely to occur, however, are collection and analysis.

Failures in collection are often due to lack of applied resources, whether technological or human. The debate has raged for decades over whether HUMINT is superior to intelligence data gathered by increasingly advancing technological wizardry. Most likely, a healthy application of and symbiosis between the two is critical. There is no substitute for the personal presence of agents, operatives, and contacts on the ground, substantially integrated with useful components of whichever society in which they are placed. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was woefully lacking in human collection efforts in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and in Iraq during the same time period (though to a lesser extent). Compounding matters was the dearth of CIA field operatives or domestically-based personnel who spoke the common languages of the Middle East – Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, etc. However, rapid advances in computer technology have enabled the collection of vast quantities of raw intelligence data – telephone calls, e-mails, radio transmissions, etc., and intelligence agencies who lack such technology will invariably be at a massive disadvantage.

Failures in processing/analysis can occur when the collection apparatus has delivered all of the puzzle pieces, usually due to either a collective/institutional, or individual inability to connect the proverbial dots and turn raw data into actionable intelligence conclusions. The 9/11 attacks are a regrettably perfect example of failures in analysis. Discrete entities in the U.S. intelligence community – the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and CIA, as well as other government agencies (the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Federal Aviation Administration) – all possessed nuggets of raw data which if analyzed properly, would clearly have indicated (in fact, some say did definitively indicate) that an Al-Qaida attack on the U.S. using airplanes was imminent. However, these entities failed to share this data and collaborate cooperatively to analyze it. Turf warfare, egos, bureaucratic inertia, and competing political agendas can easily cause fatal paralysis in intelligence processing.

The costs of covert action tend to outweigh its benefits. Discuss.

The question of whether the costs of covert action outweigh its benefits depend greatly on the context of the covert action; is it an ongoing, multi-year low-intensity campaign involving numerous agendas, or is it an urgent, high-priority single mission designed to achieve a massive single strategic goal? Also, the notion of costs must be defined in relative terms – monetary costs, human costs, opportunity costs; indirect costs (unintended consequences); other abstract and intangible costs such as ethics, legal ramifications, etc. The CIA has long been involved in low-intensity covert actions in a variety of nations, with varying degrees of success. The Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan administration officials diverted proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran to anti-Marxist Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s, was costly in both monetary terms (hundreds of millions of pounds) and legal terms – a number of Reagan administration officials were subjected to criminal charges for their roles in facilitating both the operation itself and the cover-up of the operation (the American Congress had passed a law forbidding U.S. government direct aid to the Contras).

However, in the wake of 9/11, when the U.S. government concluded that decisive force was required to respond to Al-Qaida’s attack on U.S. soil, the CIA and DoD (Department of Defense) were authorized by President Bush to spend whatever was necessary to execute some of the most bold covert actions – particularly in HUMINT — undertaken by American intelligence agencies in decades. HUMINT capacity at the CIA eroded as, ironically, the moral excesses of covert activities of the 1960s-1970s caused a backlash that choked off HUMINT funding priority; also, the end of the Cold War led many policymakers to conclude that the CIA’s resources were better spent on electronic means of collection, as covert action can be prohibitively expensive in both time and money. However, the CIA was authorized and ordered to act boldly and within a matter of weeks, had substantial HUMINT on the ground in Afghanistan both collecting data and coordinating with DoD military planners to leverage intelligence into actionable military plans. The goal: to defeat the Taliban, who had hosted Al-Qaida in a darkly symbiotic relationship which held the country in a repressive stranglehold and provided safe haven for the training of thousands of would-be terrorists. Mindful of the failure of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, CIA realized that only an asymmetrical application of covert power (mirroring Al-Qaida’s approach to the 9/11 attacks, ironically) would be effective, as a conventional ground war could be too costly in both manpower and lives on both sides.

A shrewd application of HUMINT, technology, and good old-fashioned money engineered the relatively rapid American triumph in Afghanistan in 2001. CIA operatives on the ground descended into Afghanistan with little support, made contact with sympathetic Afghan warlords, dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars to other warlords and tribal leaders, in some cases simply to bribe them into switching sides and fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaida. These same operatives also used hand-held laser GPS equipment to target enemy strongholds and transmit this location data directly to U.S. aircraft, who in turn dropped laser-guided bombs with deadly efficiency. The cost was in the billions, but the victory was swift, decisive, and – given the ramifications of the triumph – extremely inexpensive, relatively speaking. As such, not all covert operations are too costly to make them worthwhile.

Discuss the importance of open sources collection in comparison to clandestine collection. Is clandestine collection indeed more valuable?

Open-source(s) collection refers to the collection of actionable or otherwise valuable/relevant intelligence data from publicly available sources. Prior to the advent of the Internet, this methodology was not without value, but in many cases prohibitively time-intensive, and less prone to yield results. Though the type of information available to the public at a local library might surprise a layperson, it is dwarfed by what is now available on the Internet to anyone with a personal computer. In some cases, an intelligence analyst sitting at a desk in London can gather valuable, reliable information about conditions on the ground in a city halfway across the globe – weather conditions, local news, political and business developments, cultural idiosyncracies. Other sources of OSINT, as it is termed, include diverse sources as consultations with experts in various fields within academia or the business world, professional associations, professional conventions, to simple thoughtful Google searches and reading of blogs.

The trend globally is towards an ever-increasing amount of openness of information exchange thanks to the Internet. Increasingly sophisticated ‘sweeper’ data-mining software technology, which is often used to collect and in some cases process large volumes of conventional communication traffic, are being utilized by the CIA to scan millions of websites, searching for key terms, phrases, contexts, which might indicate that human review would be advantageous or essential. Instructions to make improvised explosive devices can easily be posted on websites, and 21st century intelligence collection must conform to this new reality.

In comparison, the best use of clandestine intelligence vis-à-vis OSINT efforts is to obtain highly specialized or esoteric intelligence information that is either intentionally kept confidential (classified government secrets, for example). OISINT processing and analysis can help frame and answer a number of general questions and/or analyze larger patterns and trends, whereas clandestine intelligence can help answer targeted, specific questions that cannot be ascertained by either human or computer OSINT efforts.

For example, in response to the intelligence reforms demanded in the wake of the failure to anticipate and prevent the 9/11 attacks, the CIA formed an “Open Source Center” (OSC) to focus specifically on OSINT. In 2004, OSC used OSINT technology to discover that a new, powerful Chinese submarine had been constructed in an underground location heretofore unknown to the American military and intelligence community. The tip-off? Chinese military bloggers, one of whom posted a photograph of the impressive new Chinese submarine (the Yuan-class attack submarine) on a publicly viewable website. CIA in turn employed HUMINT and electronic surveillance to ascertain where the submarine had been constructed and what its operational abilities might be. In a less dramatic example, OSC searched Iraqi websites for postings related to the use of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), in some cases gathering actionable data which helped avert the use of these deadly terrorist tools. (The inadvertent destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 by NATO bombs might have been averted by some of the most rudimentary OSINT – having a human operative walk down the street to make sure the military target’s address was correct.) Clandestine collection activities, particularly HUMINT efforts, will always have their place, but in a world where information is available anywhere, anytime, at the click of a mouse, intelligence agencies must dedicate significant resources to OSINT.


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