In recent weeks, following the shocks of the Christmas Day bomber and the Dec. 30 attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan, observers have tried to understand why U.S. intelligence failed so badly. President Barack Obama argued that the intelligence-gatherers have been doing a bang-up job, while the analysts back at home have not. The Christmas attack, he said, was "a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had." Then a New York Times article asserted that the problem is really communication between different sectors. Finally, the senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, blasted intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan, calling data "only marginally relevant" because it was disconnected from local politics and conditions on the ground.
But any evaluation that merely blames the analysts, the intelligence-gatherers, or even both of their abilities to communicate misses the point: Major parts of the system itself are broken, and no surface-level changes will fix that.
The trouble starts with bias. I spent a few years working in the field as an intelligence collector, a few more directing operations, and a few back in Washington as an analyst and manager. Like everyone else in the business, I have preferences for certain ways of collecting information. But part of the reason that U.S. intelligence has so much difficulty catching terrorists and quashing insurgencies is that these biases aren't just individual -- they are corporate.
Within the intelligence community there are numerous collection methods known to insiders as "ints": satellite imagery (imint), electronic eavesdropping (sigint), human sources (humint), and so on. Each of these ints has a value and a purpose. But senior managers, analysts, and operators within the alphabet soup of no less than 16 agencies tasked with mastering these methods tend to become so deeply entrenched in the arcana of their own fields that they can fail to appreciate the products of their colleagues.
Consumers of the intelligence also have their favorites. Special Forces operators love imagery. Navy guys get really excited over electronic intelligence. Consumers develop a relationship with a collector and the analysts in that field and then start to lobby for that specialty, urging Congress to pour money into the so-called "black" budgets -- the sections that don't appear on the regular, unclassified version.
Little by little, agencies and collectors each develop their separate little fiefdoms. And inevitably, competition results. Agencies vie for the ear of senior leaders, most importantly the president. The objective is to be the indispensable agency, the one that fills the pages of the President's Daily Brief (or simply PDB, as insiders call it). The competition drives arrogance and a lack of trust and respect among agencies. As an analyst and a manager of analysts, my biggest problem was getting other agencies to tell me what they knew. When advising policy designers and decision makers, I was often forced to answer their queries with "I don't know; Langley won't tell us."