'Langley Won't Tell Us'

How I fought the intelligence turf wars -- and lost.

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."

And the competition doesn't end there. Funding is another sought-after prize that erects dangerous barriers between all the agencies fighting for it. Technology can also prove a problem. For example, intelligence-system designers create unique hardware platforms and software applications for each agency, and sometimes for separate elements within agencies. Because each of these platforms and applications requires hard firewalls, gaps can occur, and agencies or sections of agencies can get shut out of intelligence-sharing.

Take the case of the newest military command, Africom. To build its intelligence database, analysts and managers had to collect data from the three major commands that were previously responsible for watching the African continent. Each command had used different and incompatible data storage software, making it nearly impossible for the data to be collated. The lines are drawn even more impenetrably between the foreign intelligence services (think CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency) and the domestic law-enforcement communities (think FBI and the Department of Homeland Security). Now, imagine being an analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center, intended to pool and analyze all that data. Senior managers might have four or five different computer hard drives at their desks in order to access upward of 20 different intranets.

If you think that's bad, here's another barrier to intelligence-sharing: the love of secrecy for its own sake. Information is categorized and classified into levels from Confidential to Top Secret according to the level of damage to the United States its disclosure might cause. Information can be even further caveated so that, say, among Top Secret analysts, only certain analysts and consumers can view it. All this is meant to protect not only the information but where it came from and how it was collected, the sources and methods used. And in principle, of course, it is correct and necessary. In reality, such categorizations stovepipe information, and they are often used irresponsibly.

Such problems are hardly new. During the Vietnam War, combat commanders complained that their intelligence officers didn't share critical information with them. When I was a young intelligence officer, this was referred to as "green door syndrome" for the literal closed door behind which we worked.

Today, the door is electronic but just as effective. Commanders in the field have all the requisite clearances to know what sigint or humint is bringing in, but the big-brain analysts in Washington classify their work at such a level that information cannot be sent forward to troops in the field -- who are, ironically, some of those who collected the raw data in the first place.

Flynn says he's going to set up offices in Afghanistan where anyone with something to share or who needs information can come and talk to an analyst. He's on to something. Probably 90 percent of what we need to know is unclassified. Known in the community as open-source material, it's the stuff that's in newspapers, on the radio, stuffed in some professor's head, or happening on the street to be observed. The remaining 10 percent is stuff that's really hard to get, and that's what our intelligence services go after.

So what's the solution? Publishing more reports unclassified would be a start. I once tried to publish a piece this way. I had written it based on information I collected myself in the field, and I wanted anyone who needed it to be able to access it easily. But the mere idea of my organization publishing something unclassified was so foreign that it took three weeks to get it cleared -- that's about 2½ weeks longer than usual. In some organizations, the format of their reports is considered confidential, so regardless of the source, even if it's a local newspaper, the report itself is classified.

These are the true failings that Obama described last week. It's up to him and to the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, to resolve them and to rethink the system itself. Until that happens, in Afghanistan, in the Horn of Africa, and in other places where what we don't know really can hurt us, we'll continue fighting ourselves as well as our enemies.

David Burnett/Newsmakers


Intelligent Design

The CIA has pointed to the Christmas Day terrorist incident as evidence that the post-9/11 intelligence reform has failed. That self-serving diagnosis couldn't be further from the truth.

In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, some U.S. intelligence officials are sharpening their knives, planning to lay the blame for the failure to detect this plot at the feet of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). President Barack Obama "knows where to look" when assessing blame for the government's inability to connect the dots prior to the attack, claimed one anonymous intelligence official quoted in the Washington Post. In particular, the CIA, which opposed the 2004 reorganization that transferred some of the agency's responsibilities to the ODNI and the NCTC, "has barely restrained itself from shouting, 'We told you so,'" the Post reported.

This chest-thumping is not surprising. The CIA has felt vastly underappreciated since 9/11, having been faulted by senior officials and blue-ribbon commissions both for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the intelligence community's inaccurate prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities. Some CIA loyalists clearly relished the opportunity to affix blame to another part of the intelligence community after the Christmas attack.

But the charge that we would be better off without the ODNI and the NCTC is more than self-serving -- it is also wrong, and dangerously so. The real lesson from the failure to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off a U.S.-bound flight is that intelligence reform has not gone far enough. Rather than restoring the CIA to its pre-9/11 role as king of the hill in the intelligence community, the Obama administration should further empower the NCTC, in particular by bolstering its analytical and technological capabilities so that it can more effectively lead the government's counterterrorism intelligence efforts.

As last Thursday's White House report on the Christmas attack rightly asserts, the intelligence community has become much better at sharing information since 9/11, in part due to new laws and regulations that facilitate it. What allowed the Christmas attack to occur was not a failure of information sharing, but a failure to analyze and integrate available information. The White House report acknowledges that all of the information collected by intelligence agencies about Abdulmutallab and his association with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was accessible to analysts at both the NCTC and the CIA prior to the Christmas attack. However, nobody put the pieces together that he represented an imminent threat to the United States.

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the formation of the NCTC in part to solve this very problem. Having found that the government missed signals about the 9/11 attacks because agencies failed to share key pieces of information, the commission argued that it was essential to create a body that would lead government-wide efforts to analyze terrorism intelligence, direct intelligence collection by other agencies, and plan counterterrorism operations. Congress agreed, enacting intelligence reform legislation in 2004 that made the NCTC the "primary organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence" pertaining to terrorism.

Despite the failure to connect the dots on the Christmas attack, the NCTC has actually performed quite well during its five years of operation. Backed by the ODNI and the White House, it has reduced the stovepiping of intelligence efforts and planned many successful counterterrorism operations. From a bureaucratic standpoint, one of the NCTC's greatest strengths is the nature of its workforce: Some 60 percent of its personnel are detailed to the center from other agencies. This means that NCTC officials tend to be less turf-conscious than officials in the rest of the intelligence community. Equally important, they have developed close ties to other agencies, facilitating interagency collaboration.

The White House's review makes clear that the NCTC shares some of the blame for the Abdulmutallab intelligence failure. But that is no reason to believe that the plot would have been uncovered if the NCTC did not exist. We know that the intelligence community failed both in sharing and integrating information before 9/11. We also know that the CIA, which had chief responsibility for analyzing terrorism intelligence from all sources before 2004, has a history of protecting its own turf, complicating interagency cooperation.

Moreover, the CIA has another counterterrorism responsibility that is critically important and extremely challenging: the collection of human intelligence on al Qaeda. The CIA has made tremendous progress in this mission since 9/11, but the recent suicide bombing by an al Qaeda double agent at a CIA base in Afghanistan underscores the continued difficulty of penetrating the terrorist organization and the need for the CIA to devote as much attention as possible to this task. If the CIA once again assumed chief responsibility for analyzing and integrating intelligence from all sources, it would likely suffer from the same problem of divided attention that existed prior to the 2004 reorganization.

But this is not to say that the status quo is acceptable -- far from it. The White House's review of the Christmas attack reveals that the reforms proposed by the 9/11 Commission have not been fully implemented. In discussing how the NCTC should operate in a hypothetical case, the 9/11 Commission described the new agency's role as tasking collection requirements and being accountable for tracking progress on the case. Yet lines of responsibility have remained unclear since the NCTC was formed. Obama's order that the intelligence community assign specific responsibility for investigating all leads is therefore a necessary corrective. It will also be necessary, as Obama directed, for intelligence reports involving threats to be distributed more rapidly and widely.

Yet the most critical and potentially transformative work is yet to come. Obama has asked Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board to examine ways to improve the processing and integration of intelligence information. As the Christmas attack shows, this challenge should be the focus of the next phase of intelligence reform. Ironically, this challenge has been made greater by the marked improvements in intelligence collection and sharing since 9/11: The intelligence community is now passing along so much information that the NCTC's staff of roughly 500 people cannot thoroughly digest and assess all of it.

Ultimately, the Christmas attack presents an opportunity for Obama to put his own stamp on intelligence reform. As the Obama administration prepared to take office in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel commented, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Now, the administration needs to use the sense of crisis generated by the near miss on Christmas to give the NCTC the authority, resources, and technology necessary to inventory, analyze, and act on all of the information that washes through the intelligence system.

Alex Wong/Getty Images