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.