“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

"This report is maybe 12-years-old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear because there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, 10, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people . . . better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave." ~ Captain Malcom Reynolds

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Why I'm Leery About "Intelligence Reports"

So, I've had this one sitting on the burner for a bit. Then Hognose put up a post giving an overview of the U.S. structure and some of the responsibilities, so it seemed an appropriate time.

What has brought this to mind has been the explosion, particularly over the past year with the election and subsequent issues, of popular media reporting and discussion of "Intelligence" as used in the political and military context; i.e. - the gathering, analysis and reporting of information about other governments or entities. Unfortunately, while everyone is hearing and sharing these stories, there is often a significant lack of understanding as to what it all means, where it comes from, or how it gets reported.

As to why I feel I can write up this little post? Well, prior to transitioning to more "explosive" pursuits in my career, I began my military service working in what is euphemistically called the "Intelligence Community," working on a variety of levels for several years to include some national level programs. Since then, while conducting various anti-terrorism and bomb disposal duties, I have obviously had to maintain an association with the different agencies which provide threat information, and then apply it to my own duties. So I have more than a pedestrian understanding of how things are structured and work. Also, parts of this discussion will be necessarily vague due to non-disclosure agreements, and just good sense.

The particular facet I want to discuss, and which Hognose briefly hit on in his post, is the role (and often failure) of the intelligence analyst. To do so, you must understand the two basic sides of any intelligence organization - collection and analysis. Collection is the "guy on the ground," or the cell-phone conversation someone gathers, or the pictures from a satellite flying overhead. It's the raw data. Analysis is then taking all these different sources of information and using them to try and develop a coherent picture of what is happening, or is going to happen, related to the subject. They are separate elements for a number of reasons, from security, to specialization, access to a target, and most importantly an attempt to keep the "big picture" people from getting lost in details.

One problem with this comes in the disconnect. Yes, you don't want your collection guy to lose focus on his element, or get beyond the scope of ability or need - if the satellite is great at taking pictures, you don't try to ask it to record a phone call as well. Similarly, you hope that your analyst is able to keep the broad scope in mind, and doesn't fall victim to the "everything is a nail" approach because he's always been a hammer. This is purely human, by the way - and I certainly don't claim to be immune to it. During the "Cold War" era everything bad was automatically "Soviet," even with the most tenuous of connections, and this led to many people missing the rise of Salafist jihadis as a significant threat. Just like to a narcotics cop, everything they run into is somehow drug related. I'm a "bomb guy," so I have a preconception when I respond to stuff that I'm looking for explosive threats and booby traps. It's just how we're wired. Intelligence collection is similar, in that each discipline tends to focus on their own field and see it as the "most reliable," thus discounting or discrediting other sources. The goal of good analysis, then, is to take all of this and have a supposedly non-biased view of the gestalt.

Unfortunately, this isn't what happens. Since the 1970's there has been an increasing reliance on technology over the person within the intelligence field. Part of this stemmed from actual and supposed excesses which took place, particularly in the 60's, by the CIA and other agencies; resulting Congressional mandates attempting to put limits on what they did afterwards. Other elements were political in nature - the technologists presenting the argument that "they" could do just as much, get just as much, if not better, information than putting people on the ground. That it was better to do things remotely, with computers and radios and all our other tools, than to risk spies being captured or exposed. This trend has only exploded with the information age, and is part of the reason groups like the NSA are so huge. What it has done, however, is lead the analysis side of things to give more credence to their technology than to the "man on the ground" - this is exacerbated by the fact Hognose mentioned that most "analysis" takes place safely back in the D.C. Metro area, far from the actual location, and with the assigned analyst likely to have little to no exposure to, or real-life experience with the area he's reporting on. Sure, there are certain things which can be "taught," concepts and procedures to draw information together without having to put everyone overseas. But, to think that you're going to get great understanding (particularly of a foreign nation) without some form of exposure is as foolish as expecting someone to understand how a pizza tastes who has never eaten one. Yet the vast majority of analysts get little to no such background. Sure, they might understand the "Armed Forces of Socialist Eastwestistan" has so many tanks, so many patrol craft, and the Army is led by the King's first cousin. But they will have little to no understanding of why Eastwestistaners consider it rude to shake hands, or the role of religion in their public discourse, or why they never start military operations after dark. And, without this understanding, they miss key details. Similarly, they forget how global we have become, and discount most other areas as "backwards" because they don't match "Beltway D.C. America." Forgetting that, even in the wildest regions of the world these days, you're likely to find someone with a cellphone, another person with Internet access, and a third who has travelled and speaks more languages than that analyst ever will.

The second problem comes with politics (and, I dare say, is unavoidable) - the "Emperor's New Clothes" issue. Analysts, whether deliberately or unconsciously, tend to tilt things towards what "they" want them to be, and to report what they are "expected" to find. This can be as unintentional as the mid-80's support to Afghan "freedom fighters" against the USSR ignoring all the signs that such groups would be a future threat to others, or as deliberate as the recent concerns that U.S. military reports out of the Iraq region were blatantly skewed to show the fight against Islamic State forces was more effective than what actually was occuring. Either way, to one extent or another, it has a tendency to tint the reporting from what in a perfect world would be a relatively pure result. This is also connected to the politics of public exposure. The analyst is a shy creature, frightened of bright lights and criticism. The last thing an agency wants is to publicly be called WRONG on a conclusion, or to go against the prevailing social winds of what should be. Compare "Russia 2012" comments by the administration, in which Romney's statements of concern were viewed as cold-war holdovers, to "Russia 2017 is our foe" - Russia and their goals haven't significantly changed in that time, but the political and public perception of how they affect us has.

Finally, there is the whole "consensus" issue - in that, there is NEVER a 100% consensus, no matter what you hear. It simply. Does. Not. Happen. Not with 17 different agencies, different threshholds of reliability in terms of the information and outlook, and different resources. Intelligence agencies as a whole don't even LIKE the concept of saying something is 100% one way or another - they're drawing conclusions based on data, and projecting it forward. Think about the last family get together you had, and if you could get people to agree 100% on things? The "Intelligence Community" is a federal-level group of Uncle Ted, with all his opinions out at the dinner table. The only reason I bring this up is that if you ever see news reporting on a "unanimous consensus" among intelligence agencies, it's either over something irrefutable such as "the sky is blue," or a total lie.

As an example of the failures of analysis due to these issues, I have two examples from my own time:

In the first, we were on a visit to a nation for a few days, and myself and a coworker had an invitation to do a day's exchange with some of their Naval counterparts, to include a brief ride on one of their ships. One of our tasks and expectations during such events was to look for any significant changes in weapons or equipment, so as to know what was in the region, either as a possible concern for our forces, or in the event of a conflict. Now, all the documentation, background material, and briefings said that said nation was equiped with "Type X" man-portable anti-aircraft missiles - a rather dated technology at the time, but still in use. Well, here we are riding on this ship off the coast, and I make note of the fact that I am actually sitting on the outside storage containers for several "Type Y" missiles - a much more modern and advanced system, and one that it was kind of a big deal to know was out there. So, my partner and I manage to discretely retain some of the data we needed, finish up our day, and the next day we're typing up our report, to include this significant update.

Which lead to a fight with the analysts...

"Nope, they don't have Y. You're wrong, they only have X."

"They have Y. We saw Y."

"Not possible, the book says they only have X."

This went back and forth - to the point of we literally provided them with the lot and serial numbers from said cases to track the systems. Turns out that they DID have Y - provided to them under a State Department program, and not reported through "normal" military channels. But, because it wasn't in the analysts expectations or documentation, we must have been wrong... Because the left hand couldn't comprehend the right acting differently, it couldn't exist. It took over a year to get the appropriate information updated. A year in which this would have been a significant issue, had a conflict occurred.

In a different incident, and a different spot, I had an example of the over-reliance on technology.

There we were, in a position to watch another country's port facilities, and to see what their local Navy was up to on a day-to-day basis. All of which was dutifully reported up to THAT areas regional analysis group. Well, over a period of several days, we kept observing a nice mid-morning or mid-afternoon pattern of several of their patrol craft leaving the dock and going out of the harbor and into the open seas for a few hours of some coordinated maneuvering and training. Of course, going into our reports each day.

Interestingly, though, the summaries (passed on to commanders and such throughout the region) kept saying "We assess all units remained in port on this date." Over and over.

Why the discrepancy?

Because, none of their other systems showed anything - their technology based systems, things like communications, or satellites, or the like. And, if the technology didn't show it, then it must not have happened. No matter what the "guy on the ground" said. It wasn't a deliberate attempt to discount us; the analysts simply couldn't comprehend that a po-dunk third world military would have figured out the concepts of practicing for war without giving away communications, or other means of minimizing detection. They had become innoculated to the concept of technology superceding all other sources, and trapped in their little bubbles of perception were unable to consider other possibilities as being valid.

Unfortunately the problem is only getting worse, and more public. No matter what agency in question, the vast majority of their analytic staffs continue to build their nests in nice offices far away from the targets they consider, and to have little to no knowledge of the language, culture, or mores of the regions they are interpreting. Risk adverse agencies are reluctant to build a human intelligence capability worthy of the name, when any chance of an agent being captured, or caught in some alleged misdeed only threatens bad press. Most importantly, when the bureaucracy remains more concerned with power politics, budgets, and answering political whims rather than providing unbiased information, the leadership of the nation, and the people they protect, are ill-served. The problem is, in the modern age technology is enabling our adversaries to improve their capabilities faster than our analysts can adapt. Information and tactics which were once relatatively secret are now a Google search away. And, the more rapidly their conclusions become public domain through leaks and news reporting, the more likely analysts are to tilt their conclusions towards the prevailing political winds in an attempt to avoid controversy.


MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Capt;

The Church commission in the early 70's severely damaged the intelligence community, before this the intelligence community did deal with some bad people, but after the rules and findings of the Church commission, the intelligence started switching to technical means like Sigint or photo intelligence because they were more sanitary than dealing with "humint" or "human Intelligence" because it is messy.

Captain Tightpants said...

MRGarabaldi -
Exactly right. The Church commission and public inquiries were a significant contributor in the shift from Human Intelligence to more Signals and Imagery based systems. However, while it may have started the swing in the pendulum, it has been far from the only influence.