THE 800 POUND GORILLA IN THE IC’S LIVING ROOM

The struggle for me this month is deciding what Intelligence Community (IC) centric topic is worthy of your time.  I could regal you with what I heard from the IC leadership at the DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in San Antonio (24-26 August) and the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit in Washington D.C. (9-10 September).  Perhaps more compelling is the unfolding refugee/migrant crisis in central Europe and its impacts on national security and implications for the IC. Of course, the immediate budget uncertainties and potential government shutdown are never far from mind.  What is currently interesting me is how the past three years of declining Defense and IC budgets and projections of continuing cuts in the out years is impacting the federal Information Technology (IT) Services industry resulting in large corporations exiting the space and generating pressure for mergers and acquisitions that will change the way the IC acquires IT in the near future.

None of this matters though as an 800 pound gorilla has barged into the IC’s living room during the second week of September in the form of Inspector General (IG) complaints by two Central Command (CentCom) analysts that the command J2 (Army one star general officer) has been altering intelligence regarding ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in order to support Obama Administration claims that these forces are being defeated on the battlefield.  Manipulating intelligence so it reflects either what seniors want to hear or supports a particular policy agenda is the most egregious breach of ethics that an intelligence professional can commit, so examining what is going on in Tampa and its broader implications for the IC is not anything I relish thinking about let alone discussing in a public forum.

To be clear, my knowledge about the events reported by Shane Harris is limited to what has been reported in the media and discussed publicly about them by IC Seniors at the AFCEA/INSA IC Summit.

According to Shane Harris’ reporting (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/exclusive-50-spies-say-isis-intelligence-was-cooked.html  ), two senior intelligence analysts at CENTCOM submitted a written complaint via formal channels to the Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General (IG) in July alleging that reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The two analysts contend these reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the Administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Fifty other CentCom intelligence analysts are reported to be supporting this formal complaint to the DoD IG and one person assigned to the CENTCOM J2 describes the command environment as “Stalinist.”

In related media reporting The Guardian’s U.S. correspondent Spencer Ackerman is implying that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper through regular secure video-teleconference calls with the CentCom J2 to better prepare himself for briefing the President may have inadvertently and subliminally caused the CentCom J2 to modify what his intelligence analysts were concluding from the information available to them. It is important to recognize that no one is making any claim let alone offering any evidence that the DNI was pressuring the CentCom J2 to modify his organization’s intelligence assessments.

The most important official response to these reports is from DIA Director Marine Corps LtGen Vince Stewart, USMC.  When asked about these allegations while on stage at the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit with the heads of the “Big 6” Intelligence Agencies on 10 September, the Director of DIA acknowledged that there is an ongoing investigation so he could not speak to specifics, but he continued that he did want to talk to the dynamics involved with collecting and sorting out what intelligence means.  LtGen Steward reminded the audience that

“we [intelligence professionals] pride ourselves on analytic rigor, in which we look at the vast amount of information to deliver an assessment. It is not plain. It is not science. It is as much experience and judgment as anything else. So when we go through the analytic process, it is a pretty rough-and-tumble debate.”  Because experts can and often do disagree about what information is relevant or what the information collected means “. . .at some point at the end of the day someone has to say, ‘This is the best judgment of what the data says’ and present that to our decision makers.” 

The DIA Director went on to say that those with concerns about the creditability of battlefield related intelligence should “be applauded” for bringing these concerns to the IG via proper channels

It is certainly difficult to disagree with anything LtGen Stewart said, and I commend him for providing important context for understanding this controversy.  I also agree that the DoD IG investigation will sort out what if any wrong doing occurred with regard CentCom J2’s intelligence reporting on ISIS, et al. Nonetheless, from what is already in the public domain I can foresee at least five implications for the IC emerging from this situation no matter what the IG determines.

  1. These allegations will embolden those who content that IC cannot be trusted to keep national security decision makers informed with accurate, objective, and balanced intelligence
  2. Intelligence analysis at CentCom will certainly be disrupted and this disruption will ripple to other intel shops looking at ISIS and Al Qaeda
  3. IC leadership attention will be diverted away from the overall threat matrix as well as from managing the community during the current period of budgetary uncertainty
  4. There will be Congressional oversight hearings regarding “command influence” by IC seniors and others in the government on the substance and tone intelligence analysis writ large
  5. Opponents of the Iran Nuclear Agreement will argue a lack of confidence in the IC to report Iranian cheating if it is detected

There is also the issue of how those at CentCom lodging complaints of intelligence manipulation with the IG will be treated.  If they are punished in some way or their allegations are not thoroughly investigated and the results broadly reported, there will be a chorus of “see Snowden was right!”

I learned over 40 years ago from Admiral Inman that in Washington “if you are explaining, you are losing” and it looks like at least the CentCom J2 and probably the DNI on behalf of the entire IC will be explaining why and how the intelligence analysis provided to decision makers from the front lines to the Oval Office is produced with professional rigor to be as accurate and objective as possible.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

A Smaller and Radically Restructured IC?

The AFCEA/INSA Intelligence and National Security Summit (Summit) held at the Omni Shorem Hotel in Washington DC on 18 and 19 September was a grand event.  Virtually all of the IC’s senior leadership made presentations while the IC’s industrial base was well represented by over 1,000 attendees many from small businesses because this event was specifically planned to be unencumbered by classification.  The Summit was “on the record” with numerous members of media attending, some even moderating panel sessions.  Not surprisingly the Summit generated considerable media coverage.  The professionals at INSA and on the AFCEA Intelligence Committee have every reason to be proud of this inaugural Summit that they organized and produced.

During his keynote, Director of National Intelligence(DNI) James Clapper, after some good natured carping about the expectations for the IC to perform flawlessly in an environment of “immaculate collection,” proceeded to introduce the third iteration of the National Intelligence Strategy (NIS).

http://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-and-publications/204-reports-publications-2014/1114-dni-unveils-2014-national-intelligence-strategy

The DNI took considerable time to insure the audience understood the “mission,” “vision,”  “mission objectives,” and the “enterprise objectives” laid out in the NIS.  The DNI then spent an equal amount of time explaining that it was more important than ever in today’s environment of distrust in government, that members of the IC have and abide by a set of professional effects.  For this reason the DNI personally directed that the ethical principles associated with mission, truth, lawfulness, integrity, stewardship, excellence, and diversity be the opening page of the NIS.

As I listened to the DNI I was optimistic that the IC was going to take full advantage of the platform provided by this two day Summit to begin the challenging work of rebuilding the trust and confidence of American people in their IC.  I actually envisioned the IC leaders on the agenda using the Summit’s various sessions and tracks to explain what the IC does for them as opposed to the Snowden narrative of what it is doing to them.  However, beyond some general references to the new NIS and the importance of having the trust and confidence of the American people, I did not detect over the balance of The Summit either a coherent or coordinated message from the various podiums relating back to how the NIS was going to impact the organizations and functions of the IC being addressed.

Particularly discouraging to me was the panel on “What Should the Nation Expect from its IC?” Rather than talking directly to this seminal question about the metaphysics of the IC going forward, the Directors of four of the IC’s “big five” agencies got off on a tangents about what is in their in boxes, i.e. what is keeping them busy vice what the IC needs to be doing, implying that what the IC is doing is what the nation can expect from its IC.

With the exception of NSA Director Mike Rogers, who said the IC  should have done better anticipating the break out of ISIL into Iraq because it is our job, the other agency chiefs asserted that the IC did provide policy makers with good strategic warning about the dangers ISIL represented to US interests in the region,  but because of the nature of ISIL (non-state actor, indigenous funding, strong operational security, etc.) the IC could not offer meaningful warning as to when those dangers would manifest themselves nor could they provide insights on how to deter or disrupt ISIL’s plans.  While this was actually an informative and thoughtful discussion aimed at managing external expectations about what the IC is capable of, it was not what I was expecting hear about based on the session’s title.

Since the Summit did not address what I (and perhaps others) should or could expect from the IC, I thought I would use this forum to offer some IC measures of effectiveness (MOEs) for discussion and debate.  My underlying premise, because of the critical role the IC plays in informing national security policies and decisions with classified information that cannot (and in most cases should not) be independently verified, is that the IC must have both the trust and confidence of its  government consumers but also the American people who are funding what the IC does. As a result, each of the five MOEs for the IC proposed below are focused individually and collectively on creating “trust and confidence” in the “IC Brand”:

  • COMPETENCE: Assurance that the hard work of creating meaningful intelligence out of disparate classified and unclassified information will be performed diligently by trained intelligence professionals well versed in the tradecraft of their specific disciplines on a schedule driven by consumers not producers.  The quality controls essential for producing reliable intelligence should be woven into all intelligence processes at the earliest opportunities.
  • OBJECTIVITY:  IC outputs will be data driven, well sourced, and auditable.  Intelligence to be useful must be about what the adversary is contemplating vice what consumers need or want to hear from the IC for any number of reasons.
  • ENGAGEMENT: In order to produce timely, insightful, and relevant intelligence, the IC must be directly engaged with its consumer base with short feedback loops resulting in both the continuous improvement of IC products and their utility to those using intelligence to inform their decisions. The IC must also be interacting regularly with the American people, through a well thought out public affairs campaign showing the members of the IC to be honorable people, who respect the rule of law, doing their best to protect our nation from harm.
  • TRANSPARENCY: For government consumers with clearances to rely on intelligence they are provided, they should and will demand to know something about the sources and methods associated with intelligence before they put it to critical use. Those in the media and the general public should not be expected to trust a secretive IC that does not trust them.  Trust is a two way dynamic.  In the spirit of the US Constitution, IC sources and methods are necessarily classified to protect the IC’s competitive advantage over those who mean to do us harm, but what the US IC does and why it does it should be subject to classification only by exception.
  • HUMILITY: By its nature, intelligence is always incomplete and ambiguous, so there is usually no reason for the IC to believe it knows more about an adversary, situation, or technology than others elsewhere in the government, academia, industry, or the media who actually may have better access in some case than the IC.  As a general proposition the IC will perform best when it is acting as a learning organization.  It will also engender trust and confidence by consumers and the public the more openly the IC holds itself to account when intelligence fails to adequately inform decision makers or the IC overreaches its authorities to execute its missions

Obviously many will disagree for good reasons with these five candidate MOEs for assessing IC performance, but that discussion and debate will be good for the health of the IC.  What I am reasonably certain won’t be up for debate, though, is that after doubling the size and budget of the IC since September 11, 2001, few in the federal government or in the local town square will have much tolerance for the IC if it fails again to warn regarding a major attack on the US homeland or delivers an intelligence assessment that enables a strategic policy failure such as the 2003 invasion of Iraqi.

The National Security Act of 1947 created today’s centralized national Intelligence Community in response to the then public demand for “no more Pearl Harbors.”  If there is another foreign caused mass casualty attack on the Continental United States (CONUS), the American people should be expected to demand to know why it’s generously resourced IC failed to protect their individual and collective security.  I fear these demands will not produce acceptable answers for either the consumers or funders of intelligence; instead, they will lead to a smaller and radically restructured IC

That’s what I think; what do think?