Inscribed on the CIA’s original headquarters building in Langley is a passage from the gospel according to St. John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” This unofficial Agency motto alludes to the truth and clarity that intelligence provides to decision-makers, similar to the “knowledge is power” mantra.
But what happens when the craft of intelligence is disrupted or diluted by the politics (read: politicians, journalists, sensationalists, etc.) and policymakers it is designed to inform? What happens when it is dismissed, falls upon deaf ears, or is blatantly ignored?
Below is a quick list of the top four issues with intelligence I’ve encountered as an intelligence professional, along with completely hypothetical examples of what these issues look like. Armed with this knowledge, you will have four keys to help you better understand the craft of intelligence.
Disclaimer: The concepts here are all 100-percent true — it’s the specific examples and stories that have been altered for their sensitive and ongoing nature. And no, this list isn’t comprehensive.
1. Intelligence is an extension of politics, which suck.
As SOFREP has previously discussed, the purpose of intelligence is to inform decision-making, plain and simple. People or technology gather the information, it’s processed and analyzed, disseminated to the consumers, and decision-making is informed. For more on how that works, see the Intelligence Cycle.
Roughly paraphrasing Clausewitz here, “War is politics by other means.” Well if war is politics, and intelligence is an extension of politics, then intelligence is total political war. Or something like that. Point being, the practice of managing intelligence (or information writ large) can oftentimes be a bit of a monstrosity.
I’ve observed that the problem with intelligence isn’t that you don’t have it—although that oftentimes is the issue—but that proper management of intelligence is critical: who to share it with, how to share it, when to share it, etc. These considerations are what I would consider appropriate “coordination” of the information. Not only managing it, but providing the necessary context for the information (as an analyst, this is paramount) and emphasizing what must be emphasized. Some do this well, others not at all—even when they should.
You’re an intelligence professional working to counter various extremist threats to U.S. interests in Beirut, Lebanon. It’s not a nice place, so there’s plenty of nefarious activity and you’re gainfully employed. You receive information that a local Hezbollah cell has imminent plans to conduct a suicide attack at a popular south Beirut café that’s frequented by American citizens, other Westerners, and even a few foreign dignitaries. You’ve got a timeline, a method of attack, and maybe even some perpetrator names if you’re lucky. Because you’re a professional, you’ve done your homework and know that what you see is legitimate. It’s now your duty to get the machine in gear. You’ve got credible threat information that must be rapidly disseminated so the proper warnings can be issued, the appropriate authorities can be notified, and the would-be attackers hopefully thwarted.
But hold on there. One simply cannot hit “Forward All” and pass this information to 100 of your closest friends and neighborhood-friendly consumers. Forget the mass dissemination technique, however strong. How about just to a handful of people? Better, but still not ideal.
Try this on for size: Send it to one or two overworked and undermanned bureaucrats who demand complete control over the information (i.e. no further sharing or exchanges until they’ve “worked the issue”), sit on it for an excruciating period of time, hold an extensive meeting about it with their closest friends at their (not-quite-earliest) convenience, and then reluctantly pass it out to a limited audience with various caveats that downplay the significance of what you assessed to be time-sensitive and credible information. Never mind that you are intimately familiar with the threat and the environment, and are confident in your analytical abilities.
As stated above, there’s always a time and place for appropriate coordination and processes for managing the information received; however, the caveat is that it shouldn’t be completely sidetracked by politics. Give the information to those who need it, and inform the decision-making of those who have the power to alter the environment and ultimately save lives. It doesn’t take a comms blackout, a strongly worded email, a committee, hours of deliberation, and lackluster dilution downplaying the credibility of the threat to share the information.
2. Information-sharing in the intelligence business is key.
Most people are familiar with the “need to know” principle, wherein if you don’t have a legitimate requirement in your mission to know the information, you don’t need to know what it is or even have access to it in the first place. But what about the need to share?
‘The need to share’ principle stems from the aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. intelligence community decided it needed to do a better job of ensuring communication amongst the entities responsible for our national security. It spurred the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among others, whose sole purpose in life is to facilitate interagency analysis and operations, as SOFREP has previously reported.
This example is less clear, but hopefully still gets the message across. You’re back in Beirut. A certain Lebanese government official has decided to get in bed with an ISIL-affiliated extremist group planning to target the restaurant of a ritzy hotel frequented by French expats in Beirut, as some kind of follow-up to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. This government official has worked extensively to pass information regarding French activity at the restaurant to his extremist contact, information he has access to as a Lebanese government official and resident of northern Lebanon, an area where ISIL maintains an active presence. The attack is only in the conceptual stages at this time, but the one fact remains—the government official is in bed with the wrong crowd, and must be stopped.
The ever-vigilant professional, you learn of this government official’s treachery and seek to notify those working at the U.S. embassy of his ongoing activity, so that they may appropriately handle the issue through diplomatic channels. You have a legitimate need to share this information with appropriate contacts, and eagerly share it with your supervisor so that it may gain higher-level visibility. After doing so, you are instructed not to share your findings with anyone else.
Why, you ask? Well, for one, it is being handled at higher levels, or so it’s claimed. This is a downward-directed order to let the issue die. Second, further disclosure of any such information—through appropriate channels or not—regarding the government official could negatively impact U.S. relations with the Lebanese government, something the politicians are not willing nor ready to manage at this time. So you let the issue slide and don’t ask questions, because you trust it’s being handled at the appropriate level.
You later learn that not only was the issue not handled, but that widespread orders were issued to not discuss, mention, or allude to the treachery of the Lebanese government official once it became ‘public’ knowledge in high-level leadership circles. Lower-level U.S. and Lebanese officials continue to maintain interaction with this official, completely unaware of his treachery. Relationships continue to develop, all the while ignoring the truth that has identified his true allegiances.
Given the issue was deemed too sensitive to address nation-to-nation, it has now become an unspoken afterthought, one that is known by various parties on both sides, but not to those to whom it matters most. The issue remains unaddressed, and unknown second- and third-order implications develop as time continues.
If something must be said, and there are indisputable facts to support it, say it. Do not hide behind careerism, fear of reprisal, or (again) politics. The truth, however uncomfortable, is best digested as soon as the information is available to be shared (and under the right and appropriate circumstances).
3. Sometimes people go “native.”
The term going “native” is applied to a situation where individuals take on some or all of the culture traits of those around them, most often said of people visiting or residing in foreign countries. Think Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” or the character Kurtz from the “Heart of Darkness,” only less insidious, and without the rivers. In intelligence, someone goes native when they blatantly ignore or otherwise disregard the body of information that refutes that which they have been provided by a certain source. I use the term “native” very loosely here, but it best transmits the concept.
You’ve got a friend who is employed by the U.S. embassy in a position of some importance, a position that requires him to frequently travel to liaise with Lebanese security forces operating in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Given your friend’s consistent contact with Lebanese forces in a turbulent region, you receive frequent updates from him on the situation in the Valley. These updates are fairly accurate given your friend’s access to the Lebanese forces, but clearly possess some bias given the single source of his information and its limited perspective.
One day, you learn of an incident that transpired when a female American aid worker narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt while working at a children’s school for refugees near the Syrian border. Having seen the information the aid worker had provided to various U.S. embassy personnel who debriefed her when she reported the kidnapping attempt, you are aware of every minute detail the professional debriefers were able to obtain from her and associated witnesses.
When inquiring as to the details of this kidnapping attempt with your friend, the information he provides greatly conflicts with that of the debrief and witness statements. Your friend dutifully informs you the information you possess is incorrect, and proceeds to identify all the reasons to support why. Citing his sources in the Lebanese security forces, your friend directly refutes, point by point, the official and agreed-upon information provided firsthand to the embassy personnel. Try as you might, your friend completely discounts this information and places his faith in his Lebanese contacts, contacts that were not there and did not even possess secondhand access to the information or associated incident. Your friend has gone native.
While your friend clearly has the access to obtain and provide relatively accurate information regarding the security situation in the Bekaa Valley, his information only comes from the one source to which he has access. Your friend runs the risk of going “native,” and becoming too reliant on that one source. While it is undoubtedly a valuable one, his reference and adherence to the single source of the Lebanese security forces is one that must be taken into account.
This holds true especially if it conflicts with information provided firsthand by members involved in the incident, and obtained by qualified professionals who have gathered such information previously in their lengthy careers. Use all sources; don’t refute that which comes from a better source, even when it conflicts with your prized single source. Don’t go native.
4. People flat-out ignore the truth.
The final problem I’ve witnessed is when credible intelligence is completely disregarded by various persons, and ones in leadership positions, especially. Never mind that the information was deemed credible by multiple entities, or that said entities had already implemented various changes in response to the information. Disregard that the various warnings in place regarding the intelligence were provided both verbally and in written form multiple times (invalidating any claims of ignorance).
While intelligence can appear alarmist at times if not presented accurately or appropriately (and with the right amount of emphasis and context), it is designed to properly inform decision-making. Intelligence removes the veil of doubt or the unknown and provides you with the truth. So listen to it and the recommendation that comes with it.
You’re back in south Beirut. The threat you’ve been tracking regarding imminent plans by a local Hezbollah cell to conduct a suicide attack at a south Beirut café must be actioned. The proper notifications are made, the U.S. embassy is made aware of the information, and they release a security notice to all American citizens in Lebanon to avoid the target in question. The threat information is passed to the appropriate decision-makers, notifications of the threat are made, decisions are implemented to avoid the café and to restrict travel to various south Beirut neighborhoods, and the right people are now aware of the fact they should avoid the café. As a professional, you’ve done your due diligence and can hope the Lebanese authorities will move quickly to disrupt the plot. You can rest easy, having fulfilled your duty.
But then you learn that one of the decision-makers, one who was informed numerous times of this specific threat information, has allowed various personnel under his office to travel through various south Beirut neighborhoods. Not only that, but two groups of his personnel have even visited—on two separate occasions—the very same café that is being actively targeted. Wanting to provide benefit of the doubt, perhaps the decision-maker was simply unaware of the ongoing attack plans, or wasn’t notified of the travel restrictions. Unfortunately for him, plausible deniability does not work in this scenario. When questioned as to why his personnel made these visits, the decision-maker claimed he was unaware the threat notification or travel restrictions were permanent measures, and that they only lasted for the day they were issued.
When a decision-maker provides a weak and transparent excuse as to why he knowingly authorized the travel of his personnel to a specific location that is being actively targeted by terrorists (something he was aware of), he knowingly places the lives of his personnel at risk. He completely disregards all of the hard work that was performed in order to provide the intelligence to him, and in a timely and accurate manner to boot.
Intelligence is not contrived. It is a dynamic product and continuous effort. Listen to what Intelligence is saying. Do not disregard it or claim ignorance of it after it has been provided to you. Use it as the tool it is designed to be.
(Featured image courtesy of NPS.gov)