ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

A Dearth of Fresh Ideas

Money & Technology Will Not Save Us: Clear, Original Thinking Will

By Michael Tanji

From a security and intelligence perspective, the new year in the long war has started out like previous years. Faced with serious and often overwhelming problems, the government proposes several solutions aimed at improving our security that are almost certain to fail to achieve that objective.

The FBI for example, would like to build a giant biometrics database to help identify terrorists and other evil doers. Additionally, the Director of National Intelligence is about to argue that the intelligence community should gain access to all Internet traffic transiting the US.

Neither of these proposals, or their previously floated predecessors, is earth shattering in originality and there is a good reason to question their ultimate effectiveness. The government's general approach to any sufficiently challenging problem is to throw money and technology at it, as if what is accounted for in a quantitative sense will overcome very real qualitative problems. It apparently goes unrecognized that by trawling through impossibly large amounts of data we will net innocents along with bad guys. Or that searching for original thought for its sake alone results in ventures likely to fail at both their stated objective and in the advancement of thought on these matters.

Take the case of DNI McConnell's new proposal. This image reflects why the government is arguing that it needs more insight into what flows across the wires, cables and airwaves of this country. It's not a question of listening in to the private conversations of U.S. citizens; since much of the world's communications transit the US it is simply a case of listening where the information and communications are.

And there is quite a lot of data. This is not a case of the needle in a haystack problem; it's a needle somewhere in an unidentified field in the western portion of Nebraska. Providing a vacuum like solution where data is collected wholesale, even with significant machine-based filtering, does nothing to resolve the enormous piles of hay that much still be search by an intelligence analyst seeking a single needle or more accurately - seeking pieces of the needle.

A more appropriate strategy in the long war - a significantly intelligence driven war - is to put more boots on the ground in the world's dangerous places and among the world's dangerous people. For the uninitiated it doesn't necessarily follow that more human intelligence (HUMINT) will help solve a signals intelligence (SIGINT) problem. The dirty little secret is that this isn't a SIGINT problem. Widespread surveillance efforts aren't likely to catch those who would do us harm. Experience and a look at realities of our efforts would show that tip-offs from informants, investigations and other human driven methodologies results in a higher likelihood of interdiction when followed by SIGINT efforts to 'refine' the targeting.

If this sounds like déjà vu all over again it is because it is a variation on the theme that played out over the last 15 plus years as the intelligence community degraded HUMINT in favor of technology derived intelligence. It is a by-product of failing to replace cold warriors and 'leaders' who are out-of-step with the nature and scope of the problem at hand. Just as our military has seen transformation enthusiasts who've failed to recognize the nature of the enemy, as they were singularly focused on transforming the military, the intelligence community has become information addicted and often fails to formulate strategies based on the task they are charged with addressing.

Your author is fully aware of the hazards associated with putting American's in harms way, as well as the reluctance to undertake "diarrhea missions." But unless we start infusing some clear, original thinking into our intelligence and security problem-solving efforts, we resign ourselves to old-think, improper solutions, and future intelligence failures.