ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

Kissing Intelligence Goodbye

"Instant Closure" Will Be The Death of More of Us

By Michael Tanji

Most national security tragedies are the result of - or directly associated with - a failure of intelligence, that is to say, the apparatus we have built and charged to find us the most valuable information possible has come up short. Some key examples of why intelligence has failed us include:
  • Reliance on satellites, which take great pictures, but reveal nothing of human emotion or intention.
  • Reliance on only angels and boy scouts, when the greatest threats come from demons and malcontents.
  • Adherence to a system that rewards quantity, not quality; promotes generalists and relegates expertise.
Intelligence (the information and the apparatus) isn't solely to blame for failures and tragedies. It doesn't matter how good the information is, or how insightful the analysis, if those who it is delivered to misuse or abuse it for their own purposes. However, this is less a comment on 'who lost country X' or 'why did we get surprised by development Y' as it is a reflection on our seriousness with regards to what needs to be done to obtain the information necessary to avoid surprise and save lives.

A few days ago the President announced that he was not going to subject those intelligence producers who treated terrorist detainees harshly to investigations and possible prosecutions. Shortly thereafter it was announced that those who approved of the harsh treatment and conditions could very well be investigated and prosecuted. Today we learn that the government will be turning over photos of alleged abusive interrogations to the ACLU, who will no doubt make the photos public in short order. We can go round-and-round about what constitutes torture and where respective moral lines should be drawn, but the bottom line is that if you are about improving intelligence, the best course of action is - for the time being - to shut up about all of this.

No clear thinking intelligence officer can interpret the political actions associated with terrorist interrogations any other way than this: shut up and color. This is not about condoning torture or approving of harsh treatment, nor is it about going all-in on the good-cop school of interrogation. This is about recognizing that in a sufficiently challenging situation, under the most intense pressure, swimming in a sea of known and unknown unknowns, are we going to give people the room to maneuver - and make mistakes - as we march towards a goal of an effective and righteous solution?

If we are not, well, you know what that means:
  • We will almost assuredly go back to relying on technical means to gather intelligence, losing any ground we gained in the human arena.
  • We will continue to be blindsided by demons and malcontents.
  • Intelligence's slide towards run-of-the-mill government bureaucracy will be complete; "managers" will focus on headcount and budget, driving leaders and risk-takers out of business.
Almost nothing remains secret forever. Before there was 9/11 there was Pearl Harbor, and we know about all there is to know about the failures of our intelligence (and decision-making) apparatus. Heck, we even bring some vindication to those we initially vilified. This idea that we have to immediately solve or somehow bring closure to every intelligence-related "scandal" is so amazingly short-sighted and counter-productive it makes one wonder if this nation has the will or the intestinal fortitude for an intelligence apparatus at all. True, you can get 90% of what you need to know to deal with the world legally and cheaply (if not for free), but that last 10% is what is supposed to help you avoid the sneak attack.

Rooting out and divining that 10% used to be what they paid us for.

Notes