Special Comment: A Brief History of Indicators Analysis
Compilation, examination and analysis of indicators of a nation’s war preparations, collectively, are the oldest structured analytical discipline in continuous use by elements of the intelligence agencies since 1947. The discipline began in World War II and British defense intelligence maintained it ever since.
After World War II
In the US, the files of the National Warning Staff contained a thin folder that contained a letter from 1949 from British intelligence to the new CIA, asking for a review of an attached “checklist” of the actions the Soviets would take to prepare to invade West Berlin. The file did not contain the US response, but it was sent to J.J. Hitchcock, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Warning Committee in 1949 and later the first Director of the National Indications Center.
This exchange was the precursor to NATO’s Soviet/Warsaw Pact Indicators List, and a few others it spawned. The US had no comparable list but had engaged in an intelligence exchange on warning of war indicators with the British before it had an organized federation of intelligence agencies. Crises came that quick after World War II.
The next benchmark for indicators in the files of the Warning Staff was a purple ink mimeograph copy of the Far East Army G2 indicator list for a Chinese invasion of Korea. It was published in the summer of 1950 and included such prescient indicators as an order from the authorities in Beijing that all contract shipments through Hong Kong must be completed before the end of September 1950, prior to the date of the first Chinese offensive on 5 October.
General MacArthur, of course, notoriously ignored his intelligence staff, according to Manchester’s biography, The American Caesar. And so US forces were caught by surprise when the Chinese armies crossed the Yalu.
Cold War Years
As the Korean War entered stalemate in 1950, Director of Central Intelligence General Walter Bedell Smith conveyed that he was tired of being surprised by the bad guys, in a memo that had been in the files of the National Warning Staff. He ordered the creation of the interagency, National Indications Center, which was located in the Pentagon for more than 20 years just off the entrance from North Parking on the first floor.
The National Indicators Center (NIC) was the first 24-hour watch center in post-War Washington. It was modeled on the USAF watch at the Strategic Air Command. The Air Force provided most of the manning and all the communications and was the leading agency in strategic warning innovation and technique for two decades.
State never provided the analysts it promised. DIA did not exist. CIA was vestigial but still claimed the right of leadership, while providing little support. Two analysts helping the NIC were C. Grabo from Army intelligence and Tom Beldan from the Navy.
The NIC produced a daily watch officers’ notes publication; monitored Soviet/Warsaw Pact warning of war indicators every day; wrote special articles and directly supported the Watch Committee of the United States Intelligence Board (USIB). The NIC prepared the discussion papers and agenda for the weekly Watch Committee meetings, whose reports went to the DCI and sometimes to the President. Warning Staff files contained papers indicating President Eisenhower had received these reports.
(Note: When CIA moved the Warning Staff from the Pentagon to CIA Headquarters in the 1990’s, all of the early papers were lost. Boxes of files and documents that had been archived with CIA also could not be found.)
Between 1950 and 1973, when the Yom Kippur War occurred, more than 2,000 weekly meetings of the Watch Committee of the USIB occurred. Never in that two decade period did the Watch Committee issue a single warning memo to the US President.
The NIC analysts wrote many accurate warnings, using indicators lists. They were both derided and ignored by the mainstream analysts, whose predictions were wrong about every serious threat to the US, beginning with the Berlin crisis of 1949.
For all of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War era, the US intelligence community failed to predict or warn. Analysts who used a quantitative approach to indicators were not persuasive, failed to compete with conventional analysts and regularly griped that no one listened to their warning.
Warning judgments that relied on the opinions of the Watch Committee members and panels of experts examining indicator lists failed to protect the US.
In more than 2,000 weekly meetings between 1950 and 1973, the Watch Committee of the USIB issued no warnings about anything. As to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Committee members were unsure whether they even had any responsibility to warn because the issues did not involve the Soviet Union, as they understood them. So the members agreed to wait and see what happened. They received intelligence that Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal as they were adjourning.
The NIC warning analysts, relying on indicators drawn from past examples of Arab war preparations, had warned that a major war was imminent in the Middle East. The Watch Committee, panels of Middle East experts and the editor of the morning CIA intelligence product – who would become a future National Intelligence Officer for Warning — on his own authority excised the warning of war statement, according to his own words. The Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian attack against Israel had already begun by the time the daily CIA publication was distributed to the White House.
Analysis based on indicator lists was prescient, but ignored. The experts and the management failed. After the multiple and multi-layered intelligence failures associated with the Yom Kippur War, things slowly began to change.
Next: What we learned about indicators
Phi Beta Iota: Indicators vary at each level of analysis — the indicators for a strategic deception or action are not the same as the indicators for an operational deception or action or a tactical deception or action. Similarly, technical developments and especially countermeasures must be studied decades (then), years (now) before they are integrated into new concepts and doctrine, for an understanding of how they might change the ability of the enemy to act. The single greatest flaw in US indicators practice is its obsession with violence — whether conventional military or super-empowered individual — and its almost complete obliviou to Whole of Government indicators as well as Whole of Government counterintelligence and especially religious counterintelligence. Another flaw is the inability of the government to harness and integrate all that can be known across the eight intelligence “tribes” or communities: academic, civil society including labor and religion, commerce, government at all levels, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government / non-profit. In WWII, the British discovered three things: 1) that cleaning house and bringing mature retirees was the first necessary order of business; 2) that black and gray bottoms had to be in the same plot; and 3) that the behavior of submarines, like terrorists, could be anticipated if one first focused on understanding friendly/coalition dispositions and planned movements. Suffice to say that as long as the US IC continues to spend money on technical collection without adequate processsing, and continues to denigrate HUMINT, OSINT, and M4IS2, it will remain incapable of achieving intelligence with integrity, not just for the President, but for all agency and service heads, major commanders, assistant secretaries across all mission areas, and so on down to the desk officers, Congress, the media, and the public.
Patrick Beesley, Very Special Intelligence (Greenhill Books, 2000)