David Isenberg: James Howcroft on Making Intelligence Relevant in the 21st Century

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David Isenberg
David Isenberg

Making Intelligence Relevant for the Missions of the 21st Century

by James Howcroft

Small Wars Journal | December 19, 2012

The international challenges which threaten the security of the United States and our partners in the 21st century are not primarily posed by conventional military forces. Despite the “pivot” toward a conventional peer competitor in Asia, the predominant source of conflict in the 21st century has been and will continue to be driven by events in fragile or failing states. Of the 27 active conflicts in the world today, only one is a traditional interstate war.  Due to the forces of globalization, strife and conflict in these regions now can directly impact the security of citizens within our borders. Unaddressed conflict in these regions gives rise to organized crime networks which engage in trafficking of weapons, drugs, people and WMD components.  Ethnic violence results in civil wars which often lead to humanitarian catastrophes and refugee migrations.  Ungoverned space may result in terrorist sanctuaries and the spread of radical ideologies and beliefs.  The most likely deployment mission will not be to engage against a traditional state’s military, but to engage in an unconventional conflict against non-state foes that use asymmetric tactics.

International security organizations and individual nations have various terms and definitions to address the range of possible operations to address security problems in fragile or failing states:  Peace Operations, Peace Support Operations or Stability Operations are commonly used terms.  The U.S Department of Defense (DOD) describes Stability Operations as: Military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction and humanitarian relief (Department of Defense Instruction 3000.05, “Stability Operations,” September 16, 2009, para. 3). Most often, regional security organizations, such as NATO or the African Union, empowered by the legitimacy of a UN Security Council mandate, form the headquarters or nucleus for ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” to carry out these missions.  ISAF in Afghanistan, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the NATO-led coalition operations in Libya are recent examples of this model.  Due to the nature of the missions the military, while a major actor, is only one member of a wider interagency, comprehensive, “whole of government” team assembled to address security, governance, humanitarian and economic developmental needs.

There are numerous, complex challenges to producing and disseminating timely, accurate and fused intelligence to support these operations.  Each step of the intelligence process must be adapted to meet the evolving needs of commanders, decision makers, soldiers and civilian partners on the ground.  In this era of declining defense budgets, what lessons should intelligence professionals be incorporating into training and educational programs to make success more likely during the next deployment to a fragile or failed state?   The following eight examples provide some insights to performing well in a complex environment. It is incumbent on leaders to communicate with and empower their intelligence officers to anticipate mission and information challenges. Incorporating aspects of these examples in training and education programs will help to ensure success on the next deployment.

1. Anticipate a wide range of dynamic requirements.

In Stability Operations, the intelligence professional is challenged by the need to provide information and analysis about a wide range of topics and issues beyond the traditional threat-based focus of intelligence work. No longer is there the luxury of primarily focusing on finding and targeting enemy tanks or artillery pieces – as was the focus of my Marine Division’s effort when invading Iraq in 2003.  In a matter of weeks after capturing Baghdad, our efforts transitioned to a focus on the composition of insurgent cells, networks and attacks.  While this was important, it too quickly proved to be insufficient for success.  To be successful in the long-term it is necessary to examine the local environment beyond the immediate enemy. Monitoring and assessing legitimate force protection concerns throughout the deployment still remain a major focus of the intelligence effort.  Part of this assessment is the requirement to continually assess whether the nature of the mission is changing or has been changed by events on the ground. Once again in Afghanistan, as was the case in Iraq, we have been surprised by the scale of “green on blue” attacks as we drawdown our forces. Repeatedly, nations are surprised when they initially deploy with a humanitarian assistance mandate, mindset, manning and toolkit, but find themselves in a more challenging and dangerous peace enforcement or counterinsurgency mission.

In Stability Operations, analysis must also be oriented towards the population’s concerns and needs.  Deployments are undertaken in order to meet the need of a population, whether a short-term humanitarian need or a longer-term need for security to support the development of legitimate and capable local institutions.  Cultural and ethnic dynamics must be understood in order to provide accurate, useful assessments of the likelihood of success of ongoing or planned courses of action.  Political issues and motivation, as well as local trade and agriculture patterns and needs will figure into the requirement. Building and mentoring local institutions are vital parts of the mission.  Capable, legitimate institutions are the desired end state of any operation. Making your military presence irrelevant is the mission. This requires an objective, ongoing effort to assess the capability, legitimacy and effectiveness of local institutions and forces.   This evolving assessment is an important, difficult and usually short-changed cornerstone of success.

2. Be ready to task and use a broad array of sources.

Fortunately, to help answer this wide range of intelligence requirements there is a correspondingly wide range of sources of information. In today’s environment, the challenge facing an intelligence officer is not a lack of information – but the challenge of dealing with an exponential explosion in the amount of data to be collected, processed and analyzed.   Certainly the traditional disciplines of Imagery, Signals and Human Intelligence are still huge contributors and play an important role in this environment, but the expanded interagency nature of the team brings onboard a diverse array of information gatherers. Each civilian or international organization represented in the Task Force has knowledge and expertise. International humanitarian organizations and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) usually have a presence on the ground that predates the current crisis. They have knowledge of local relationships and hierarchies, often know the local language and understand firsthand the effects of local weather and environmental conditions on operations and health and medical issues.   International and regional businesses, such as rental car agencies, mobile phone providers, major hotels and international delivery services have information and perspectives of value.   Media reporting through traditional sources as well as insights available via social networking sites offer access to timely information about the needs, attitudes and opinions of the population. Social networking sites offer the opportunity to tap into a nearly infinite range of diverse contacts and expertise.

Each member, both uniformed and civilian, of the team can be valuable observers and contributors to collecting and reporting data.  Logistics and supply drivers can be asked to observe and report changes along their route in a way that doesn’t interfere with their primary job. They can be asked to note changes in political posters or to take pictures of graffiti along their route. They can easily report things they already no doubt observe; such as where people treat them differently along sections of the route or where they see no children, only fighting-age males. The Task Force security unit will know the pattern of life around the base. They will have regular contact with the local security forces and be able to assess if the local forces are respected or perceived as corrupt and abusive by the local community.  They can judge if discipline is based on a sense of fear or a sense of duty. Engineers, both civilian and military, will have the earliest and best idea about infrastructure and lines of communication.  They will quickly get to know local working practices and gain insight into resource availability and distribution.  Contracting Officers will be the first to learn about corruption and be able to identify local powerbrokers.  Local woman are an often overlooked source of information, recent efforts by US forces to form female only engagement teams have been successful in Afghanistan and Iraq at addressing this shortfall. Working with these “nontraditional” sources of information will be challenging and time consuming. Each individual involved will need to be instructed and encouraged to observe and report in a productive manner.  Ample resources will need to be devoted to debriefing and the data entry of the reporting into a format or system to store the information in a way that is it is easily accessible to all the military and civilian members of the team. Feedback to these information gatherers regarding the value and relevance of their information is an often overlooked, yet crucial piece of the effort.

3.  Create intelligence products that can be shared with a wide range of consumers.

Intelligence officers have to be aware when developing their products that their nation’s military force will be only one member of a wider international, interagency team. Intelligence must be developed that goes beyond fulfilling the requirements of a single nation’s military or a purely NATO Task Force.  Differing classifications and clearances and incompatible systems usually make it difficult to share intelligence even within a single nation’s military force.  Adding that nation’s other agencies and ministries to the distribution plan presents huge challenges. These challenges are compounded exponentially when the need to disseminate to international partners are considered. NATO has invested a great deal of effort over the past 50 years to developing methods and tools to ease the sharing of intelligence within the alliance – but recent missions have shown that this is  only a start.   Increasingly our coalition partners will be from non-NATO nations.   Twenty-two of the fifty troop-contributing nations in ISAF are not NATO members.  Sweden, Jordan, Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates contributed military forces to NATO’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. Only one NATO country is in the top 25 of military and police contributors to UN Peacekeeping Operations.

As complicated as it may be to share intelligence within a military coalition, the presence of the essential civilian developmental and assistance agencies and organizations on the team exponentially confuses the issue. International organizations, specifically the United Nations, are important contributors. In some cases, the UN will be the lead agency and the military task force will need to participate in their information architecture. Local government is the focus of the operation.  Local governmental officials, ministries and organizations need to be included in distribution – in their language. Private companies that provide security as well as logistics and support are ever-present features on operations today – they play increasingly important roles and certainly need intelligence to be effective. As previously noted, NGOs are extremely important contributors in those regions where Stability Operations occur and need to be included as consumers of Intel support.

Despite the acknowledgement that future missions will routinely be international and interagency, there is still a lack of responsive and transparent means to share intelligence within this broader community.  Not sharing inhibits the effectiveness of the team’s decisions and efforts, leads to mistrust and impairs collaboration and coordination.  To help meet this requirement, intelligence analysts are burdened with spending time creating multiple versions of each classified product. For example US analysts in Afghanistan must create as many as six different versions of a single product – US NOFORN, 5 Eyes, REL NATO, REL ISAF, REL GiROA and an unclassified version of the product.  Other ineffective “work-arounds” include channeling intelligence to be shared through the bottleneck of a Foreign Disclosure Officer. Another current unproductive method involves the mental gymnastics of analysts having to make a  determination whether they are allowed to give a product to a partner (release) or whether he is allowed to only to show or describe the contents of a product to that partner (disclosure).

Understanding and acknowledging upfront that a wide range of diverse organizations will need to consume an organization’s intelligence products must drive intelligence professionals to rethink how and why production is classified.  There is currently a practical and philosophical bias against sharing and release … a consumer must demonstrate to the producer a “need to know”.  Instead there needs to be a bias towards sharing…… “Why can’t I share this?” A refocus on when and why intelligence is classified may be in order. According to the US Executive Order 13526, intelligence is classified when “unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” or to protect sources and methods.  Classification is not intended to prevent embarrassment, keep positions private, or for ease of moving data around on a more robust classified network.  If identifiable damage isn’t likely or it doesn’t reveal sources and methods – it shouldn’t be classified. Maintaining our current dysfunctional business practice undermines the mission and prolongs the operation.

4.  Anticipate the challenges an ad hoc team will present.

Each particular crisis/deployment will feature a different team of actors and contributors- depending on the nature and location of the operation. An earthquake relief deployment in Haiti will have a very different team than an armed intervention in Africa to protect a civilian population at risk from its own leaders.  This impromptu nature of the team presents a number of challenges. Each of these operations will have a learning phase, not only in learning about the situation- but in learning about each other on the team in such extemporaneous situations.

A number of variables will determine what capabilities and skill sets nations chose to contribute to the effort and how long they will stay deployed.  Members of the ad hoc team will bring whatever collections platforms their nation has available and has decided to send to the mission. How these teams are tasked, what exploitation support will be provided and the length of their deployment will all be variable and unpredictable. As an example, a small Brazilian prototype was the only UAV available to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in 2006-07. When the Brazilian battalion that brought it was rotated out, the UAV was also withdrawn with no replacement (Walter Dorn, “Intelligence-Led Peacekeeping,” Intelligence and National Security Vol 24, #6 (December 2009): 820). The Commander of the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was provided a dedicated aerial photo reconnaissance unit with a P-166 aircraft, photographers and support personnel, but no photo interpreters or interpretation equipment (Patrick Cammaert, “Intelligence in Peacekeeping Operations: Lessons for the Future” in Peacekeeping Intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future, ed. Platje Wies et al. (Oakton, Virginia: OSS International Press, 2003), 22). Other members of the team may not be familiar with the capabilities and limitations of each platform and the nuances of how to best task the platform.  Similarly, the collectors will not be aware of how best to portray their findings for their consumers i.e. do they need an annotated picture, a description of what the photo interpreter saw in the image, or a data mashup on  a social network site ?

Dissemination or moving intelligence within an unplanned organization raises a number of additional challenges. Radios and computer systems, the primary means of moving intelligence within military alliances, may not be compatible.  Given the disparate makeup of the team, Intel will need to make products in a variety of formats to meet dissemination capabilities- e.g., classified email, radio, internet, paper products, and briefings. Questions that should be asked to improve this are as follows: Will intelligence products be pushed to consumers or pulled by them? If a supported entity needs a picture – how is it sent to them?  What size file can they receive?  Can it be read on a blackberry or iPhone? Is the picture posted somewhere and users are expected to know where to look and be able to pull it down themselves? These challenges will cost money, manpower and time to resolve and hinder mission accomplishment.

As noted previously, intelligence products are usually classified to limit distribution only to those who have demonstrated a need to see them and who have shown an ability to protect the data appropriately. There are formalized, formally negotiated agreements in place that govern how intelligence can be shared within an alliance. Ad hoc military and civilian coalitions of the willing will not have these prenegotiated agreements in place – limiting the ability to share intelligence and analysis. 24 hours after the tsunami hits is not the time to work this out.

The widely varied makeup of the impromptu team will mean that team members will have different concepts of what the threat is and differing ways to characterize events and activities.  Was the attack on the relief convoy carried out by terrorists? Insurgents? Criminals? Or miscreants? How the attack is characterized determines the actor’s threat assessment of their area. Is the region’s stability threatened by terrorists, insurgents or criminals?  How the attack is characterized determines which tools the international force uses to address it. Alliances have over time developed standardized definitions, terminology, formats and means of dissemination. Unless the ad hoc international civilian and military team anticipates and identifies common terms of references, procedures and formats, intelligence analysis will be incomplete and consumers will not get the products needed to accomplish their mission.  Transitions, exchanges and reliefs between units and organizations will be incoherent and incomplete due to frustration caused by differing terms, definitions and characterizations.

  5.      Don’t focus on a single, hierarchal foe.      

Modern militaries perform best against hierarchical organizations, i.e. organizations which are similar to themselves.  Thus the desire to “cut off the head” or decapitate the organization we are fighting.  In Stability Operations this approach is insufficient for success.   Our opposition will come from a wide variety of sources, usually without a hierarchical structure. These may range from desperate hungry civilians to local militias, or warlords to criminal gangs, or drug traffickers to former regime remnants or foreign extremists. Yesterday’s foes may be tomorrow’s friends and vice versa. The same person could be your ally, an indifferent bystander or your enemy all within the same day.  Each of these groups may have diverse and multiple motivations.  Each of these groups will have a unique composition, varying levels of commitment and differing levels of support from the local population. We can certainly expect that they will have different tactics, techniques and procedures. This in turn will create disparate weaknesses to be identified, assessed and exploited by intelligence professionals. There may not be clear lines and distinctions between these various groups. Often membership may be interrelated or overlapping. Attacking or weakening a particular group may cause another to gain strength by filling the void created by our original action.  Friendly actions are a dynamic within this threat spectrum; we change the web of interaction within the society every day.

6.    Targeting in stability operations isn’t only “warheads to foreheads”.  

Targeting in Stability Operations is more difficult than targeting in a conventional conflict. Targeting in Stability Operations is a broader concept that is geared towards helping the commander decide how to best apply his finite resources to affect the needs, attitudes or loyalty of an individual or group. There will be dangerous men or groups that will need to be the focus of direct kinetic action, but targets can also be friendly or neutral members of the population. Often the target/focus of the effort may be the capabilities of the local ministry or mayor’s office, to make the applicable organization more capable of meeting the needs of its citizens. This broader approach to targeting opens up a wider range of targeting tools; a road or a bridge, communications gear or salaries rather than bombs or bullets.  This more nuanced form of targeting requires added precision. Not merely precision as measured in meters or grid coordinates – but precision regarding relationships and leverage points.  What is it that mayor or village leader needs to be effective? What does he want or need to support our efforts?  Culturally, can he be seen to meet with us in public? What are the likely second or third order effects of our actions? Who have we made stronger? Who have made weaker or caused to lose face within society?   Effective targeting is no longer the prevue of a small cell within the Intel or Operations section- but will involve input, communication and assessment from throughout the Task Force or interagency team.

7.       Plan to create intelligence that can be used as evidence.  

Military forces in Stability Operations will often, if not always, fulfill some type of law enforcement role.   Referring back to the original DOD definition, Stability Operations are “to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment.” The military is often involved because law and order has broken down and the supported government is unable or unwilling to provide for the security of its citizens. The deploying military force may have responsibility for this task, or there may be an international police force as part of the mandated task force. There are currently over 13,000 police serving on UN Peace Support Operations. An important function of the international military and police forces is to train and mentor the local law enforcement agencies and organizations. This is complicated by the fact that the military trainers and advisors usually will not have arrest authority or civilian law enforcement experience in their home country.  The military’s focus in this case is to reduce the level of violence and lawlessness so that security can be handled by the police, with the military in a supporting role or as a rapid reaction force  – should the need arise.

The training and mentoring role along with the intense focus of the globalized, instant 24/7 news cycle means that the conduct of operations must be in accordance not only with the tenets of the Law of Armed Conflict, but also adhere to the standards of democratic governance and the rule of law.  In Afghanistan, a unit that has plans to conduct an operation to capture or arrest an individual must convince a panel headed by a general officer that it has sufficient credible intelligence to justify conducting the operation – leading to the requirement of a high standard of evidence for operations to capture foes.  This is similar to the high standard of evidence required by a judge or magistrate to issue an arrest or search warrant in the peacetime law enforcement community.  Once captured there is also a high standard of evidence required to maintain an individual in custody.  Without adequate intelligence, which can be shared within the legal system to prove guilt, individuals are released back in the community within days or weeks. If the individual is held without releasable proof there is a risk of being portrayed locally and internationally as oppressive occupiers. If he is released because of a lack of admissible proof the security forces are perceived as impotent by the criminals and by the population you are there to protect.

Technological improvements has led to the growth in sensitive site exploitation skills and sophisticated forensic skills abilities that a decade ago were only the subject of futuristic television programs.  Collecting biometrics data such as digital images, fingerprints,  iris scans and DNA to aid in future identification,  capture and prosecutions is now an everyday part of a infantry platoon’s daily activities.  One of the iconic photographs of the Iraqi War is the image of the recently-captured Saadam Hussein having his mouth swabbed for DNA to confirm his identity. Alongside this technical sophistication must be a acknowledgement and expectation that intelligence has to be developed and classified in a way that it can be admitted to a court of law, and if need be, shared with defense attorneys and the media.

8.    Intelligence has an important role in the public affairs effort

Due to the rapid changes in mass media technology public affairs now addresses three interrelated audiences; the population which inhabits the area where the deployment is taking place, the wider international community and the audience at home. Democracies have an aversion to using intelligence to influence public opinion. Intelligence professionals are not comfortable dealing with Public Affairs activities. A wide mutually – imposed gap exists between the Public Affairs and Intelligence sections causes them to work in isolation in most headquarters.    But in Stability Operations the center of gravity is public opinion.  In order to remain deployed long enough to successfully address the issues in a mission’s mandate, it is necessary to inform and influence the public at home and internationally to maintain both legitimacy and the commitment of resources.   The US military didn’t leave Iraq at the end of 2011 because the job was done. The US military left because the coalition had dissolved and the remaining US troops were increasingly seen as occupiers by US and Iraqi citizens. ISAF isn’t leaving Afghanistan in 2014 because the mission set forth when the struggle began has been accomplished. ISAF is leaving because its citizens have become convinced the effort is no longer worth the continued expenditure of precious lives and money.  The media is the vehicle through which citizens get information and form opinions regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of the deployment.  The media not only informs our population but also shapes the debate. The media can either portray the attack as “The latest incident in a string of embarrassing attacks which call into questions ISAF’s ability to protect the population” or as “A terrorist bombing which targeted innocent young girls on their way home from school”.

By the nature of the industry, the media is attracted to short-term, sensational or destructive events.  A correspondent is more likely to get a story about a suicide attack on a fuel convoy on the air than a story about a water treatment plant being opened.  Increasingly news is driven by tweets, cell phone pictures or videos down loaded to the internet. Intelligence officers have a vital role to play by providing the long-term perspective by making available data and analysis to refute erroneous, incomplete or inaccurate stories or posts. Even if they themselves do not deal directly with the press, then Intelligence professionals must provide Commanders and Public Affairs Officers with the information and analysis to do so. The most timely and accurate intelligence in the world is of little use in refuting inaccurate claims and propaganda if it is locked away in a secure data base. Similarly, Intelligence officers have to provide a balanced and accurate assessment of issues and events to Public Affairs officials so that friendly sources can be the first to address bad news and shape the argument, rather than always be reacting to stories from other outlets. Intelligence must be available to help inform public opinion regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of our actions.   As my former Division Commander used to say “A story will be written on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow, what are we doing to make sure it’s the right story?”


Declining defense budgets are a fact of life for the United States and our partners.   None of the eight intelligence lessons in this article involve the purchase of additional systems, platforms or capabilities. We have quite an impressive technological capability already.  Our shortcomings are not a lack of data. Our shortcomings are in how we share and utilize the information and data we have at our disposal.  We take great pride in our ability to “improvise, adapt and overcome”. We can continue to do business this way and struggle each time until (hopefully) we eventually are successful. Or we can look ahead at the most likely problems, anticipate the needs and evolve our training, techniques and procedures to deliver intelligence that is relevant and useful for consumers and partners across the interagency spectrum. We have to innovate and learn faster than our adversaries. The role of intelligence is to learn and advise our leaders in ways that allow open and constant innovation to outmaneuver our latest adversary.   Producing close-hold intelligence, applicable only to military forces and releasable only to a small fraction of our civilian and military partners is not sufficient for success in the missions of the 21st century.  We can do better.

Related Content: 

21st Century Counterinsurgency Intelligence

Can Intelligence Be Intelligent?

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