In 1943, in the darkest depths of the Second World War the British sent a small, select group of intelligence officers from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into Nazi-occupied Albania. Living under extreme conditions, one step ahead of capture at all times and short on supplies and support, the SOE personnel began to produce immediate results. They weren’t on their way to winning the war singlehandedly. They were doing a superb job of tying down German forces desperately needed elsewhere by the Third Reich.
London took notice. The bureaucrats woke up. They did what bureaucrats do, even ones in uniform. They sent in a general. They sent in a staff. They sent in a radio transmitter so large that it required a train of donkeys to move it ponderously through the trackless Albanian countryside.
A lean, flexible outfit became a top-heavy nightmare. SOE went from being the hunters to being the hunted. The fixed headquarters the general had established was overrun by Nazi forces. The general himself was captured.
In the aftermath some lessons were learned. All attempts at creating fixed headquarters and establishing staffs were abandoned. SOE officers went back to working in small groups and living with the Albanian forces they advised and supported. London learned and adapted.
It is seventy-five years later. Washington is still trying to learn.
Ever since 9/11 we have responded to the threat of terrorism and the obvious weaknesses in our human intelligence collection capabilities by doing exactly the wrong thing. We have thrown money, people and processes at these problems ignoring the fact that in the world of intelligence, bigger is not better. Bigger is slow. Bigger is cumbersome. Bigger is hard to hide.
We don’t have time to continue to do the wrong things. Everywhere we look, threats are multiplying and they are multiplying with increasing speed. Our human intelligence on these threats remains weak and fragmented. We are paying the price, and that price is likely to continue to become ever more dear. It is time to get this right.
How President Trump and his key advisors will tackle these issues remains unclear. Here are five recommendations to get them started:
Eliminate the DNI.
The Director of National Intelligence and the thousands of salaried and contract employees that work for him have not made our human intelligence collection capability one ounce better. They have made it more ponderous and much more expensive. End the experiment. Flatten the machine. Put the emphasis back on collection rather than on process.
Stop trying to duplicate the CIA
On any given day every other person I deal with in Washington, DC describes him or herself as an intelligence officer of some sort. A significant portion of those claim that they are “HUMINTers” meaning, I suppose, that it is their job to recruit sources, meet sources and produce intelligence. Almost none of these people work for the CIA. The US military has a legitimate need to collect battlefield intelligence and run tactical sources. Law enforcement, local and otherwise, has a similar need to collect intelligence domestically.
None of these organizations has a need to be collecting intelligence at a strategic level thereby duplicating the raison d’être of the CIA.
If CIA is not cutting the mustard, which it is not, the answer does not lie in allowing a vast number of other entities to begin to do its job. The answer lies in fixing CIA and getting it to perform. The US military in particular has plenty of other work to do on any given day without attempting to take over the world of espionage
Put people in charge at CIA who understand the business
Not since Colby have we had someone in charge at CIA who has actually run operations and recruited sources. The results show. Congressman Pompeo may be an honorable man and one dedicated to national defense. The real question now is who will run the Directorate of Operations for him, who will “fight the ship.” If we are serious about fixing human intelligence that person needs to have three defining characteristics: a detailed knowledge of the world of espionage, a commitment to meaningful reform and the guts to do what is necessary to carry out that reform.
Let them work
Every Jason Bourne movie has an obligatory scene wherein some senior intelligence officer stands in the midst of a vast ops center directing the movement of individual surveillants thousands of miles away. Ops don’t work like this, at least not successful ops.
Ops succeed when relative handfuls of the right men and women are free to move and create on the ground as they see fit. Efforts to fly operations “by wire” from Washington mean disaster. In 1943 in Albania the desire to monitor and control everything on the ground meant adding a general, a massive radio transmitter and a staff to the equation. Now it means endless requirements to report every minute happening so that headquarters can second-guess operators in the field.
Put good people in charge. Give them the guidance and support they need. Get out of the way.
Put a laser focus on results. We do not need weak assessments with “moderate confidence” of what ISIS may do next or when the North Koreans will be able to hit Los Angeles with a nuclear warhead. We need sources who can answer these questions concretely and with certainty. The focus of those running human intelligence operations cannot be on drawing new lines on wiring diagrams or producing PowerPoint presentations detailing our “intelligence gaps.” It must be on filling those gaps and saving American lives.
It was T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” a master of special operations and intelligence work in inhospitable places if there ever was one, who remarked almost a century ago that “the smaller the unit, the better its performance.” It’s time we rediscovered that essential truth. Get the bureaucrats out of this war and the let the men and women who can win it have a crack at it.
Image courtesy of CNN