Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dumbing down Intel

New York Post
July 21, 2010

The fundamental problem with our national intelligence system is that it assumes that quantity can substitute for quality. The result is a vast, expensive network that's far less than the sum of its parts.

It's as if the Yankees, stung by a string of losing seasons, avoided seeking out talented ballplayers in favor of hiring a thousand Little Leaguers (at major-league salaries).

Angelina Jolie as a spy: The real intelligence picture isn't nearly as pretty.(AP)

This week, The Washington Post has done something of a service with a series of articles, "Top Secret America," chronicling the lack of accountability in our intelligence community.[1] The analysis is a bit superficial, but diligent reporting drives home the point that we're just not getting our money's worth.

That's been the case at least since The 1960s. But waste took a quantum leap after 9/11.

I spent two ultimately disheartening decades at various levels of our intelligence system, from dirty boots to Beltway snoots. Expenditures are far more lavish today, but the "four pillars of failure" remain in place:

Quantity substitutes for quality: Nothing cripples the intel world so profoundly as our refusal to identify, recruit, develop and retain gifted intelligence officers. Got a degree and no felonies? You're in. We still don't test for the quirks of mind that make a first-rate player. Yet one great analyst is worth a legion of plodders.

Most folks serving in the intelligence world aren't bad people. They'd like to do good work. But they lack the special gifts -- or the passion (The best intel work is done by obsessive types). In the end, it's just a job.

So we try to work around personnel deficiencies by buying lots of stuff. Some of it works, some doesn't. But no cutting-edge device provides understanding. Only talented humans do.

The cult of classification: If you read The Economist front to back every week, you have a more sophisticated worldview than the average intelligence officer (who tends to be a quarter-mile deep and a half-inch wide). But high-level classification markings lend insider cachet to trivial information -- and outright blather.

Serving in the Pentagon, I was tapped for access to a classification level I can't even name here. Another officer escorted me through a labyrinth of hallways to a dead-end corridor with an unmarked door. Inside the vault, The lone librarian looked like a cave-dweller guarding secrets in The Lord of The Rings.

Handed a packet of documents specially culled for me, I sat down and read with naive expectations -- signing each cover sheet to attest that I'd read The Big Secret. The material was stunning, but not in the way it should've been: This ultra-secret network of programs was producing worthless junk.

I went back to that vault just once, in case my first experience had been an anomaly. It wasn't. We were spending vast amounts of money to learn that Dictator X didn't change his underwear every day (actually, the data weren't even that useful).

Over-classification covers up more waste than anything else I've encountered.

Timidity: Bureaucracies aren't brave. The Army staff, where I worked, was bolder than the cover-your-butt DIA and CIA -- but authentic outside-the-box thinking just worried folks. The goal of The intelligence community wasn't revelatory insight, but consensus -- so no one organization could be singled out for blame when things went south.

Intelligence work without moral courage is just a welfare program for university grads.

Lack of foreign experience: This deficiency keeps getting worse, despite our ongoing wars. The analyst-to-agent ratio is crazily top-heavy -- for every serious observer on the ground reporting back to Washington, you have hundreds of analysts at dozens of agencies and headquarters parsing the same reports. And the underwear bomber still gets through.

There's no substitute for getting the local stench up your nose, for dealing with enemies, allies and the indifferent where they live, for wielding language skills and taking risks.

Despite some programs that attempt, half-heartedly, to expose analysts to the situation down-range, most intel personnel deal in an expensive version of book-learnin'.

The situation's deteriorated over the past decade (as noted by The Washington Post series) because we allow contractors to hire away intelligence personnel -- after the government's trained them and done the expensive investigations to grant them high-level security clearances. It's an enormous, costly scam that pukes on patriotism.

All of this adds up to a system that produces a counter-terrorism czar unwilling to call Islamist terrorists what they are. Perhaps "timidity" is too weak a word.

Our intelligence system isn't worthless. It's just dispiritingly mediocre. Our country, our troops and our taxpayers deserve better.

Ralph Peters' latest book is "Endless War."



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