Intelligence: April 20, 2005


The new American Director of National Intelligence (DNI) vows to get the 14 intelligence agencies to cooperate and produce a better and more effective product. Based on past experience, this wont happen. Also based on past experience, it will be a long time before the public discovers that it didnt happen. Intelligence people are good at hiding their secrets, and for many senior intelligence officers, their careers depend on doing a convincing job of pretending to cooperate.

The basic problem is that there are several different types of intel specialist, and each believes their contributions are more important than everyone else's. You have the geeks (who use satellites and electronic gear to take photos and collect electronic messages) and the operators (the people who go into the field, run spies and do the James Bond stuff). And then there are the analysts, who get raw intel from the geeks and operators, and try to make sense of it. The geeks see themselves as the successors of the operators, and over the last four decades, the proportion of actionable intelligence (stuff you can use) that comes from the geeks has gone to over 80 percent. The operators dont deny that, but also point out that in the field, you do things geeks cant, like capturing Islamic terrorists, and intercepting couriers carrying messages that the geeks cant pick up using their gadgets. The analysts have the most balanced view, and often wish they had more operators to follow up on murky leads the geeks have come up with. The problem with the geeks is that even the best satellite photos are not as revealing as an operator on the ground, right in the middle of the situation. The same with electronic eavesdropping, which often provides only fragments, while an operator interrogating a terrorist can provide much more information. The geeks and operators used to fight about money, but the geeks won that battle decades ago. But now the operators have a blank check. The only problem is that you can hire a lot of the needed geeks right away, while it takes years to train a useful operator. Police detectives and private investigators have many of the skills used by operators, but recruiting from this community has never been very successful. Basically, the CIA, and other agencies, have to recruit and train their own.

This spotlights another problem. While most of the geeks are in one place; the NSA (National Security Agency), the operators and analysts are in many other agencies. Each of the armed forces, plus the Department of Defense itself, has an intelligence agency. Add in the State Department, Homeland Security, FBI and a few others, and you have a hell of a coordination job. No one wants to share contacts or information, lest the other agency somehow pollute the source. Thats easy to do. If the army has a bunch of agents in Iraq, recruited with great effort, the last thing they want to do is let the CIA know who these guys are. The Iraqis spying for the army know that if the wrong people find out what they are doing, they are dead. If they suddenly find out that another bunch of Americans, from the CIA, are on to them, they may just quit the spy business while they are still alive. This is a legitimate fear, and the reason why local police are reluctant to share such information with the FBI or Homeland Security. Informants are the more important tool operators have, and these valuable sources of information can disappear. 

But its more than mistrust between agencies, often its downright dislike. The FBI and CIA have had a hate/hate relationship for half a century. The various military intel outfits have always been competitive. The CIA sees the Department of Defense intelligence operations as wasted effort, while the military intel types see the CIA as a waste of money.

Changing all this will take more than time, it will take a few minor miracles. 


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