by Austin Bay
December 28, 2004
My candidate for 2004's most important issue: "actionable
"Actionable intelligence" is spy jargon for "knowing" about a
threat and then "acting" based on the threat's degree of risk. Of course,
the timeliness and accuracy of information matters a great deal, and the
cost of action must be weighed against the price of inaction.
Obtaining actionable intelligence is key to thwarting terrorist
attacks, but "knowing and acting" is crucial in any crisis situation. This
past week's tragic Indian Ocean earthquake serves as a non-political example
of the terrible price paid for not knowing and not acting. A "tsunami alert
system" that links quake and sea sensors (knowing) to government agencies
and local warning systems (acting) would have saved thousands of lives.
Credit April 2004's 9/11 Commission hearings with raising the
sticky subject of actionable intelligence in relation to terrorism. The
United Nations reform report, issued in December, also struggled with the
complex issues of pre-emptive ("against an imminent or proximate threat")
and preventive ("against a non-imminent or non-proximate" threat)
self-defense. The United Nations' "good evidence" in support of preventive
attack is the 9/11 Commission's "actionable intelligence."
Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Cohen
repeatedly referred to "actionable intelligence" when he examined the August
1998 U.S. cruise missile strike on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Clinton
launched that attack after terrorists destroyed the American embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania.
Cohen testified that U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that
chemicals associated with the production of VX nerve agent were found around
the factory. Sudan was a terrorist haven -- Osama Bin Laden had lived there.
The possible presence of a weapon of mass destruction jolted the Clinton
With the frankness of a man bearing Washington media scars,
Cohen said that he feared facing a 9/11-type committee if the United States
or U.S. assets were ever attacked with nerve gas. He did not want to be
accused of failing to destroy a plant producing weapons of mass destruction
for terrorists. The U.S. embassy bombings, Sudan's reputation as terror
facilitator and the indications of nerve agent production in a plant that
might have connections to terrorists became -- for Cohen -- a sufficient
reason to act militarily. Though subsequent information indicates the plant
was not making nerve gas, Cohen said he would make the same decision given
what he knew at the time.
If the 1998 Sudan strike sounds like a micro version of the Bush
administration's war on Iraq (Saddam had used weapons of mass destruction in
the past, had terror training connections, etc.) -- well, it is.
Cohen's testimony succinctly illustrates the difficulties
leaders confront. Information is never complete, bad sources may taint it,
accuracy diminishes as time passes. To act or not to act -- dither like
Hamlet, and opportunity fades. Take the wrong action, and the political,
moral and physical consequences can be devastating.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the commission that
quality of action matters as well as quality of intelligence. The Bush
administration concluded cruise missiles are weak responses to terrorist
attacks. Don't lob missiles if you aren't prepared to follow up. Against a
committed enemy, if decisive U.S. action fails to follow initial action, the
United States will look weaker.
Leaders, presented with uncertain information, must weigh risk.
A friend of mine, Mitchell Zais, now president of Newberry College in South
Carolina, served a tour in the late 1990s as commander of U.S. forces in
Kuwait. Zais recalls he heard "about every other day that Osama bin Laden
and his henchmen were planning strikes against U.S. interests in Kuwait at
an unknown time, at an unknown place and by unknown means. The problem is
not so much a lack of intelligence. The problem is to select the best course
of action in response to that nebulous intelligence."
Personal maturity, experience and a staff capable of providing
high-quality "course of action" analysis help leaders make the "best
decision" given iffy information. However, mistakes are inevitable. That's
why great leaders also have the quality of perseverance, and the ability to
work through mistakes, remain focused on long-term strategic goals and
retain the nerve to act when a new, uncertain opportunity arises.