by Austin Bay
December 28, 2004
My candidate for 2004's most important issue: "actionable intelligence."
"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 administration.
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.