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US Intelligence Grapples with `Humint’ Dilemma

The Pentagon’s Inspector General is conducting a thorough investigation of allegations from Central Command and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts, that their work product was altered by higher-ups in the military chain of command, who were out to support policy decisions by the Obama White House, and promote the idea that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was suffering setbacks and on the run; this, despite the fact that Centcom and DIA analysts were filing more negative and skeptical reports on the state of the combat against ISIL than the altered reports suggested.

Ultimately, the IG investigators will have to grapple with two separate, but equally important issues. First: Was the analysis altered to satisfy higher-ups in the Obama Administration, who were looking for upbeat reports on the status of the war against the Islamic State (ISIL)?  If the investigation concludes in the affirmative, this will go to the heart of the issue of professionalism in the craft of intelligence, and the ability of analysts, who are not duty-bound to satisfy political decisions, to deliver honest assessments. 

The second, related question is the need for the absolute separation of analytical work from policy-decision making altogether. Analysts must be protected from political pressures from policy-makers to issue findings that conform to policy decisions already made. Charges have been leveled by some DIA and Centcom analysts that Gen. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, pressured the Centcom intelligence chief to modify analysis to paint a more upbeat picture of the progress of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  So far, there is no evidence of any such intervention by Clapper or any other senior officials of the ODNI. 

This issue will be at the heart of the intelligence community reforms, which will happen regardless of the IG investigation’s outcome. It is widely expected that the IG investigation will produce independent and honest findings, which will accelerate needed reforms, whether or not the allegations are proven to be true.

There is a near-unanimous consensus among top USIC executives that the upgrading of both US and international intelligence operations, including a healthy humint (human intelligence) component, is vital to defeating the Islamic State. 

French President Hollande, in the view of the USIC leadership, adopted a proper path, when he decided to invoke a chapter of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union, rather than activate NATO collective defense, through the invoking of Chapter V of the NATO Charter, which would have mandated common military action—without any provision for intelligence sharing. Under the Lisbon Treaty, member states of the EU are vaguely obliged to share intelligence.

In their Paris meeting on November 23, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Hollande agreed on the urgent need to create a common European “intelligence pool” to defeat future planned ISIL “blind terror” attacks.

The US has moved further than Europe in addressing some of the crucial problems. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the US created the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is today one of the largest bureaucracies in the Federal government. DHS is a bridge between the Federal and state governments and the private sector, including the airline industry, which has established a public/private data base.

One of the biggest challenges to be overcome is the cultural split between the humint community and the technical intelligence community. What the Paris attacks of Nov. 13 have demonstrated is that the two capabilities are both urgently needed, and must be integrated.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s recently announced a major reorganization, establishing ten operations centers, where the work of operations officers (who recruit agents and conduct a range of humint activity), analysts, and cyber technicians will all come together under a single roof. The model adopted by CIA Director John Brennan for creating these “fusion centers” is the CIA’s longstanding Counter-terrorism Center (CTC), which first combined officers from the Directorate of Operations, the Directorate of Intelligence and the Technical Services Directorate under one roof.  An estimated 2,000 CIA officials work in the CTC, and are drawn from all of the separate functions. 

The investigation into the recent Paris attacks has confirmed that the terrorist networks have devised sophisticated cyber capabilities, utilizing what officials call the “dark net,” a secured underground internet system servicing a vast black market of capabilities. To successfully penetrate this “dark net” and preempt future “blind terror” attacks on the scale of Mumbai 2008 and Paris 2015, the fully integrated range of technical and human intelligence capabilities must be exploited and upgraded.

Future humint operations will be fully integrated with cyber capabilities. Fully vetted intelligence assets, recruited by a new generation of intelligence case officers in the field, will be provided with advanced communications equipment, providing real-time contact with decision-makers, who can act instantly on intelligence and launch strikes against terrorist targets-on-the-move.

While there is a public recognition that the Islamic State and other linked jihadist groups have sophisticated social networking operations, they are hardly hardened against penetration by US and allied agencies, including the “Five Eyes” network of signal intelligence agencies from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The immediate challenge is to integrate the different components of intelligence—both within the USIC and in league with many allied intelligence services, suffering under the same compartmentalization problems that deter successful preemptive operations.  As one USIC official has publicly put it:  “Every time that there is a successful terrorist attack, it is ultimately shown to be the result of an intelligence failure.” He gave the example of the recent Paris attacks, where Moroccan intelligence had data on some of the leaders of the terrorist attack, but had not been asked by their French counterparts to share the intelligence—until after the attacks had already occurred.

Paris was a wake-up call and some big changes will have to be successfully carried out if the scourge of global blind terrorism is to be ultimately defeated.

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