The IC pretty much has two jobs to do. The primary one is to do hard core, quality analysis, estimates, projections, and planning to attend to the business of providing data and information needed by decision makers to make the best decisions possible. It is not complicated, but quite often in a crisis the best course of action has a time component to it, so there is a premium on getting the information to the decision maker quickly while the best course of action is still an option.
Just for instance, if an area being monitored shows that some maniacs appear to be mobilizing to shoot thousands-or even hundreds-of missiles and rockets-there are observables or signs-called indications and warnings (I&W)-that “something is up.” We may not know what it is in detail or with precision, but our entire system is built on a cascading system of I&W flags that are tripped as activity of various sorts increases-whether vehicle traffic, communications-chatter, coordination, activation of networks, personnel gathering, etc.
Each of the Combatant Commands (COCOMS) such as US Central Command, European Command and Africa Command have extensive I&W requirements as an extension of or as the actual national requirements for the US government. These strategic and tactical I&W efforts are focused upon providing early warning and also to trigger actions like Flexible Deterrent Options (FDO) associated with war plans (operational orders) to augment forward deployed forces with high value limited assets that are shared COCOM resources (reflected and identified in war plans.)
Early warning through the tripping of I&W flags is somewhat of the deliberate process during a traditional build-up to war. Interspersed within the military objectives include identifying when it is time to trigger a noncombatant evacuation order/operation (NEO) to safeguard and evacuate US citizens out of harm’s way: it is one of the primary objectives of the entire I&W effort-particularly in places like South Korea where congestion within single digit kilometers of the demilitarized zone represents a real impediment to operations should the balloon go up.
So what happened here? A top-level view indicates that our system has been seriously tested in the past decade and has not proven to be worthy of the trillions in investments we’ve made in the entire enterprise. That seems like a lot of money but consider that since the DNI stood up in FY 2005, eighteen years of ~50B a year has been spent, that includes several billion in plus ups a year for things like the FBI intelligence capability. You be the judge, have those taxpayer dollars been well spent???
We pretty much undermined our own system and processes in Afghanistan through a complete failure of due diligence across the board at the top levels of our government: from POTUS to the state department, SECDEF, our military leaders from the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, on scene combatant commanders and all of our IC agencies-particularly the CIA, whose director offered the lame explanation that they were “less wrong than other agencies:” consider spending north of >50B in taxpayer funding for the IC and it being insufficient to fund being right. Maybe we should double it-or better yet slice off about 60% of the fat, duplication, politicization, and ass coverage we’ve bought with non-stop gravy train funding since September 11, 2001!
The spin from our military on Afghanistan was even worse-which seems impossible. The military is paid to advise and provide subject matter expertise and alternatives in the form of operations advice to civilian leaders. In doing so there is no provision for second guessing, as we’ve seen from the recently retired Army General Mark Milley. At a very fundamental level big decisions come down to a decision process (decision matrix) of several or more options and a recommended course of action. Once a decision maker picks one, there are two choices open to the SECDEF and JCS Chief-salute and move out smartly-or resign: it is cut and dry.
To go forward with a military operation such as the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal without resigning-if you disagreed with the plan and felt strongly enough that there was a good chance that it would be a disaster-is unprofessional, a disservice to the civilian leadership you serve and a stain on your oath to the constitution you are bound by. Any unbiased, non-political and even untrained absolute novice/neophyte could have shot holes in the Afghanistan withdrawal plan big enough to fly B-52s through. Spare us the BS that you could help make it less of a disaster by staying on.
Maybe I’m using a stricter criterion or standard on some of these issues, but “less of a disaster” is still a “disaster” and being “less wrong” is still “wrong.”
Politics have gotten in the way of clear-headed lessons learned from Afghanistan, but just consider how amateur hour it was to in effect trigger a NEO after withdrawing the element that implements and oversees such things-military on the ground-with all roads for panicked civilians-Afghanistan, coalition forces and Americans alike-leading to the dead end of Kabul International Airport. The chaotic evacuation was in the best traditions of a Monty Python operation: “Run Away.”
Ukraine is another example where our national security apparatus and strategy failed miserably at all levels. The Biden administration, congress and American leadership were advised by the JCS Chair that it would likely be over in “72 hours” should Russia invade. Considering that this Russia effort started in 2014 when the Obama administration decided upon regime change to force a Putin ally-Yanukovych-out of power, which led shortly thereafter to Russia annexing Crimea, you would be forgiven for thinking that the US IC and American leadership had plenty of time to study the long-anticipated action: yet still got the estimate and projections totally wrong.
Similarly in the ongoing full-throated terrorist attacks that took place from Gaza attacking Israel, how is it possible that our IC and the regional combatant command resources did not detect via our I&W processes plans for this attack? Particularly those responsible for processing collection in this consistently smoldering part of the Middle East?
We are well beyond the point where we need a Blue Ribbon-type commission to look into these failures on the part of our government at all levels to ascertain what we are doing wrong that led to these debacles. I’ve made this recommendation before and realize that many an administration neuters these efforts by assigning political hacks who would not say poop if they had a mouthful, but I’m thinking of an effort like the Special Investigator on Afghanistan (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction-SIGAR) which reported on just about every stupid thing we did leading up to the precipitous withdrawal, and has coincidentally (and there are none in DC) been denied access to information since.
One of the best practices and cardinal rules for military operations and activity is after action reports and lessons learned. My old Wing King Col Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. always reminded that if you “relearn a lesson, you never learned anything in the first place.”
From the standpoint of what we now know was a total disaster for decades in Afghanistan, how is it that we are not forcing accountability for the taxpayer money going to Ukraine?
From the standpoint of the IC-some eighteen years into the establishment of the DNI-are we safer and more effective today than we were in September 2001 for having stood up what seems to have matured into a political arm of administrations that-disturbingly-often appears publicly to be producing political intelligence in support of questionable policy?
Just consider some recent controversies that-if true-indicate that politics plays a far greater role in the intelligence production process than anything else. I’m referring to the scandal where CIA analysts withheld judgements on Chinese election interference because they did not want to provide ammunition to the president they serve because they feared what might be done with the truth: so they provided the “not the truth.” Dismiss that as a mischaracterization if you will, but the DNI’s own ombudsman is the one who reported it as fact.
Or the recent determination that findings-we call them judgements-on the derivation of COVID were influenced by paid bonuses and moving dissenting voices off the accounts. True or not, there is a reporting convention within the National Intelligence Estimates process where dissenting opinions and judgements are reflected in the final product: not wished away or removed because they don’t reflect the majority or because they touch on the politically sensitive.
Speaking of politically sensitive, there was also the unprecedented malfeasance of the “nifty 50” intelligence “professionals, 51 of whom soiled themselves with an unprofessional and disqualifying memo in the shadow of the 2020 election to declare that the abandoned laptop of Hunter Biden might be, could be, it is possible-although we have no proof-and in consideration that they also consistently stated behind closed doors under oath that-to a person-they had no proof of Russian election interference on behalf of Trump in the 2020 election. But that did not stop them from spouting such nonsense that it existed to the public, their master’s and future employers in the LSMBTG.
A best practice-and diminishing technique-in the IC world is red-teaming outcomes to look at alternative hypothesis on issues, problems and courses of action by adversaries to consider and potentially avoid these “Black Swan” events that represent worst case scenarios when new tactics, techniques and procedures materialize that (1) nobody has thought of (2) that we are ill-prepared for with our traditional approaches.
I’ve often said that even had we known that terrorists were going to hijack planes and fly them into buildings, we would have had to take the extraordinary step of shooting down our planes full of American citizens. That would represent a gut-wrenching decision for a POTUS to make-and there continue to be allegations that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was actually shot down by one of our F-16s on patrol that day.
But consider there was an earlier event where a terrorist hijacked a plane and planned to fly it into the Eifel Tower in Paris or the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA or another government building. We discount and dismiss some of these warnings at our peril.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that Israel obviously had the mission and the vested interest in monitoring events along the Gaza strip, and they are very good at what they do, having pioneered-for instance-airport security long before it became a major concern in the US post 9-11.
They too need to conduct a comprehensive review of how this happened and where their system failed.
26 October 2023
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