Saturday, November 24, 2012

Intelligence Bounded by Diminishing Returns

Government managers generally do not understand the basic economic principles behind the Law of Diminishing Returns.  For most, the best solutions to government failures they can think up with their indoctrinated brain functions are more money to buy more equipment and add more manpower, but in reality that will not inevitably result in better intelligence without proper management of the overall system.

The NY Times just reported a story a month ago that bolsters the administration's defense that the confusion of their initial announcements as to whether the debacle in Benghazi was the result of 'peaceful' demonstrations turned violent or not was due to and inept intelligence assessment system.  Claims were that the original assessment and thus public announcements blaming the Benghazi attacks on peaceful demonstrations turned violent came from CIA 'talking points'.  Yet weeks later they were still sifting through new field reports that seemed to contradict this initial assessment.  Excuse me, but that is the most idiotic claim I've ever heard.  Everyone knew exactly what was going on as the event was unfolding from direct contact with personnel in the US mission in Benghazi which was under attack.

But that's beside the point.  This event will inevitably lead to investigation of yet another so called 'intelligence failure' and the prognosis will most likely be to increase or at least slow down decreases to the national intelligence budget.  That's simply the way things work in Washington.

After 9/11, President Bush's attention was fixated on our dysfunctional intelligence systems and the plethora of misleading, inaccurate, disjointed information coming from the separate, competing intelligence agencies.  He ordered the establishment of a national intelligence fusion center under the Dept of Homeland Security to address the issues.  How well is that working?

The Washington Post reported that the national intelligence budget hit a record $80 billion in 2010, more than double what was spent in 2001.  According to, intelligence spending increased from $63 billion in '07 to $80 billion in '10. 

Then we have Businessweek bemoaning a programmed $25 billion cut to intelligence spending over the next 10 years.  Of course, that's seriously misleading.  That only equates to a $2.5 billion cut to the programmed budget each year.  Whenever the budget goes up, they immediately buy capital goods or tools to perform their required tasks and it should cost less in future years to maintain those systems than the initial procurements.  Many of those 'tools' are nice to have, but not necessary to getting the minimum required tasks of the job done.   Some of them are redundant with other tools they already have.   

Now we have another alleged 'intel failure' in the attack at Benghazi, Libya, but was it?  Certainly, no one in the intelligence community can predict everything everywhere.  However, there were numerous indicators, not only that something could happen at the lightly defended mission, but that something would happen that appears to have been ignored, not by the intelligence community, but by the decision makers spending the money.

So what is the problem? 

First, there is still a considerable shortfall of capability in what is known as open source intelligence.  I've seen estimates over the years that open source comprises anywhere from 70% to 90% of actionable intelligence.  Intelligence isn't really simply a spy vs spy game.  Most information needed to make informed decisions is out there in the public domain, but part of the difficulty is that much is in languages other than English, and we have shortfalls in abilities to translate it for analysis to put it together to obtain a 'big picture'.  Bad guys such as terrorists trying to influence public opinion just don't act without telling what type of behaviours they are trying to influence.  As Ron Paul has been saying for years, just listen to the terrorists, they are telling us exactly what they want.  It's not to appease them.  It just doesn't do any good to constantly lie about it, like our dear leaders do with the "they hate us for our freedom" meme.

The US is involved in so many regions of the world, yet our reliance on English to communicate is a detriment.  During the Balkan crisis in the early '90's, the US military found itself seriously short on Serbo-Croatian linguists.  We had former linguists who had progressed from officer training programs to different jobs who were pulled back to put rusty skills to work sitting racks.  It's not a capability that can be easily reconstituted overnight.

Sibel Edmonds is a famous whistleblower who was recruited by the FBI as contract support in the scramble just after 9/11 to fill a need for a variety of linguists.  Her job was to translate information primarily from Turkish and some Farsi.  They fired her after she discovered information from an informant had indicated bin Laden was planning 9/11 as early as April of that year, vital intelligence that wasn't acted upon and she wouldn't let it go.  She also alleges that she had uncovered a lot of information from foreign sources that compromised the integrity of many high ranking US officials.  Her analysis indicated that sex, drugs, bribery, overall corruption and blackmail was used by foreign agents to influence some of our top government officials.  For that she was labeled as disruptive for pushing against the system.  Better to keep that kind of stuff quiet her higher ups advised.  You see, they don't eat the game players, only when they're making waves or need to be set up as the fall guy, like the FBI investigating Gen Patraeus.

Anyway, there are just no easy answers to fixing the intelligence collection and analysis process.  And after that, just how can they accurately assess and vet literally hundreds or thousands of raw reports from things like intercepted communications, informants’ tips, and open source local or world-wide and local press reports?  For example, the administration still won't reveal why Ambassador Stevens was even in the lightly defended mission in Benghazi rather than back in the consulate in Tripoli that evening, even though the Guardian reported as early as Sep 13th:

"Staff there (at Benghazi Medical Centre) had been expecting the ambassador at 11am on Wednesday as he had come to Benghazi to inaugurate a landmark medical exchange project between the centre and Harvard Medical School, the centre's director, Dr Fathi al-Jehani, said. Instead, Stevens' body arrived at the emergency ramp at 2am, together with a Libyan embassy translator who had been shot in the leg.

I had read it that day it was published and haven't yet found that little tidbit of information anywhere else, however, I still had a hard time finding the link to put here out of the dozens of other stories the Guardian has published on this incident.  The questions are if that was indeed the reason why he was there instead of back in Tripoli, "Was Stevens the primary target and did that scheduled event allow for pre-planning by the attackers to get access to him?"  More importantly to me is that the State Dept had to have known that if it was true, but why aren't they telling us?  Hell, that was the perfect cover story, even if he was there for more nefarious reasons, such as brokering arms deals for Syrian rebels.

The fix

There certainly are no easy answers and it won't be a quick fix.  It will always be a juggling act relying on competent managers to direct information flows.  Relying on native foreign language speakers to assess information will always leave the door open to competing loyalties.  Can translations be double-checked for accuracy?  Obviously all cannot, but there has to be some bar set on verifying sources of specific information to be acted upon. 

The NDAA with indefinite detention and the ability of the executive branch to assassinate American citizens along with the accompanying secrecy behind such actions is certainly not the answer.  Anyone know or want to know why they killed Al-Awlaki's 16 year old son?  Was he the primary target on the 'kill list' or just collateral damage?  Awlaki himself may not have always been the big bad bogeyman US officials want us to believe he was.  Before 9/11, he was publicly preaching as an Islamic spiritual leader.  Afterwards, he condemned the act and he was even invited to visit the Pentagon.   He had given speeches that terrorism against America wasn't the answer and innocent Americans weren't the enemies of Muslims.  Was he always a radical 'combatant' or had he been changed by the subsequent chain of events?  It appears that escalating US actions in the war on terror assisted in pushing him further to 'the dark side', but even with all the information out there, we'll never know the intimate details of the timeline of the real man and if or how he changed.

Anyway, the fix isn't within the intelligence architecture itself.  It's in the American people.  It's with our youth.  It's certainly not in current contradicting philosophies of 'diversity training' and inhibiting free speech to not offend on our campuses that are ubiquitous in our institutions of higher learning.  We need to fix the public school system, changing it from the school of indoctrination it is to a vehicle to inspire critical thinking, not merely reflexive prejudice.  As Steve Pieczenik described Ambassador Stevens being an 'Arabist' in an interview with Alex Jones, we need more scholars to learn and understand history and interactions with other cultures, not just in the Middle East, but around the globe.  That's where our future good intelligence gatherers and analysts will come from, and it takes a long, long time to build.

Our current system of war-mongering is more isolationist than indictments of Ron Paul being so.  As America continues to impose a doctrine of world-wide intervention and nation-building after the storm, other countries, such as China move in with trade agreements after not having fired a shot in anger.  They get the trade, we get the blood on our hands of young Americans in coffins.

Wake UP!!!  Get yer head out of yer collective asses, Congress and stop throwing good money after bad.

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