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Monday, January 18, 2010

Making Intelligence Relevant

@richwatson is one of many pointing to a think tank paper called Fixing Intel. The report's primary author, Major General Michael T. Flynn, is the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan [FT article (html), full report (pdf)].

The report explains how US military intelligence has been rather one-sided, and General Flynn tells us what he has started doing about it. There are some useful pointers here for organizational intelligence in the civilian world, and software industry analyst Richard Watson sees it as a wakeup call for analysts everywhere.

As I see it, the old system was unbalanced in three ways.

1. One-sided activity driving one-sided information gathering

Given that the US troops are targets for a number of specific insurgency tactics, such as roadside bombs, it is perfectly understandable that a lot of interest and attention is paid to protecting troops against these tactics by detecting and defusing the bombs, and identifying and dealing with the insurgents placing the bombs. Thus anti-insurgent activity on the part of US forces calls for information gathering focused on the enemy. As General Flynn explains, "understandably galled by IED strikes that are killing soldiers ... intelligence shops react by devoting most of their resources to finding the people who emplace such devices".

But although this is important, it is not enough. General Flynn makes the important distinction between anti-insurgency (dealing with the enemy) and counter-insurgency (dealing with the conditions in which insurgency exists), and argues that a strategic approach to counter-insurgency calls for a shift of focus - from enemy-centric to population-centric. "Lethal targeting alone will not help U.S. and allied forces win in Afghanistan."

Seen from this perspective, a one-sided emphasis on enemy-centric information gathering appears to be based on the wrong conception of the primary task facing US forces. In his paper on the Primary Risk, Larry Hirschhorn talks about the risk of choosing the wrong primary task.

2. One-sided interpretation

Furthermore, the information is analysed from a particular perspective - limited by location and chain of command, and using traditional "lenses". If the intelligence focus is on identifying and killing the insurgents, then patterns that are not directly relevant to this objective may be missed. There's obviously something wrong with military intelligence if officers "acquire more information that is helpful by reading U.S. newspapers than through reviewing regional command intelligence summaries".

And while "detecting roadside bombs" is what Treverton would call a "puzzle", understanding the population is more of what he calls a "mystery". [See my post Puzzles and Mysteries.] For such intelligence challenges, it's not about uncovering small but important facts, but analysing more deeply the "vast and unappreciated body of information" that is already available. "Tactical information is laden with strategic significance."

And “the best information, the most important intelligence, and the context that provides the best understanding come from the bottom up, not from the top down,” as General Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, recently stated [Landpower Essay(pdf)].

General Flynn therefore wants intelligence analysts to be more social beings, more extroverted. Hm, not sure about that one. 

3. Action is reactive and repetitive - lack of learning

General Flynn again, enemy-centric information gathering and activity is "reacting to enemy tactics at the expense of finding ways to strike at the very heart of the insurgency". He also complains about an intelligence community culture "that is emphatic about secrecy but regrettably less concerned about mission effectiveness". He concludes that "the urgent task before us is to make our intelligence community not only stronger
but, in a word, 'relevant' ".

Thus there is a lack of learning at two levels. For the intelligence community, the feedback loop is one-sided. If secrecy is the primary objective, you can always be criticized for saying too much (errors of commission), but never for saying too little (errors of omission).

As it happens, I was listening to the late Russell Ackoff talking about this distinction in a posthumous radio interview last night [Doing it Wrong]. He was arguing (among other things) that true learning requires paying attention to the "road not taken"

And even in terms of effectiveness, the feedback loop is much clearer when it's a puzzle, because we can measure performance. How many bombs did we detect and defuse, how many did we miss. It's a little more difficult (but by no means impossible) to measure analyst performance in unravelling mysteries.

Meanwhile, the US forces as a whole may be learning a lot of important tactical lessons, but could be failing to learn strategic lessons. "History is replete with examples of powerful military forces that lost wars to much weaker opponents because they were inattentive to nuances in their environment."

From a historical perspective, it is tempting to see the situation in Afghanistan as a repetition of the Soviet experience in the 1980s, and of the British experience in the nineteenth century. But there are some important differences, and potential sources of surprise. Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his book "The Age of the Unthinkable", bigs up Hizb'allah as the equal of Google in the innovation stakes. Afghanistan may not be as stable and isolated as we imagine, nor as tightly connected to other regional issues as the American neo-cons once argued, but it is surely a space where better intelligence could lead to strategic learning. 


looking for clues
building a map
analysts are introverted
analysts are extroverted

We may also note the channel by which General Flynn has chosen to make his views public. According to Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw the report only after it was made public. Although he had real reservations" about the decision to have it published by a private group, Gates "found the analysis 'brilliant' and the findings 'spot on'. ... The report itself is exactly the type of candid, critical self-assessment that the secretary believes is a sign of a strong and healthy organization," he said.  [Voice of America, 7 Jan 2010]

Thus Flynn's paper itself and the manner of its publication seems to exemplify the kind of bold extroverted analysis Flynn wants to encourage. Thus it can be regarded as a metacommunication (a communication whose style reflects its content), which when done consistently and authentically is an important element of leadership.

In future posts, I want to look at how intelligence failures like these affect civilian organizations, as well as discussing Richard Watson's parallel with software industry analysis. Comments and contributions and ideas welcome.

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