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SYSTEMIC FAILURE AND IRRELEVANCE

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Joe Mazzafro

Since our last interaction, the holidays have proved to be harshly unkind to the Intelligence Community (IC).  First there was they “the systemic failure” to warn with regard to the bungled  attempt on Christmas Day by Al Qaeda-radicalized 24 year old Nigerian Umar Abdulmutallab (a.k.a. Passenger 19A) to blow up FLT 253 over Detroit. Then six days later there was the tragically successful suicide bombing attack on the CIA’s operating base in Khost Afghanistan by Jordanian triple agent Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi killing eight.  As if these two events were not enough, on 04 January with the nation waiting for the President to be briefed by his national security principals on what was known about FLT 253, the U.S. Army’s senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Major General Tim Flynn, published through a public sector think tank Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan where he called out military intelligence for not being relevant to the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan.

With the CIA grieving over the loss of seven of its agents, I have no intention of using this forum to question “how could this have happened?” as I am certain that CIA is more than motivated to answer this question as both a matter of self-protection and to pay tribute to their slain comrades.  All that need be said here to our colleagues at Langley is thank them for all they do to make our nation more secure and to offer our deepest condolences for their stunning losses.

Setting aside the optics of remaining on vacation in Hawaii or whether he should have responded sooner, I was startled by the anger in President Obama’s tone and body language on 30 December as he pronounced that the failure to identify Abdulmutallab and not include him on the “no fly list” was a “systemic failure” by the IC and that he was tasking his national security team to tell him what they knew about the failure within 48 hours (i.e. by New Year’s Eve). 

In an open letter to the IC work force on 31 December (http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20091231_release.pdf), DNI Blair acknowledged that President was correct in his assessment of IC failures associated with FLT 253 but for all to remember that that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are a cunning enemy overlooking the reality that there was nothing cunning or deceptive about Abdulmutallab’s activities that would make him difficult to identify as potential terrorist.  In fact Passenger 19A was moving through IC data banks wearing a virtual red lanyard saying “DANGER: REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT.”  How hard is it to “no fly” a person who has traveled to Yemen, whose father warned the Chief of Station in Nigeria that his son was being radicalized, and who shows up at Lagos International to buy a one way ticket with cash, no luggage, and a despondent affect?

After the President returned to Washington and met on January 5th with his National Security leadership team to develop an action plan for correcting the systemic failure that led to the failed attempt to destroy FLT 253, the DNI again communicated openly with the IC on January 7th (http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20100107_release.pdf).  Here he echoed what the President said in his January 7th address to the nation and what was expanded on by Presidential Special Assistant for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a press availability. 

 

According to the DNI, the failure to identify the threat presented by Abdumutallab “exposed improvement needs and flaws in coordination, [but] it did not expose weakness in the concepts of intelligence reform or suggest that its progress should be redirected. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) and the progress of the past five years will continue to guide our future improvements.”  Admiral Blair also indicated in his January 7th communiqué that the President has tasked the DNI to specifically oversee and manage work in four areas:

 

  • Assigning clear lines of responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats, so they are pursued more aggressively;

  • Distributing intelligence reports more quickly and widely, especially those suggesting specific threats against the U.S.;

  • Applying more rigorous standards to analytical tradecraft to improve intelligence integration and action;

  • Enhancing the criteria for adding individuals to the terrorist watch list and “no fly” watch list.

When I take the protective spin out of the President and the DNI’s comments here is what I get:

·         After less than a week of review, the DNI is confident that IRPTA has the IC properly structured and positioned as well as having equipped the DNI with all critical authorities needed to be effective

·         Despite five years of progress since IRPTA, the IC needs to improve in the following areas for combating terrorist threats to the homeland:

o        Investigating leads on high priority threats

o        Distributing intelligence reports more quickly

o        Doing analysis more rigorously

o        “no flying” potentially dangerous people

 

Now I know I can be difficult to please, but from the above I am hard pressed to see how any objective person can be convinced that the IC has made much in the way of improvements since 9/11.  The President said clearly that all the information was shared with regard to Abdulmutallab.  I am happy to take him and the DNI at their word on this, but if this is true then the IC missed the basic point:  it is not the act of sharing that is important but the effect.

What is missing in the DNI’s statement (as well as the President’s and John Brennan’s) is how neither the DNI, DHS Secretary, Secretary of Defense, Director of the FBI, Presidential Assistant for CT and HLS, and the National Security Advisor could miss systemic flaws that could lead to this gross failure.   Moreover, I don’t know how you have systemic failure if the basic system design (IRPTA) is sound.

Regarding FLT 253 and passenger 19A, I know each person/each agency says “not me; not the part of the IC I am in.  We are working diligently and doing our best to protect our national security!”  Given the results of Christmas Day and the Major Hasan killings at FortHood, the IC is either fooling itself about its abilities to identify, disrupt and warn about terrorist threats or the IC is not organized for success.  I suspect it’s a combination of both.

Since 9/11 the IC has gotten bigger but not stronger.  It is now overseen by a DNI position that has devolved over its five year existence into a DCI without at least a muscular agency in his pocket.  What to do?

 

·         In the name of whole IC, the current DNI should take responsibility for recent failures and resign

·         Make the next DNI the IC CEO with complete hire/fire and budgetary authority

·         Embargo standing up any new special purpose centers in the IC

·         Measure the effects of sharing not how many times the act occurs

·         Invest in IT that will enable fusion and correlation of data and information at machine speed

 

Presumably the publication of “FIXING INTELLIGENCE” by the Center for New American Security(http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/AfghanIntel_Flynn_Jan2010_code507_voices.pdf) on the day before (January 4th) the President was to review the FLT 253 intelligence failures was happenstance, but it does serve to reinforce the sense that the IC is seriously flawed.  Considering what the President said about systemic IC failures associated with FLT 253, it is natural, and I believe justified, to extrapolate MG Flynn’s theater critique to military intelligence over all, if not the entire IC

Fortunately or unfortunately (for me its unfortunate) MG Flynn makes no reference to the expense associated with “the U.S. intelligence community [that] is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy [in Afghanistan]."  I am struck though by the organizational and functional similarities between the Stability Operation Information Centers (SOICs) called for and the Navy’s successful Cold War Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facilities (FOSIFs) with their similar information broker missions.  Notice also that the “I” in both cases stands for INFORMATION vice INTELLIGENCE, which commanders see as to narrow.  At Newport they teach you if you want a new idea, read an old book! 

Sadly I have seen, made, and permitted many of the errors documented in this report by MG Flynn during my time as an active duty military intelligence officer and I know a “2” not providing information to a commander to support what he/she needs won’t get fired, just ignored.  So based on experience and observation, it is hard for me to disagree with MG Flynn though I would very much like to.

Where I disagree with MG Flynn is that analysts (and notice he is talking about civilian intel analysts here) can move information back and forth from battalion/company S2 elements and regimental/brigade S2 organizations at the speed of modern conflict.  In the FOSIF era we used rudimentary IT (PD 1170 main frames, Wangs, and Autodin) to move information back and forth between the fleet and DC not people.  Now with high-end IT readily available to adversaries, for  information to be relevant  it has to be moved, fused, correlated, analyzed, disseminated, and used at machine speed.

As a retired military officer I am not comfortable  with an assessment like this being published out of chain of command channels under any circumstances, but especially if it is meant to be corrective and directive.  That probably just says more about my generational biases than how to effectively deliver a message that will be heard and acted on in today’s information overloaded environment.  I don’t believe MG Flynn would be allowed to surprise Secretary Gates with a report like this unless Gates and General McCrystal agree with it and want to use it to shake the military intel system to perform better in Afghanistan – and beyond right now.  I do believe if this was published as a classified official document to the chain of command, info the IC, it would have been trashed if it could not have been suppressed.

In a New York Post OpEd on January 9th Ralph Peters impolitely observed that “our intel system is vast, redundant, intractable, self-satisfied, cautious and slower than cross-town traffic during a presidential motorcade.” Given what has been said this past week by the President about systemic flaws in the IC that threaten national security and the Afghanistan J2’s concerns about intelligence’s lack of relevance to the needs of commanders, I am not sure how to defend the IC in this environment. 

As the nation wonders if the large investments it has made in the IC sine 9/11 have been either misdirected or squandered, I can’t be who I am and not believe that the United States needs a strong IC to insure its security and pursue its national interests. To recover from its current weaken state the IC must engage in sobering self-assessment and commit to painful rehabilitation.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

joemaz

Comments

MG Mike Flynn's "Fixing Intel" report is mostly spot on. However, as you allude to, sending civilian intel analyst out to collect the information needed to address the COIN fight in Afghanistan is simply a band-aid solution, and one that will fail. First, they shouldn't have to. The info needs to be reported, and disseminated across the IC like traditional intelligence. Second, it will be too slow, as you point out. Third, it will only serve the organization the analyst works for, and not get to the entire IC. It's time to recognize the IC is not collecting the information needed, and two, some info will come from outside the IC, it's just a matter of getting that info into the traditional IC databases that can be accessed by analysts across the globe. Sending analysts out as collectors doesn't fix the problem.

By Jesse Wilson

Jesse, thanks! There is goodness whenever or however, the analysts gets closer to the end user, but there are practical questions about career expectations and retention issues with deploying analysts, but in the end these don't really matter because this approach keeps the process running in human time vice machine time that we have to move closer to for intelligence to be relevant in today's threat environment. joemaz

By Joemaz

My thinking is that you're describing a burueacracy v. employee problem. In these cases, a number of factors, both bureaucratic and political have combined to create the "perfect storm" for disaster. On the political side, political correctness is a mindset that encourages a public employee to figuratively fall asleep at the wheel. Likewise, bureaucracy creates systems. Systems do the same-encourage a mindset where the system predominates. In most jobs an employee who follows the prescibed system but doesn't get the desired result gets a "free pass" from his superiors. He lives to screw up again. Conversely, an employee who deviates from the prescribed system but gets the preferred result might get repremanded. However,deviating from the system and not succeeding will get the employee terminated. In my field, I've seen employees use the system as their alliby for poor performance. "It's not my fault," an employee will say because "I followed your system"!

By lubindave

for example, the system "paints with a very broad brush". It uses numbers, averages-thereby tolerating a percentage of failure . Hense the significance and uniqueness of Christmas day/, eve, millinium, New Years, anniversaries of terrorists acts, etc. are ignored. Computers treat every day equally (while terrorists don't.) Likewise politically correct bureaucracies won't engage in profiling!

By lubindave

Aloha Joe,

Provocative and thorough post as always. I've opined before on your blog about areas where the IC has fallen short in no-kidding execution of transformation, cultural, doctrinal and process improvement since the 911 Commission Report and other spot-on assessments, including Admiral Studeman's "Broad Agenda" piece from 2004/5. So I won't elaborate. My angle on recent failures honestly has more to do with an overall USG culture that encourages failure to ACT resolutely and quickly in response to clear-and-present danger. Planners, operators and senior decisionmakers have an equal responsibility to lean into the IC and ensure actionable EEIs make it immediately up out of the noise and stand a fighting chance of driving immediate action. I think there is plenty to investigate in this dimension as well, and I'm not content as a US taxpayer to accept the usual old was that these failures were mainly IC failures. I think the Obama administration is quickly setting a new tone that operators and decisionmakers have to be ultra-careful about preemptive action.

By Dave McDonald

Dave thanks for your feedback, you know I appreciate it. I think you are on to something regarding the commitment of policy makers/decision makers to act on intelligence. As all intelligence professionals know and sophisticated users of intelligence understand intelligence by it nature is ambiguous otherwise it would it simply be facts about a situation. One of the constants I have learned over the years is people get the kind of intelligence that they demand and expect. If they want for background understanding or action makes a world of difference in how their intel team will perform and deliver over time. thanks joemaz

By Joemaz

Wrong game. Becoming one of the top 10,000 chess players is a significant intellectual effort. Chess is a few pieces, a few alternating moves, a small board. Nobody plays 3D or 3-way chess because you can't play enough games in a lifetime to know whether you are getting better or not.

Multi-lateral international diplomacy with war has dozens of players, each with dozens to 100s of pieces, pieces all moving simultaneously and a huge board. Nobody can play that game.

Terrorism is a small subset of this, perhaps, but still far too large for human minds to encompass.

Change the game : Switzerland doesn't have a terrorism problem, because it doesn't have a foreign policy.

Individuals can have foreign policies, but govs can't and shouldn't. Write the equation that balances all of our interests, show me where I agreed to that weighting of my individual interests.

Your huge- and growing-gov biases are extremely obvious here. They can't possibly work, for reasons in fundamental math and system-dynamics.

By lew2048

Lew thanks for your comments. Interesting to me that you find my bias "pro government" which I will interpret as meaning disposed towards the IC's view of things. Most private commentary I get regarding this blog is that I am far to hard on the IC. In any event I don't understand your game metaphor. My point in this blog post is that the US has invested lavishly in its IC since 9/11 and it failed in its basic duty to warn against a threat that was not difficult to discern

joemaz

By joe maz

Indeed, the gov failed to deal with a simple situation.

However, the whole anti-terrorism effort is based on a premise which is false. That is that it is possible to prevent these acts.

It is clear that drugs can defeat any 'stressalyzer'. The only question is how much damage the amount of explosives someone can stuff into their rectum and/or swallow. If that amount can take down an airplane, and I think it can, TSA is entirely futile.

The 'game' is human ingenuity of terrorists against organizations of bureaucrats. Is there any doubt of that outcome?

As there is no winning that game due to the complexity of the problem, the US must change the fundamentals. Returning to the Constitution and the neutrality all of the Founders desired is my suggestion.

Chaos + computational complexity + emergent properties of systems guarantee that no bureaucracy can anticipate all of the next terrorist group's actions. Ditto the enemies' actions in armed conflict. Ditto even our own allies actions, e.g. Israel.

A government should not engage in games it cannot win. We citizens suffer.

By lew2048

Background for all of this :

Gleich "Chaos". Mathematical chaos.

Harel : "Computers, Ltd." Algorithms and Computational Complexity.

Gall : "Systems Bible". Designing complex systems is really hard, they behave in such unexpected (before the fact) ways.

We live and work within very large, very complex systems. Systems that are far beyond human understanding.

Laws, rules and regulations are an attempt to write a program (or to design and implement a control system) to control an 'open system'. This is a conceptual oxymoron.

Again : some tasks are impossible, and intelligent entities don't try to do them.

Change the game.

By lew2048

We clearly disagree. I will leave my metaphysical beliefs about the capacity of human beings out of this discussion and just say you see this much more abstractly than I do. In a democracy the electorate has an impact on the actions the government takes so if the people want their government to act on their behalf (even if the action is eventually futile) I believe the government has to act or you need to change the form of government joemaz

By Joemaz

Seems Lew would have us lay down our swords, roll over and assume neutrality in the face of Islamo-fascism, and fashion ourselves in the model of Switzerland. All predicated on a postulated mathematical model that all of this evil in the world is simply too complicated, with simply too many variables and moving parts to counter it effectively, without undue suffering. I postulate that the suffering free peoples would experience at the hands of anti-modern, anti-liberty tyrants far exceeds the minor inconveniences and legitimate (and willingly accepted) struggles experienced by our free societies fighting bravely for our way of life. I'm quite sure Lew might have found a mathematical model back in 1940 supporting U.S. retrenchment and neutrality, as Europe burned at the hands of Nazi and Fascist dictators. Good thing the U.S. is not, and has never been Switzerland. All complexity theory aside, this is an eminently winnable fight. Lew might study more history and less math, frankly. Best and Aloha, Dave

By Dave McDonald

Islamo-fascism is not nearly the danger to this country that you seem to think it is. Why us and not Switzerland? Don't you think that a neutral foreign policy would remove the terrorist threat to the US? OSM was pretty clear about the reasons for his attacks on the US.

OTOH, the growth of our government and the cost of all of the various wars (which all of you gentlemen benefit from) has bankrupted our country. There is no way this can continue : the world will not keep buying our bonds.

So, it will change. It will change because a) The task you have set for yourselves is impossible. The Xmas bomber should have told you that : the gov is not capable of meeting the requirements of ever-shifting threats. Neither of you responded to the argument about the futility of the TSA, I notice.
b) The public won't pay for it. The popularity of the wars continues to decline : War on Drugs, War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, War on Terror. CPAC documented this is true even among neo-conservatives.

Neither of you have dealt with any of these fundamentals, much less the complexity-chaos arguments.

Your comments previous to my post are all about patching up a hopelessly-ineffective system. This cycle of amazing flaw followed by bureaucratic reorganization followed by another amazing flaw, ... started with 9/11, you may recall.

Bureaucrats will never counter the human ingenuity of their opponents. When terrorists get serious about technology, game is over. Serious could be biological agents, for one example.

You guys exist in a fantasy world.

By lew

So just a few additional things...

3. Indeed, the endeavors of civilized and peaceful nations to defend themselves from tyranny are imperfectable - as are all the endeavors of mankind. This does not equate to being impossible or futile. It is in the continuing struggle that freedom and ordered civilization finds its voice, its adherents in other parts of the world, and its enduring strength. It is not perfection we seek; it is simply the courage to continue. I do not agree the TSA is futile, nor do I think they do a perfect job -- but, even as a rather strict Constitionalist, I'm 100% comfortable that my tax dollars must go toward keeping the skies safe for the free movement of people in an ordered society.

4. By extrapolation, your argument is that nurturing institutions and operating mechanisms designed to assure a free and ordered society is tantamount to feeding a "hopelessly ineffective system." Well, I find no evidence in my 46 years living in this great free democracy to support your wild premise. I'm old enough and well-traveled enough to know the benefits we enjoy here have been earned and many of them are fragile by their very nature. Your premise that chaos gives the inevitable advantage to tyrants also does not reconcile with history. I'll bet on resolute, courageous, free, committed, innovative and well-organized citizens and governments any day of the week. History and ground-truth supports my view, not yours.

5. On the matter of fantasy... A world view predicated on wrong or wishful assumptions about the true nature of evil, the motivations of tyrants and utopian hopes about the perfectability of man is worse than fantasy. It's downright irresponsible. How these views shape ones approach to citizenship in this country is, in my view, an important discussion. You assert the "game is over" when terrorists get serious about technology, weapons, etc. You are wrong. The game is only over when good, free and peaceful societies, and their citizens, give in to tyranny. Seems you would have us give up now -- all based on some vague theory of complexity and a misbegotten Libertarian ideology.

Back to 8th-grade Constitution and Citizenship class for you Lew. I would put my 14-year-old son in debate with you on these topics and believe he would teach you a few things.

Aloha, Dave

By Dave McDonald

Neither Dave nor JoMaz have dealt with any of the arguments I have made : they reply with assertions and rhetoric, but no counter-arguments.

This thread started with discussion of a flaw in the intelligence sharing bureaucracy, the most recent of many. What is that trend line? Fewer or smaller, less-threatening problems? I don't think so.

Is our intelligence apparatus inside the terrorist's Boyd-OODA loop? I don't think so.

'Islamo-fascist', btw, is jargon from the neocons. Their world-view predicts nothing, confuses thinking rather than aids it.

It must have escaped your notice that our great free society is less free every year. Dramatic changes since 9/11.

9/11 was clearly due to our own CIA's activities in Afghanistan opposing the USSR. Blow-back.

The game of international diplomacy with war is too complex for human minds. Nobody can win that game. All of the various wars we have experienced are evidence of that basic claim, which you have not dealt with at all. The probability that a future terrorist will use biological warfare is quite high, and will constitute yet another example, if we don't get the world very peaceful very soon.

If you think otherwise, show me the math or algorithm by which you can find a path to a desired future in an open system of such great complexity.

To validate that algorithm, show me that you can predict any future with enough accuracy to make $ out of the prediction. Obviously, if you can't predict any future, you can't navigate to a desired future.

That is the problem. I see nothing in history to convince me that it isn't true : countries that build empires and engage in wars routinely fail, and do so faster and faster in modern times. The trends in the US are to failure, not to success. Also, as the economy is a very complex open system, equally difficult to comprehend, countries that attempt to control it fail in times directly proportionate to the total government burden that they impose. Once again, the US is on the wrong trend line.

Please do deal with the arguments.

By lew2048

I am at a loss to understand what to respond to here or how. If the point is predictions are difficult to get right I agree; if the point is that because predictions are difficult they should be avoided then I disagree. That the US is on a path to failure is an assertion, that even is true, is not inevitable. Perhaps other can satatify you since I obviously cannot joemaz

By Joemaz

FROM long time friend and mentor, joemaz

I was reminded of your earlier observation that we dont really have a Director of National Intelligence; rather, a Coordinator of National Intelligence. Over the past two months I have ponder ed your piece and it occurred to me that the USIC still needs its equivalent of a Goldwater-Nichols Act. Clearly, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) wasnt it.

" We still have a DNI who lacks true Cabinet-level authority both laterally among other Cabinet-level officials and downward over the USIC entities.
" We still have the stove-pipes -- but, as I have often been reminded, one mans stove pipe is another mans pillar of excellence, and I dont think we understand the difference.
" We still have duplication of effort a good thing when intended, but not-so-good when unintended as ours so often are.
" We still lack total information sharing after throwing millions of dollars and tons of rhetoric at the problem truth is, there are genuine legal and valid security need-to-know issues here that I dont think many senior policy makers understand or really want to understand (its easier to make political hay carping about a problem on the Sunday morning news shows than it is to actually understand the issues and develop viable, Constitutionally-sound and security-smart solutions).
" We still lack a true-USIC wide sense of intelligence mission that cascades down through the ints and the disciplines (CI, CT, Cyber, Criminal, Analysis, Production, Dissemination, etc.). As a result,
o We dont have a common doctrine. Yes, we have the Intelligence Community Directives (ICDs), but they dont represent a coherent doctrine, nor, at least from the worms eye view of a retired officer way out in the provinces, do these ICDs have real impact in the field.
o We dont have common training. Yes, we do have a number of joint training centers for intelligence, but those dont provide mandatory training for all intelligence professionals. I am continually amazed at how little many of my colleagues (across the USIC) know about the USIC as a whole and the abilities/limitations of the various USIC entities.
o We dont have common reporting vehicles IIRs dont equal HIRs, which dont equal TDs, which dont equal [insert the name of another reporting product that I probably dont know about]
" True public, media, and policy-maker understanding as to what intelligence really is and what it does is sorely lacking. If I hear one more senior policy maker talk about connecting the dots, I may totally lose my composure. They act like all of the dots have numbers on them, or that we even know where all the dots are&&.

By joemaz