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

Share Your Thoughts:

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.

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

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"!

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!

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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