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Asymmetric Warfare Requires Intelligence Community Reorganization

April 2008
By Diana Raschke

It will take mission over mechanism to function against today’s adversaries.

The U.S. intelligence community must centralize both collection and analysis to most effectively leverage technical and analytic expertise. Restructuring the intelligence community as a technical core of collection capabilities, surrounded by an analytic corps organized by areas of responsibility, would improve efficiency, depth and transparency of intelligence analysis.

Developing as well as sustaining an intelligence capability that will protect this country in the 21st century requires adapting to the changing threat at the organizational level. The intelligence community that won the Cold War is not prepared for today’s asymmetric warfare. Today’s approach of dividing it into agencies that are largely defined by their collection mechanisms creates barriers to coordination, cooperation and information-sharing. Our stovepiped bureaucracy is not flexible nor fast enough to cope with the innovations of proliferating global adversaries.

In this age of asymmetric warfare, intelligence is synonymous with national defense. Terrorist adversaries are too dispersed to destroy and too fanatical to deter. The best hope for national security is accurate, timely, accessible information and actionable analysis. The intelligence community must be organized by mission—not collection mechanism—to fully utilize technical proficiency and analytic expertise.

Currently, the community is divided into an alphabet soup of organizations, with key agencies focusing on single-collection disciplines, or “-INT.” The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) specializes in human intelligence (HUMINT); the National Security Agency (NSA) specializes in signals intelligence (SIGINT); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) specializes in imagery intelligence (IMINT) and its products; and so forth. This focus on function has enabled each agency to develop and refine the technologies and best practices associated with its particular collection capability. But the challenge of asymmetric warfare calls for a different organizational design. A reorganization would inject energy into existing analytic resources.

Reorganizing the intelligence community is by no means a novel idea, but the argument for doing so often comes from a managerial perspective focusing on efficiency for efficiency’s sake. Instead, the community itself must reform in response to the nature of today’s asymmetric warfare. An organizational structure based on mission instead of collection mechanisms would improve not only the management but also the overall quality of U.S. intelligence analysis.

The community’s current fundamental structure is a legacy of the Cold War. Agencies organized along functional lines made sense when the adversary was a vast bureaucracy. The United States matched the Soviet Union office for office, program for program. Science emerged as a major battleground, and the United States poured resources into technology and research and development. Conflict was strategic and slow, with plenty of time for intelligence collection, analysis, coordination and decision-making. There was only one adversary, and this adversary had political leadership, public   infrastructure and interests mirroring our own.

Today’s threat is different. The demise of the Soviet superpower ushered in the age of asymmetric warfare. Terrorist adversaries are not competitors; they are loose cannons, killers, kidnappers and saboteurs. Many of them aspire to die in the act of murdering innocent people. As a result, this country faces an unknown number of committed enemies. They are loosely organized into myriad cells and flexible networks, which enables them to blend into civilian populations the world over. Terrorists have virtually no infrastructure for allied forces to target, and their capabilities outlast their leaders. They are experts at leveraging scant resources to devastating effect. To fight these terrorists, the United States needs to be just as resourceful as they are.

Dividing the intelligence community by collection mechanism no longer makes sense. The United States has ensured its technical dominance in every -INT. For example, al-Qaida will never have better satellites than does the United States. But the divided organizational model creates stovepipes, hidden data caches and other unnecessary obstacles to rapid-response intelligence fusion. The intelligence community needs to shift its organizational focus from ever-greater collection mechanisms to improved communication, aggregation and coordination.

A workable approach would be to reinvent the intelligence community as a technical core of collection capabilities feeding an analytic corps whose members are grouped by mission. These missions can be overlapping areas of responsibility (AORs). Some AORs would be geographic, as is the Defense Department’s joint military command structure. Other AORs, such as cyberwarfare and terrorist finance, would be conceptual. Configuring AORs in this way would address both the geopolitical and global aspects of today’s threats to national security. The intelligence agencies of today would effectively be dissolved, leaving two interdependent groups: collectors and analysts.

All the -INTs—including open-source intelligence (OSINT)—would be managed by a single governmental entity resulting in a coordinated national intelligence collection effort. OSINT experts integrated with other collectors will likely meet requirements that would otherwise become a costly job for a technical collection discipline or a risky task for HUMINT. Every appropriately cleared analyst in the intelligence community would have equal access to intelligence. Every group would have the same opportunity to request further collection, and requests would be put in order of priority by the urgency of the associated threat. The collectors’ customers would be the entire corps of intelligence analysts, not just their local leadership or analytic team.

This organizational design is radically different from the traditional bureaucratic structure. The analytic AORs would grow, shrink, splinter, fuse and fade away as needed to meet the challenges of a dynamic threat environment. In the age of asymmetric warfare, the country no longer has the luxury of time to assess the adversary. A terrorist cell can form, strike and dissolve much faster than an intelligence organization can re-orient its various hierarchies. The community will be able to adapt only by building a dynamic organizational structure that embraces change instead of arrogantly—and repeatedly—promising that this re-organization will be the last.

An intelligence community founded on an analytic mission instead of a collection mechanism would be vastly more effective. As it stands today, each individual intelligence organization maintains a group of analysts for each intelligence focal point—such as Iraq, Iran or North Korea. Each group may have only a handful of people who are relatively isolated from other subject matter experts, and this isolation changes the analyst’s job. An expert on North Korea, for example, may be less focused on filling communitywide intelligence gaps than on knowing everything he or she can about North Korea in order to be the agency’s authority.

The problem will only worsen as threats to national security proliferate. The U.S. State Department’s annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) provides a high-level snapshot of the counterterrorism threat environment. In October 2001, the list named 28 groups. The April 2007 version included 42 FTOs and an additional 43 “groups of concern.” Futurists such as John Robb argue that terror will become more and more decentralized, and globalization and technology already permit very small groups and even individuals to wage war against entire nations. “In the future,” Robb writes, “it will become harder and harder to put a name and a face to our enemies. Just as the attacks will be smaller and more numerous, so will the armies that carry them out against us.”

In the not-so-distant future, a single analyst may be responsible for his or her entire agency’s body of knowledge on a dozen separate terrorist groups. In the age of asymmetric warfare, a group need not be large or well-funded to pose a credible threat. Any one of these dozen terrorist groups would warrant the analyst’s full attention, but this over-tasked person must divide efforts among all of them. Pooling analytic resources instead of dividing them by agency would enable analysts to coordinate with their counterparts, so they could divide the work and develop a clearer understanding in key areas instead of juggling competing responsibilities.

This deeper understanding also could include historical analysis and forecasting, two critical aspects of comprehensive assessment that are often sacrificed to the pressures of operational tempo. Rob Johnston’s 2005 ethnographic study of the intelligence community found that time constraints and a focus on current production negatively impact U.S. intelligence analysis. Many of Johnston’s subjects talked about this: “I’m so busy putting out today’s fires, I don’t have any time to think about what kind of catastrophe is in store for me a month from now”; “We’ve gotten rid of the real analytic products that we used to make, and now we just report on current events”; and “Our products have become so specific, so tactical, that even our thinking has become tactical. We’re losing our strategic edge because we’re so focused on today’s issues.”

Organizing intelligence by mission would improve performance at every stage of the intelligence cycle. Planning and direction would focus on actual intelligence missions instead of the means of collection. A consolidated, coordinated collection effort would fill intelligence gaps in the most efficient way. Centralized processing and dissemination would also reduce the overall cost of certain kinds of intelligence dramatically. Today, for example, a file captured in a foreign language may be translated two or three times by different organizations. Pooled resources would enable deeper analysis and increased production. And finally, the open organizational design would improve information sharing and ensure the widest possible dissemination for finished intelligence as well as raw data.

Objections to this type of reorganization may arise, however. Issues regarding the overall integrity of intelligence analysis are of particular concern. One argument is that consolidating analysts would create an artificial sense of consensus. Some say that the current approach of conducting the same analysis in different places provides various assessments that paint a better overall intelligence picture. However, dividing the intelligence community along agency lines and sending each agency’s assessment up the chain of command separately can mislead policymakers in other ways.

For example, competing intelligence assessments could have two interpretations: either Agency A and Agency B analyzed the same information differently; or Agency A had additional information it chose not to share with Agency B, and this additional information accounted for the difference of analytic opinion. Policymakers most likely would receive high-level briefings stripped of the technical detail needed to identify such a discrepancy. Conversely, multiple agencies could use the same source but name it differently, so a policymaker might misinterpret circular reporting as thoroughly corroborated information. The reorganized community could guard against false consensus by dedicating a portion of its pooled analytic resources to red cells and other forms of alternative analysis.

Another argument might be that reorganizing the community by mission would hinder the development of collection disciplines. Without an agency devoted to, say, SIGINT, might not our SIGINT capability erode? That would not likely be the case. Research and development would be a key aspect of the technical core of intelligence collection. The way things are today, different agencies spend money developing identical technologies or ones that already exist in another part of the community. Unifying collection capabilities actually would be a boon to research and development because it would guard against redundant spending, making more funds available for innovative projects. However, to compete for funding and other resources, SIGINT practitioners would need to prove not only their technical ability but also SIGINT’s utility to the analyst.

Since information sharing is a fundamental component of this organizational model,  any move toward increased openness in intelligence admittedly increases security risk. The free flow of intelligence, unfettered by agency borders, would naturally expose more information to more people who do not necessarily have what typically would be considered a mission-critical “need to know.” The potential payoff is greater than the risk, however. These are, after all, people who hold security clearances. Today, agencies reserve troves of data and analysis tools for their employees’ exclusive use. Other agencies’ analysts may be provided tearlines or be allowed access to scaled-back versions of databases. But the best information often stays in-house. The underlying message created by such information hoarding is that agencies are competitors and that some agencies grant clearances to untrustworthy people. Both messages undermine the teamwork aspect of the intelligence community. Opening up all intelligence to any analyst cleared to receive it would not only produce more accurate analyses but would also promote trust and cooperation, helping us to move from a “need to know” to a “need to share” culture.

Diana Raschke is an all-source counterterrorism analyst with The Analysis Corporation.

This Viewpoint is adapted from the winning entry in the AFCEA Intelligence Committee’s 2008 Essay Contest.