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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

How To Use Intelligence

This seems like an obvious thing but most people without experience in the national security field, and even some with that experience, have poorly thought out ideas of intelligence. Too many policymakers have an image framed by movies and books, the superman (or woman) who can do anything, can suffer any injury, shooting their way through every problem and eventually killing the big problem. The problem with this image is that the intelligence community is focused on collecting intelligence, collecting generally secret information and analyzing it. You cannot get intelligence from a dead person. Yes, there are times when violent action is called for, the terrorism campaign springs to mind, but that is rare. And in any event, to kill terrorists you need intelligence.

As I noted in a previous post, intelligence comes in many forms. There is HUMINT (human intelligence), collected from human sources. There is SIGINT (signals intelligence), intelligence collected from intercepting communications. There is MASINT (measurement and signature intelligence), intelligence derived usually from clandestinely placed sensors targeting things like nuclear and biological weapons, though that is not all. The list goes on.

Each one of those INTS, as we call them, focuses on a specific collection method even though they might go after the same intelligence target. HUMINT can recruit a source inside a nuclear weapons program, while MASINT can monitor nuclear signatures emanating from a facility. A HUMINT source might even be called upon to place a clandestine sensor that supports MASINT collection.

Every INT is a unique capability that act independently of and in coordination with each other.

Intelligence capabilities normally take time to develop. A human source can take months or even years to cultivate and recruit. MASINT takes considerable planning and the development of technical equipment before it can produce intelligence. Unlike the movies, it is not as easy as slapping a device under a table or a quick hack and download into a computer system to get what you are looking for. That is in the realm of fiction. In addition, these intelligence resources are limited. We don’t have twenty thousand operations officers recruiting sources, not so we have all the world-wide communications and electronics tapped and controlled, and if we did we do not have the two million people necessary to process that amount of information. This means that intelligence capabilities need to be protected and used appropriately.

I read a recent article recommending that the CIA collect intelligence overseas on future pandemics in an effort to provide early warning. This is a great example of not using intelligence resources wisely. CIA is not organized to collect pandemic information. There are scientists at CIA that could provide expertise on pandemics but analysis is entirely different from collection. Few operations officers are scientists and lack the technical background to understand the details and issues surrounding a pandemic. Not to mention, personnel resources are limited and it would require moving intelligence officers from other priority topics to collect on pandemics. Sure, we could get more money, staff up, train either operations officers as scientists or scientists as operations officers but neither effort would work well.

This is a colossal waste of time when you realize that we have the CDC. They already have the expertise and they have deployed their personnel overseas in the past. US embassies overseas usually have appropriate scientific officers in countries that warrant it. Almost all of the collection can and should be done overtly, well within the purview of the CDC.

You might ask yourself at this point “Why the CIA?” It seems like a pain to get it to do anything. I would answer that when used properly and to its capabilities the CIA is an extremely flexible and effective organization. Let me give you a real-world example. I will change the names and locations to protect the innocent and obfuscate any intelligence sensitivities. This occurred more than 30 years ago so the statute of limitations should have run out.

The US was going to send troops into a country, lets call it Santo Poco (tip of the hat to the Three Amigos) and place it in Central America, a favorite area of US intervention and gunboat diplomacy, so not out of the realm of the believable. To prepare the population and make clear that the insertion of US troops was not an invasion or an occupation but rather an effort to return the democratically elected government to power, it had been overthrown in a military coup. During a meeting in the White House Situation Room the President turned to the Defense Department and asked what they could do. DOD pointed out it had the 470th Psychological Operations Battalion (fictitious unit) that could be deployed. It was composed of 500 service members with radio and television capability, as well as various print options including leaflets. The radio, which was likely the best way to reach the target audience, was powerful and could broadcast throughout Central America, as well as the Caribbean, Northern Latin America and most of the US Southwest from the proposed neighboring country which would host the radio transmitter. DOD could have two C-141 transport aircraft, 200 personnel and the equipment ready to fly out within one to two weeks after receiving the order and after obtaining country clearance from the hosting nation. That could take a few days depending on how willing the host nation was to accept the relatively large footprint and the additional US militarysecurity personnel required to protect the unit.

The President asked the CIA what they had on hand and the Agency replied that it did not have the capabilities of DOD. What it did have was a small flyaway radio transmitter that would not be able to reach the wide swath of countries as DOD’s transmitter but it would cover all Santo Poco, which was the actual target of the messages. The team consisted of three personnel and would load on a King Air propeller aircraft. Given the very small footprint we would work through the local security service, eliminating the need for country clearances and security detail. The President asked when the team could deploy. The answer came back, “today is Monday, getting people ready and equipment loaded, we could be there Wednesday.”

On Wednesday morning an operations officer headed into the host country countryside, arrived at a local radio station with a suitcase with $50,000 and asked to rent the station for a couple of weeks (to use as a base for the radio flyaway kit). They were up and running by Thursday afternoon.

The morale of the story is flexibility. The US military does impressive work and can move quickly if a crisis occurs. Few in the government can match their abilities but sometimes less is more. The CIA, and the intelligence community in general, bring a flexibility not available to the rest of the government. It might not be a huge or impressive capability but sometimes it is enough.

The other answer to the question “why the CIA?” is that whenever there is a problem or a crisis the President can turn to the director of the CIA, who will call the Chief of Station in the particular country and get an answer for the President based on clandestine access to events. That earns the CIA a place at the table.

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