Tuesday, January 5, 2010

No Lessons Learned; No Problems Solved

I ended last year on a rather bleak note, suggesting that the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day would probably not get the analytic attention it most urgently needed:

The proposition that, from a procedural point of view, nothing has changed since the status quo prior to 9/11 has become blood in the water for the mass media sharks, particularly those who see it as the perfect opportunity to bring down President Barack Obama; so there is a real risk that serious analysis of a serious problem will be undermined by ideological motives that have nothing to do with that problem.

In the wake of 9/11 considerable attention was given to the underlying processes of intelligence gathering and analysis. The prevailing cliché concerned the metaphor of "connecting the dots," based on the premise that intelligence gathering had been effective but that analysts were too overwhelmed by the quantity of intelligence to "make sense" of it. For many of us, this was a familiar problem that had been pitched to the corporate world in the name of knowledge management. We had lived through too many PowerPoint presentations with slides that said things like, "We are drowning in information and thirsting for knowledge;" and, for a variety of reasons, some of which I have explored, we never really managed to do anything about the problem. My own conjecture is that, focused as we were on the virtues of our own technologies, we tried to frame the problem in strictly objective terms, ignoring the proposition that knowledge also had subjective and social dimensions. One might say that we had failed to "manage knowledge" because we failed to understand how those who work with knowledge actually do their jobs. We had given them the name "knowledge workers" and then blithely assumed that they were latter-day Nibelungs, working in cubicles rather than caves and crafting "artifacts of information" rather than of precious metals. In the 9/11 context there remains debate over whether or not these Nibelungs could have warned us about the threat; but it seems clear that last month they either never got the message or never delivered it effectively. Thus, at least on the surface, it would appear that those who depend on intelligence are as oblivious as ever to how those who actually work with intelligence do their jobs.

Whether or not we shall ever solve this problem on the home front of "homeland security," there is a promising sign that people in high places in Afghanistan are familiar with this problem and are trying to do something about it. Three of those people are Major General Michael T. Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in Afghanistan, his advisor Captain Matt Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor, Senior Advisor for Civilian/Military Integrations from the Defense Intelligence Agency currently serving at the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. They have prepared a report with the provocative title, "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan;" and, recognizing the significance of their conclusions to the general public, they have submitted their report on a public Web page on the Web site of the Center for a New American Security.

At the very least, the authors of this report deserve the Chutzpah of the Week award for taking such a public approach. Mark Mardell's review of the report for the BBC News Web site appreciates this level of chutzpah:

But it is also extraordinary because this is not the leak of a high confidential memo meant for the eyes of four star generals and top politicians: it is published openly by a think tank, the centre for a New American Security. Remember this is not by an ex-CIA officer a policy wonk, but a serving officer, General McCrystal's senior intelligence officer. He says he's done it this way so as many people as possible read his words.

However, beyond rewarding the chutzpah itself, it is really necessary to honor the motive behind the report. Thus, since I have more space at my disposal than Mardell had, I feel it would be valuable to provide a paragraph-by-paragraph review of the authors' conclusions.

Back in my student days, just about everyone I knew had been obliged, at some time or another, to sit through the shabby propaganda of a government-produced film entitled "Why Are We in Vietnam?" About the only useful lesson from that film was its appreciation for asking such a question, and that provides the authors with their point of departure. It is necessary to be clear about why we are in Afghanistan and what our goals should be there:

The U.S. intelligence community has fallen into the trap of waging an anti-insurgency campaign rather than a counterinsurgency campaign. The difference is not academic. Capturing or killing key mid-level and high-level insurgents – anti-insurgency – is without question a necessary component of successful warfare, but far from sufficient for military success in Afghanistan. Anti-insurgent efforts are, in fact, a secondary task when compared to gaining and exploiting knowledge about the localized contexts of operation and the distinctions between the Taliban and the rest of the Afghan population. There are more than enough analysts in Afghanistan. Too many are simply in the wrong places and assigned to the wrong jobs. It is time to prioritize U.S. intelligence efforts and bring them in line with the war’s objectives.

With this premise in place, the authors can then jump directly into the question of just what work needs to be done in the name of those intelligence efforts:

Doing so will require important cultural changes. Analysts must absorb information with the thoroughness of historians, organize it with the skill of librarians, and disseminate it with the zeal of journalists. They must embrace open-source, population-centric information as the lifeblood of their analytical work. They must open their doors to anyone who is willing to exchange information, including Afghans and NGOs as well as the U.S. military and its allies. As General Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, recently stated, “…[T]he best information, the most important intelligence, and the context that provides the best understanding come from the bottom up, not from the top down.”

This is the language of advocates who appreciate that intelligence is not a techno-centric discipline. Indeed, it recognizes the need for professional skills that have been allowed to atrophy through either the neglect of our general culture (historians) or through technology evangelism declaring that they are no longer relevant (librarians and journalists). In other words we have become victims of the world the Internet has made; and getting out of this mess involves changing the culture that has emerged, rather than just the technologies that engendered the culture.

There follows a paragraph that, for me, reflects my above opinion that the failure of knowledge management was a failure of managers. Specifically, managers failed through not knowing whom they needed to get the results they desired and not understanding how those people they needed actually arrived at those results:

Leaders must invest time and energy in selecting the best, most extroverted, and hungriest analysts to serve in Stability Operations Information Centers. These will be among the most challenging and rewarding jobs an analyst could tackle.

This is an observation of authors who not only appreciate history, libraries, and newspaper but also have good taste in literature. Most likely they were all familiar with George Bernard Shaw's play, The Devil's Disciple, and one of the lines given to General John Burgoyne:

The British soldier can stand up to anything … except the British War Office.

Leadership can only be effective "in the field" if it is already effective "at the top."

Next the authors take on the problem of the "cult of secrecy" and the extent to which it can undermine effective analysis:

The Cold War notion that open-source information is “second class” is a dangerous, outmoded cliché. Lieutenant General Samuel V. Wilson, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, captured it perfectly: “Ninety percent of intelligence comes from open sources. The other 10 percent, the clandestine work, is just the more dramatic. The real intelligence hero is Sherlock Holmes, not James Bond.”

This then leads to another paragraph emphasizing once again that the real problem resides on the highest levels of leadership:

Meaningful change will not occur until commanders at all levels take responsibility for intelligence. The way to do so is through devising and prioritizing smart, relevant questions – “information requirements” – about the environment as well as the enemy. Of critical importance to the war effort is how a commander orders his or her intelligence apparatus to undertake finite collection, production, and dissemination. “If a commander does not effectively define and prioritize intelligence requirements,” Marine Corps doctrine warns, “the entire effort may falter.”

We now come to one of my favorite paragraphs, because it deals with one of my favorite themes: the failure of knowledge management evangelists to recognize that knowledge resided not in databases and documents but in the practices through which those knowledge workers could communicate effectively:

The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.

While I am not sure I agree entirely with these conclusions, I definitely sympathize with the authors' determination to make sure that the medium reinforces the message, rather than interfering with it. The documents themselves are not necessarily the problem, but the kinds of documents currently being circulated are definitely symptomatic of the deterioration of our capacities for effective communication.

The final paragraphs reinforce the top-level action item, the need to implement fundamental cultural change. We return to the opening issue of what the problem is that needs to be solved:

Employing effective counterinsurgency methods is not an option but a necessity. General McChrystal routinely issues distinct orders and clear guidance on the subject. When he states, “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy,” it is not just a slogan, but an expression of his intent. Too much of the intelligence community is deaf to these directions – this must be remedied, and now. The General’s message must resonate throughout the entire community – top to bottom.

This is followed by the rhetorical move of appealing to history:

Historical lessons run the risk of sounding portentous, but disregarding them comes at a high price. 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. A Russian general who fought for years in Afghanistan cited this as a primary reason for the Soviet Union’s failures in the 1980s.

The final message is then delivered through the impact of a compelling (and colorful) metaphor:

A single-minded obsession with IEDs, while understandable, is inexcusable if it causes commanders to fail to outsmart the insurgency and wrest away the initiative. “A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks, is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador’s cape – only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent,” General McChrystal and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall recently wrote. “This is predictable – the bull does what comes naturally. While a conventional approach is instinctive, that behavior is self-defeating.”

The intelligence community – the brains behind the bullish might of military forces – seems much too mesmerized by the red of the Taliban’s cape. If this does not change, success in Afghanistan will depend on the dubious premise that a bull will not tire as quickly as a Russian bear.

If our past legacy of intelligence failures is a product of neglecting the value of effective communication, then Flynn, Pottinger, and Batchelor have more than admirably demonstrated that effective communication is still possible, however rare its instances may be. To communicate such a message so well is positive chutzpah of the highest order. To communicate that message to the widest possible audience deserves far more than a Chutzpah of the Week award, but that is all I can really offer at the present time!

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