A new kind of strategic intelligence?
by Taylor Dinerman
|For all their limitations, satellites provide imagery that can be “mined” in ways that even a properly debriefed agent never could.|
He also makes the case that America has traditionally relied more on technology than on “messy” humans. The dilemma, as he puts it, is that “…we live in an age when our security problems are overwhelmingly human problems.” Accordingly we spend far too much on technology and not enough on people. Peters says that “Instead of the current system, in which people support technology, we need our technologies to support people.”
The rhetoric coming out of Washington would indicate that some of the leaders of the intelligence community actually believe this. The military’s support for extra pay for personnel who have improved their language capabilities is one sign that the message is slowly getting through. However, as Peters points out, it would be smart not to expect too much.
Americans, who live in a giant monocultural nation, are not, and have never really been that good at, adapting to or understanding foreign cultures. Finding and training large numbers of spies and analysts who truly have a deep understanding of the Middle East, and at the same time can pass through the byzantine layers of the security clearance process, is simply not possible in a relatively short period of time. Either the US government is going to have to find a way around this problem, or it is going to have to go on relying on technology for most of its strategic intelligence.
This mostly means satellites. For all their limitations, satellites provide imagery that can be “mined” in ways that even a properly debriefed agent never could. While a human spy can perhaps explain something of the motivations and intrigues inside a terrorist group or government, alone, he or she cannot track the movements of a nomadic tribe that harbors a senior terrorist as its guest. The problem has not been that satellite information is irrelevant, but that the intelligence community has not been able (or at least it looks that way from the outside) to successfully pair up the sensors with the analysis, or at least to do so on a consistent basis.
Peters lashes out at the high price of US intelligence technology, in this respect he is consistent since he has in the past attacked many of America’s costly high-tech systems that, as the complaint goes, were designed for the Cold War. However, the spy satellites that are now subject to massive cost overruns and delays were unmistakably a post-Cold War product of the Clinton years.
One solution for at least part of the problem would be for the NRO to train two new kinds of imagery interpreters. The first would specialize in finding deeply buried structures such as the underground facilities where Iran is carrying out its nuclear development program. These men and women would be experts in geophysics and underground construction techniques and would spend their entire careers in this area. It may be that inside the intelligence community such people already exist; if so, they need to be reinforced and recognized as a separate body of professionals. Maybe they could be called the “Mole Hunters.”
The second group that is needed should specialize in combining cultural intelligence and knowledge with the ability to expertly examine imagery in order to extract not just tactical intelligence, but information on long-term trends inside the societies that are being studied. This requires far more than just technical knowledge. Practitioners of this new craft will have to be fluent in the language of their target area and should also have knowledge of the languages of the neighboring countries. They will need to know the geography, history, and politics of their area and in some cases know the tribes and clans as well as the agricultural and industrial practices of the local population.
There are too many stories circulating of how the imagery interpreters at the NRO simply did not know enough about the country they were examining to know that they needed to question their assumptions. Yet their Cold War-developed expertise in some areas is not only superb, it is still needed. The science of “crate-tology” developed to analyze Soviet weapons shipments is still extremely useful in tracking things like Iran’s weapons deliveries to Hezbollah. It would be a terrible mistake if the NRO was forced to give up its capabilities in this or in other areas. Once lost it would take a huge investment in time and money to rebuild such an asset.
|The science of “crate-tology” developed to analyze Soviet weapons shipments is still extremely useful in tracking things like Iran’s weapons deliveries to Hezbollah. It would be a terrible mistake if the NRO was forced to give up its capabilities in this or in other areas.|
The traditional analysts inside the intelligence community are obviously comfortable with the way they have been doing business for the last few decades. A new generation that can combine the skills of an anthropologist and archeologist with those of a market researcher and a historian can only be developed inside an intelligence institution that has not traditionally been home to those who have previously provide America’s leaders with finished intelligence “product.” The NRO might be ideal for this.
The most important message that Ralph Peters has for both US leaders and for the US public is that “Even the best strategic intelligence provides only not-quite-focused snapshots and rough compass bearings, not detailed maps to a predetermined future.” The problem is that there have been too few American leaders who have the hard-earned expertise to understand the real limits of secret intelligence. Amongst our Presidents, only George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and perhaps George H.W. Bush really understood the possibilities and limits of spies and spy technology. No matter how good the machines are, it is the people who run the system who are ultimately accountable, and this includes the citizenry.