New uses of intelligence needed to counter terrorism

In his recent article in the RUSI Journal1, John Hughes-Wilson acknowledged significant problems with the intelligence agencies’ processes and the service they provided prior to the UK going to war in 2003. The UK government’s casus belli was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the existence of which, at the time hostilities started, there is no evidence at the time of writing this article.

This failure to find WMD, and failures on the part of US intelligence agencies prior to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks2, has prompted a re-examination of the basis on which intelligence is developed, evaluated and presented to government officials.

In Hughes-Wilson’s view many of the range of hypotheses are possible and could be drawn from a historical analysis of the intelligence organisations throughout the Cold War period, when Western intelligence agencies exaggerated and underestimated potential threats from the Soviet bloc.

Intelligence on terrorist groups and hostile states could have extended beyond plausible information based on the raw intelligence, because of a willingness to inform the government with the best of intentions. Alternatively, documents may have been actively filtered and manipulated to produce a more convincing or simple-minded argument in favour of specific courses of action, in an attempt to make the arguments easier for the media to convey the message to the public.

Whatever the conclusions of Lord Butler’s inquiry into the intelligence process, one must consider carefully the reasons why such errors or crafting of information can occur. If intelligence evidence is dismissed and actions fail to occur, the opportunity is created for future 11 September-style scenarios to occur unchallenged. If, on the other hand, intelligence information is exaggerated and unnecessary actions are taken, the validity of such actions will be undermined. Unnecessary actions may also weaken international support for future policies or harden resolve against it. At a time when terrorist organisations are clearly intent upon launching major operations, this is a deeply troubling prospect because of the need for effective international co-operation to prevent, trap or mitigate terrorist actions.

Kuhns3 has identified intelligence failures as one of the most highly developed areas of academic study. Other analyses of intelligence have supported the existence of failures with potentially consistent factors as their contributors4, but the detailed evidence on the underlying causes is actually relatively weak in the public domain.

At a recent meeting of the Friends of the Intelligence Community at Gaithersburg, Maryland, it was argued that many of the factors that undermine group actions, human decision-making and organisational approaches to complex problems permeate processes within the intelligence community. It was clear that career progression through the intelligence community was supported by assessments that were either exceptionally strong or incredibly weak. Strong reports that warned of threats would result in actions that, it could be argued, would pre-empt and discourage terrorist actions. Weak reports were rarely challenged by the infrequent terrorist events and, as a consequence, there was no reason for modifying methods and practices as no signals indicated change was necessary.

In effect, it was recognised that the intelligence community was managing a process that was not closely coupled with reality and, as a consequence, it rarely predicted anything in advance. The fragility of the information used to drive intelligence could be used to support the comprehensive collection of data where any doubts existed.

This tendency towards information acquisition seems a well-justified strategy. However, the current systems have often collected relevant information but have failed to act on the material effectively to thwart terrorist action. This suggests that greater collection will not solve the problem, and may make it harder to identify pertinent information due to information overload.

Psychology and intelligence analysis

Intelligence operations rely on three basic processes - gathering, analysing, and disseminating information. When failures in intelligence occur it is often the gathering process that attracts the greatest support for further investment of time and resources. However, recent evidence suggests that much of the information that indicates a clear and present danger is present in the material collected. Hence failures seem to be significant in analysis or dissemination processes.

Historical analyses suggest that even where perfect intelligence exists there appears to be a barrier to more effective analysis. Thus, the psychological processes of analysis are crucial to effective decision-making in intelligence processes because this also drives the dissemination process. It seems likely that intelligence services can adopt certain processes and activities of investigative journalism to significantly improve the quality of the estimates that they develop. Careful journalistic analysis can in some cases provide quite cogent and powerful analyses, as Corbin’s5 and Fouda and Fielding’s6 review of Al-Qaeda’s activities suggests.

Intelligence failures can arguably be analysed in a manner similar to accidents, as a sequence of contributory causes leading up to significant events. Failures in intelligence are effectively failures in a number of defences, and strengthening one facet of the system will not provide sufficient protection against the capability gaps across the different parts of the process.

The emphasis for many agencies is naturally on superior collection7, because there is a belief that this would diminish the uncertainty associated with decision-making, but it is argued that analysis is often weak. In particular, analysis does not make use of effective information technology.

11 September: a failure of intelligence

The visibility of recent intelligence failures, particularly in relation to 11 September, has become a matter for congressional intelligence committees in the US.8 The problems with intelligence were already a matter for subject debate before the release of governmental evidence and congressional judgements.910 The failure of intelligence to grasp what was a fairly clear, if somewhat diverse, footprint of Al-Qaeda11 was identified in the more popular intelligence reviews.12 As more information has become available in the public domain, it has been made clear that a significant body of information existed and further data collection would only have corroborated the potential method, place and time of attack (see Fouda and Fielding). This indicates a post-collection failure in analysis or dissemination. Other analyses have been equally critical of the FBI in their failure to exploit and disseminate information regarding Al-Qaeda and the plan to simultaneously use airliners as weapons of war.13

The obvious connections of specific individuals with Al-Qaeda, such as those connected with the potential hijackers that were caught and imprisoned, have been identified by some.14 The links between individuals are noted in Fouda and Fielding’s account of the 11 September attacks. These failures in insight strongly support the view that there was a failure to exploit intelligence in an information-age knowledge-management system, which suggests that the proposals for more effective processes designed to exploit information technology have largely been ignored.15 The body of evidence on the attackers was sufficient to introduce measures that would have mitigated and pre-empted the attacks, even though the terrorist organisation itself was not attacked until after it had struck.

The arrogance with which Al-Qaeda’s forces were viewed may have been a contributory factor in the intelligence analysis, but historical accounts show that this type of underestimation has been a feature of military decision-making in the past. Intelligence failures are not new and the frequent comparison of the events of 11 September to Pearl Harbor in 1941 has some basis in fact, even if the former is treated as a tactical and not a strategic surprise. In the case of Pearl Harbor, critical areas of information capture were neither exploited nor circulated to effectively exploit the critical information and reach the appropriate conclusions. It is clear that psychological issues are critically involved in effective exploitation of intelligence with regard to human factors at the knowledge interface and in the exploitation process.

The importance of analysis supported by effective information technology and subject-matter expertise is vitally important in the continuing war on terrorism. If organisations such as the CIA are to conduct a vigorous and robust defence against terrorism, as some advocate16, they need to address information and knowledge craft with a scientific and systematic approach that acknowledges the human operator as the critical contributor to the process.

The key processes of information gathering, knowledge creation, hypothesis creation, intent inference and forecasting are all subject to uncertainty with regard to the source, the interpretation or the inference of intent. Preliminary work suggests that specialists use a diverse range of potential sources which provide different types of information that collectively give insight. But many of the noteworthy intelligence sources - such as captive terrorists or enemy forces - present significant problems in information validation and minimising uncertainty. Some argue that trading off uncertainty amongst data, sources and hypotheses is the key process that is easily disturbed in intelligence operations.

Some of the sources of perturbation are likely to be social psychological processes common to many group decision-making processes. But affective influence, associated with very important decision-making, is likely to undermine the process more and create confusing internal cues for decision-makers.

A new approach is required

It is argued that this collective process is exacerbated by the interface and technology designs that focus on information aggregation and the derivation of certainty at an early stage in information collection. It is argued that the future threats are likely to be diverse and actively seek a low electronic and social footprint to maximise the impact of staged events, whether by nation states or non-state actors such as terrorist groups. Thus radical new approaches to information management and knowledge craft are required to avoid, trap or mitigate future terrorist events.

Dr Malcolm James Cook is Senior Lecturer at the EPI Centre, University of Abertay, Dundee

1 John Hughes-Wilson, ‘Pre-war intelligence and Iraq’s WMD threat’ (RUSI Journal, 149(1), 10-14).

2 J Miller, M Stone, and C Mitchell, The Cell: inside the 9/11 plot, and why the FBI and CIA failed to stop it (New York, Hyperion Books, 2002).

3 WJ Kuhns, ‘Intelligence failures: Forecasting and the lessons of epistemology,’ in RK Betts and TG Mahnken, Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence (London, Frank Cass, 2003).

4 M Herman, Intelligence power in peace and war (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5 J Corbin, The Base: In search of Al-Qaeda - the terror network that shook the world (London, Simon and Schuster, 2002).

6 Y Fouda and N Fielding, Masterminds of Terror (London, Mainstream Publishing, 2003).

7 CC Combs, Terrorism in the twenty-first century (Upper Saddle River, N.J., Prentice Hall, 2002).

8 LK Johnson, US intelligence in a hostile world: secret agencies (London, Yale University Press, 1996).

9 D Benjamin and S Simon, ‘A failure of intelligence?’ in RB Silvers and B Epstein, Striking Terror (New York, New York Review Books, 2002).

10 T Powers, ‘The trouble with the CIA,’ in Silvers and Epstein, op cit.

11 R Gunuratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, (London, Hurst and Company, 2002).

12 M Farren, CIA: The secrets of the "company" (London, Chrysalis Press, 2003).

13 P Lance, 1,000 years for revenge: International terrorism and the FBI (New York, Regan Books/Harper Collins, 2003).

14 AS Moussaoui, Zacarias Moussaoui: The making of a terrorist (London, Serpent’s Tail Publishing, 2002).

15 BD Berkowitz and AE Goodman Best truth: Intelligence in the information age (London, Yale University Press, 2000).

16 R Kessler, The CIA at war: Inside the secret campaign against terror (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

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