While the sheer size of the IC is staggering -- the 2013
budget for intelligence activities tops $75
billion -- its mission is also of serious concern. Large areas of the IC
have move away from their traditional role of analyzing a broad range of
current events for policymakers and toward supporting the global
counterterrorism mission. News stories about this shift suggest
the counterterrorism mission has become the overarching concern of the national
This shift in focus can create blind spots that pose unique
challenges for the president. If branch chiefs and the policymakers they
support value "exploitable" information over deep understanding, they might be
ignoring potentially vital information that doesn't seem immediately of
Imagine an analyst finding reports of a growing discontent
in a Middle Eastern country's politics; if that does not provide immediate
benefit for a decision-making process for targeting suspected terrorists, it
can easily be ignored in the avalanche of targeting information.
Before his sudden resignation this past week, CIA Director
David Petraeus was widely rumored to be spending much of his time micromanaging
the CIA's expanded paramilitary operations -- poring over drone target lists
and pushing for more kinetic action. Right before his sudden departure from the
agency, Petraeus had requested a dramatic
expansion of its armed drone fleet. It's safe to assume this wasn't to get
better analysis out of Langley.
One reason for the IC's shift is that counterterrorism
intelligence is relatively easy to collect: much of it can be acquired
remotely, through forensic financial investigation and sophisticated
surveillance. Moreover, the analysis of this data also lends itself to
technologically advanced analysis -- the so-called "gonkulators" that ingest
enormous amounts of data and automatically
generate conclusions and targets of interest.
The rapid adoption of complicated technological systems
happened at the same time as the shift toward the expanded counterterrorism
mission. Lost in the shuffle was an equal focus on
human intelligence (HUMINT) and local expertise. Though vital to some missions,
like the covert
drone war in Pakistan, even HUMINT has been limited by the focus on
immediately exploitable information while deeper understanding of countries and
conflict zones has atrophied.
But expertise is more than just collecting interviews with
local people (a central tenet of HUMINT). As the scholar Manan Ahmed, a historian
of Pakistan at Freie Universitat Berlin noted,
"There are [...] satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover
for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet
who can decipher this data?"
Developing the specific knowledge to understand why and how
certain pieces of information matter -- not just to a narrow counterterrorism
mission but the full range of U.S. security -- is difficult and time consuming.
Few in the intelligence community have it, and sometimes policymakers have
mistakenly relied on outsiders to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with embarrassing results.