The Secret Pentagon Spy Ring

Michael Furlong, the long-time Defense Department official who set up and ran network of private intelligence collectors for the military, is being hung out to dry by the very forces that precipitated the network's formation in the first place.

Here's the skinny: form follows function in the military, and the U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, has been aggressively moving into territory traditionally occupied by other military elements and the Central Intelligence Agency. They're doing it under the cover of something called IO -- Information Operations -- which they've adapted as one of their core missions. (The others: cybersecurity, which overlaps with IO, nuclear weapons, and space defense.)

Around 2004 or 2005, STRATCOM set up what it calls the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center in San Antonio, Texas. IO ops are run from here. Most everyone involved in this controversy, from Furlong to his superiors to the contractor intelligence gatherers, went through the JIOWC at some point in their careers.

The CIA doesn't think STRATCOM should play in this lane. But neither does Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, or the State Department, or the National Security Staff. Information Operations involves five fields: deception, psychological operations, computer network operations, electronic warfare and operations security. When you hear these terms, you think military, war, penetration of secret bunkers and the like. The State Department and the others want to make sure that Information Operations don't conflict with what they call Strategic Communications -- getting the message out that the US isn't fighting against Islam, that the Afghan military is a credible institution. State sees IO from the perspective of an ad agency: what does the customer need? STRATCOM sees IO from the perspective of a military targeter: what's the target, and how to we use all resources to manipulate it.

The problem is that the main thrust of the current administration's strategy for combating terrorism involves strategic communication, State Department-style. There is room for both approaches, of course, but there isn't room for an entity like STRATCOM to make unilateral decisions about how to influence the adversary.

Inside the Defense Department, there are a lot of people who work in Information Operations and few of them who actually are well trained in the art of deceptive communications. And other parts of the military already "own" parts of the portfolio. The Special Operations Command is in charge of psychological and unconventional warfare. It's not surprising the STRATCOM wants all the territory it can get. Electronic Warfare is particularly lucrative, because all the technology feeds hundreds of millions of dollars to major defense companies like Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

This leads to a final point--who in the government actually owns information operations and strategic communications? Good question. A 1991 law tried to split the baby by saying that attribution is the main issue--if some activity is stealth and covert, then it belongs to the CIA as "covert action"; if it's an obvious attempt to influence opinion, then it belongs to the DoD.

What has all this to do with Furlong, et al? Well, the lack of a unified IO field theory has left serious gaps. Into those gaps go the contractors--mostly retired military, intelligence or government people--who provide the needed services.

As it shifted to a counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq, the Pentagon stood up so-called "Human Terrain Teams" under the aegis of the doctrine and training command, composed of social scientists and anthropologists who are supposed to help combat units understand the culture of the non-combatants they inevitably come across. This sounds more innocuous than it is. The social science itself is questionable. And the question of what the HTTs are supposed to do -- help the military kill people more efficiently -- has set up a nasty debate inside academia and the Pentagon. Should the civilians use their skills to help military intelligence folks construct databases of relationships between tribal leaders? If if they shouldn't, is that what they're doing? Are military contractors using the HTTs to create more opportunities to profit? (Absolutely). Being on an HTT is also dangerous. Civilian scientists are getting killed. The HTTs are being looked at.

In the case, Furlong provided a service and was left by senior executive service types to hold the bag while they ran for it when they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

That's the main reason why Furlong's operation is still running. It's providing a useful service for the military, though it might be illegal, and there's nothing, really, that's ready to replace it.