The Smaller The Team The Better Its Performance


Part 1: America’s Human Intelligence Capabilities And The Need For Reform

This is the first in a three-part series on the state of American human intelligence capabilities and the necessity for reform.

On May 2, 2011 U.S. Navy Seals struck the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was living.  Bin Laden was killed and his body carried away. The action highlighted the professionalism and courage of American special operations forces.

It also highlighted the weaknesses in American intelligence collection. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda (AQ) terrorist organization struck the United States on September 11, 2001. It took fully a decade for the United States intelligence community, with unprecedented numbers of personnel and resources, to pinpoint Bin Laden’s location. The reason was crystal clear. Bin Laden was fully conscious of American technological capabilities and went “old school.” He communicated via couriers. He did not talk on the phone.  He did not access the Internet. He did not send emails.

American intelligence was reduced to a reliance on human sources, and we had none capable of finding the target for a very long time.

It is almost 20 years since 9/11, but we have not significantly improved our human intelligence collection capabilities. We have built massive new bureaucracies. We have spent untold quantities of money. We have made many contractors in the Washington DC area ungodly rich. Our human intelligence collection capabilities remain woefully inadequate.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the head of ISIS. His physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been destroyed. He is hunted daily. Yet, the fact remains that despite the dedication of massive resources he remains at large today, and his organization continues to function. We clearly do not have the human sources to identify his location and allow us to kill or capture him. 

In 1944 on the Greek island of Crete two British Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Stanley Moss kidnapped the commanding general of all German forces on the island, Heinrich Kriepe. They then evaded pursuit by the Germans, smuggled the general to the southern coast of the island, placed him on a boat and sent him to Egypt where he was held as a prisoner of war until the end of the conflict.

At the time of the operation British personnel on the island and directly involved in the kidnapping operation consisted of Fermor, Moss and a handful of radio operators. Everyone else involved in the operation was a Greek working in a network set up by the British. There was no task force. There were not hundreds of people working in some command center. There were a handful of men who were typically operating from hideouts in caves in the mountains.

What the British had going for them were two things. First the individuals on the ground in Crete conducting the operation were superbly qualified. They were not just physically fit and highly trained. They, particularly Fermor, had exceptional language skills and area knowledge. They were creative. They were adaptable. They were decisive.

They were also operating within a system that allowed them to exercise their creativity and to move quickly. They were not micromanaged. There were no satellites positioned overhead. They were not relaying their communications to an ops center 10,000 miles away where every decision could be second-guessed by a host of three-star generals and bureaucrats.

Fermor and Moss formulated a plan, put it into action and did what needed to be done. The results were brilliant.

Walk the halls of the defense and intelligence bureaucracies in Washington today, and sometimes it seems that every other person describes him or herself as an “intelligence officer.”  Scratch the surface, and you will find that virtually none of them are actual operations officers, trained to recruit and run sources and conduct covert action. Dig a little deeper and you will discover that of those who are operations officers only a relative handful have every actually plied their trade, gone down range and recruited agents. For the rest attending a training class was a matter of “punching a ticket” and getting promoted.

Push a little harder. Find out how many of those who have recruited sources have ever actually recruited a terrorist source. Inquire as to how many have ever actually managed to burrow into a radical Islamic group, convince a jihadist to change sides and obtained the kind of intelligence it takes to pinpoint a Bin Laden or Baghdadi.

The answer will be devastating and unequivocal – virtually no one. Perhaps even more devastatingly, none of them will have any idea how it is done.

Lawrence of Arabia, who knew a little about the world of spies, intelligence and covert action, said “The smaller the unit the better its performance.” What he understood, from learning the hard way in action, was that the world of espionage – of human sources and unconventional warfare – requires small numbers of very unique individuals empowered to take bold, decisive action without review by staffs and legions of bureaucrats living behind desks at headquarters.

Lawrence understood that not everyone is cut out for a world of “shades of gray” and tremendous ambiguity. You can’t just train anyone to be a “spy.” You have to start with the right material in the first place. You need very unique individuals, and you need to empower them to use their unique skills.

Lawrence understood that windows of opportunity open, and that windows of opportunity also close. He knew that sometimes the interval between the two was fleetingly brief. You either moved and achieved great things or you squandered the opportunity and achieved nothing.

Large bureaucracies and ponderous military machines are not simply ill suited for penetrating terrorist groups and hunting elusive targets; they are incapable of it. We do not need thousands upon thousands of individuals who have all attended a training class and are now trapped in the labyrinth of a seemingly endless bureaucracy.

We need a handful of the right individuals, and we need to let them do their jobs.

The second installment in this series will explore the future of the threats we face and the growing necessity for reform in our human intelligence collection capabilities.