Afghanistan: Spies like us? Or, can military intel folks really act like journalists?

A report on how the U.S. military needs to revamp its intel gathering operations in Afghanistan is causing quite a stir. Authored by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” contains fairly gutsy admissions–like the U.S. is pretty much “clueless” (a direct quote)when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in the communities they’re operating in. Good at killing bad guys and mapping insurgent networks, the report says, bad at understanding the local political, economic, and cultural dynamics.

One of the other more startling quotes in the report comes from General Stanley McChrystal. According to the report, McChrystal said at a recent meeting:

“Our senior leaders – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States – are not getting the right information to make decisions with … The media is driving the issues. We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political
decision makers.”

The report goes on to say:

“It is little wonder, then, that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain “ground truth.””

So what does it recommend? (At least in part.)

“Select teams of analysts will be empowered to move between field elements, much like journalists, to visit collectors of information at the grassroots level and carry that information back with them to the regional command level.”

A few things to unpack.

1) In my experience, it seems that one of the main goals of the U.S. military and others in our foreign policy officialdom over the past 5 years has been to prove the media wrong. That is, they are often very dismissive of media reports, claiming they are exaggerated, false, biased, too negative. (And there are some truths to these claims at times, of course.)

2) So U.S. officialdom doesn’t like to believe media reports, and often actively discredits them. But, if what the report says is true, and the media has been the primary source of information for “ground truth,” then isn’t it somewhat ironic that they are relying information they claim not to believe?

3) On the whole, and with notable exceptions, I would agree that American officials in Afghanistan and Iraq often seem “clueless,” especially the higher one climbs up the chain away from the dudes in the field, who can’t afford to be  clueless, at least not to the same extent. I always wonder if it’s because top officials really don’t know what’s going on, or if they actually know what’s going on but publicly pretend to spin it, or if they’ve just convinced themselves of their version of events (that, again, in my experience is often regularly contradicted by reality’s liberal bias.)

Okay. So can this intel problem be fixed by sending out U.S. government employed analysts in the field as if they were journalists?

A) The report doesn’t address, or doesn’t seem to recognize, the fundamentally different “missions” of being a journalist versus being a representative of the USG.

B) When a journalist goes to Village X, and convinces people to speak to him/her, the tacit bargain between interviewer and interviewee is something like this: I want to hear your story. I want to understand your suffering, your pain, your situation. I want to bring attention to it. I am a (somewhat!) honest broker, looking for the truth, and that truth, though perhaps not directly beneficial to you, might help you in an undefined and vague way, so you should talk to me.  Maybe the publicity can help you pursue your own goals, whatever those might be. Plus, you get to see your name in the paper or your face on TV. And I agree George W. Bush is a prick who ruined the world.

C) The tacit bargain of an intelligence analyst interviewing a resident in Village X would be somewhat different. Something like: “I’m a representative of the USG, and we’d like to hear about your situation so the information can be used to pursue American foreign policy goals in your country. Our main tool to pursue those goals is the direct application of violence, though we give out tons of money, too. Lucky for you, our intentions are benevolent, and by helping us establish the kind of government we want in your country, you’re actually helping yourselves. We don’t like the Taliban, and you shouldn’t either. Btw, not to harp on this, but if you and your village doesn’t get on board, we have 150,000 foreign troops here, a portion of which eventually might be used to convince you otherwise.  Yes, I guess it would be fair to call me a spy, though I prefer the term civilian analyst, and sure, I realize that the CIA doesn’t have the best reputation around these parts, and you don’t want to be viewed as a collaborator but…Did I mention we have a bunch of money?

D)There is an obvious “security” problem here that USG analysts face that journalists don’t. Journos can travel lightly, without armed guards. How will these new teams of analysts travel? In MRAPS? In convoys guarded by Triple Canopy or Blackwater? The dangers of USG analysts traveling is one of the prime reasons for the cluelessness to begin with-it’s not safe enough for them to go outside of isolated compounds. The presence of armed men is not always conducive to getting valuable and forthright information.

E) Journalism has a very streamlined and efficient structure(more streamlined each passing day of layoffs, actually)compared to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the intel community. Journalist goes out, doesn’t need to get permission from anyone to do so, gets his story, sends the story to a couple of dudes back in New York or DC or London on a Gmail account, and bam, there you go. There is usually only one or two layers between information gathered and information disseminated.  The report recommends making the military intel gathering process more efficient, but the military bureaucracy loves its bureaucracy.

F) The incentive for the journalist is to usually highlight the most provocative, disconcerting, negative, and inflammatory bits of information he has gathered. The journalist has incentives to criticize, rain on the parade, piss all over the conventional narrative.

G)Those incentives don’t exist in the military.The culture is very much to not rock the boat, to stay positive, to tell people what they want to hear.

H) From conversations with American military and diplomatic officials over the years, sending information up the chain of command that does not fit into “good news,” that has the potential to make someone somewhere along the way up look bad, isn’t always appreciated. The incentives, in fact, are to smooth the rough edges of reality to fit with the preconceived notions of the clowns back in DC. Now, this report addresses intel gathering on things like the basic facts of area–who are the political leaders, what the economic indicators are etc–but even these kinds of issues might be seen as something better off left unexamined. Or, even more likely, the really good information will be highly classified, so nobody knows about it. (Like the fact that Leader of Village X is an opium smuggling and arms dealing pedophile who used to work with the Taliban and has ties to Al Qaeda, but had some kind of falling out, and now he’s on our side!)

I) Last point. What’s kind of crazy is that we’re 9 years into the war in Afghanistan, have spent hundreds of billions of dollars there, and our some of our top ranking military officials admit we are still “clueless” about the basics. My God! How much money have we spent on intel gahering operations there, I wonder? A few billion, at least, if not tens of billions. How much has the entire Western media spent on covering the war in Afghanistan? Tens of millions of dollars? Certainly, a tiny fraction of what the military spends.

J) My suggestion? Have the USG give a few hundred billion to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times–they could use the money, and they’d be better able to tell you what’s up!


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to Afghanistan: Spies like us? Or, can military intel folks really act like journalists?

  1. Facebook User says:

    To your point C.): the report did not suggest that analysts actively interview locals in the field. What was suggest was analysts should travel away from their major operating bases and collect intel directly form the American soldiers on the ground.

    As far as security of these analysts the report suggested the use of an already implemented network of helicopter routes currently in use.

    To your point H.): Please re-read the difference being suggested between white and red intel, and horizontal versus vertical analysis. I do not believe the authors are talking about the need to send good versus bad information up the chain of command, but rather more white information is needed on a district by district basis.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Thanks for the comment. The report seems pretty clear re: analysts have to act more like journalists. Says that a couple times. And that’s how journalists act–they can move quickly into and out of the field. What other meaning is there? Please explain if I missed something.

      As for H, appreciate the clarification. I’m making a more general comment on how I’ve seen information get passed up the chain of command. Also, the report is titled Fixing Intel, which seems to suggest it’s talking about a pretty broad range of intelligence issues.

      As for using widely used helicopter routes, that doesn’t solve the problem I’m talking about. So they’re just going to drop an analyst down in a Blackhawk with no security? And I think coming in a Blackhawk versus and MRAP still leaves you with the same issue–that is, not entirely friendly.

      • Facebook User says:

        The report does in fact say a few times that analysts need to act more like journalists. However, between your points B.) and C.) it seems to me you are comparing a journalist interviewing an Afghan local and an analyst. The way I read the report it is not being suggested that analysts talk directly to locals. What is being suggested is that analysts interact with personnel already deployed in the field to gather intel directly from them. From the report, Page 17:

        “To begin, commanders must authorize a select group of analysts to retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work. These analysts must leave their chairs and visit the people who operate at the grassroots level – civil affairs officers, PRTs, atmospherics teams, Afghan liaison officers, female engagement teams, will- ing NGOs and development organizations, United Nations officials, psychological operations teams, human terrain teams, and staff officers with infan- try battalions – to name a few.”

        “There are, of course, limits on how far analysts can or should go in pursuit of information. Concern for physical safety is one. Rules that govern the difference between collection and analysis repre- sent another. The plan we are advocating respects these boundaries. The idea is not to send civilians on combat patrols, but to deploy them in ways that allow them to function as analysts. Nor would they be “collectors” – a technical term denoting those authorized to elicit information from sensitive or covert sources. Rather, they would be information integrators, vacuuming up data already collectedby military personnel or gathered by civilians in the public realm and bringing it back to a centralized location.”

        To your point H.). This may still be a problem, and you are correct the report did not address this issue. It seems to me (and I am in no way an expert) the points the authors make on white and horizontal information are relevant, but I can still see how internal politics would hamper any bureaucratic effort.

        As for security, we are at war, there are risks. I do not know enough about the subject to comment on what extent an intelligence officer has to take risks further than what I have already said. I’ll concede that one!

      • Michael Hastings says:

        Bill, thanks again. That’s a passage that didn’t stand out to me when I read it, but I see your point. I would just say that it still kind of misses the point of what journos do–yes, it’s interviewing a wide range of experts on the subject, and being able to do so freely, but it’s also the ability to actually go see things for ourselves, and interview primary sources directly. That’s where a journalist’s credibility comes from, I think(and clearly, when folks try to attack the credibility of correspondents, the easiest thing to say is: “oh they don’t leave their hotels.”)

        Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts. Perhaps I should have given the authors more credit–and actually, I think the authors do deserve a lot of credit for writing this report, as it’s discussion that appears long overdue.

  2. Bill Ward says:

    FYI: Opinion in today’s WSJ that also talked about this report.

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