Mark Collins – The Limits of Intelligence, or, POTUS and ISIS (and June 22, 1941)

Unless one has incontrovertible intercepts, overwhelmingly accurate and timely imagery, indisputable HUMINT (rare indeed), great open sources, or some very nice combination of the preceding each not definitive on its own, then any predictions are in the end no more likely to be bang on than those of economists (not that I generally like Paul Krugman) or–gasp!–political scientists (twitter bun-fight here).  In the words of Joshua Foust one must realize there is only…

The False Promise of a Crystal Ball

If there’s one theme that could define President Obama’s foreign policy the last six years, it is his tumultuous relationship with the US intelligence community. The IC is Obama’s favorite target when Things Go Wrong: usually because they did not use their crystal ball to correctly predict the future. It is that misperception — that the IC can predict future events — that is at the heart of Obama’s unfair criticism [more here], and its widespread belief is why he can use it so effectively to avoid taking responsibility for his own decisions.

…the idea that the intel community can predict the rise of a single bad actor from a complex ecosystem of bad actors is a pernicious myth. Often, it is a myth perpetuated by those running the agencies.

“As we look at retrospectively on … what we now call the Arab Awakening,” the [DIA] deputy director said, ”what indications should we have picked up that perhaps we didn’t focus on?”

I worked at the DIA [website here] right before the Arab Spring, focused on Yemeni politics. And I can tell you: we knew there was discontent bubbling up. We knew that it would affect our mission against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But we didn’t know how badly it would affect that mission. Our bosses didn’t care, they just wanted intrigue, order of battle information, and stuff on al Qaeda. Despite being a political analyst, I was never able to get them to care about the politics of Yemen, at least not in a critical way. It simply wasn’t their mission, and because data is never perfect I couldn’t say “in three months you will see this protest movement join a regional explosion of anti-authoritarian protests and eventually topple the regime.”

Frankly, no one could possibly predict such a thing with any accuracy, it is dependent on too many variables [recent Yemeni developments here]…

Even in Tunisia, and in Egypt, people who lived there and lived out the protests daily did not know where they were going — nor could they have predicted them beforehand. Intelligence is not a crystal ball, and never will be…

Obama has never developed a good understanding of what intelligence does, what it is, and how it can be used most appropriately. His Presidential Daily Brief is filled with maps highlighting the summaries of intelligence findings. It is a benchmark product. Those maps have to come from somewhere, right? Yet when Obama was visiting a Five Guys in 2009 — a local burger joint — he did not know what agency produced all of those maps for him every day.

“So explain to me exactly what this National Geospatial…” Obama said, after the worker mentioned his employer, according to a video of the event.

“We work with, uh, satellite imagery,” the worker, Walter replied.

If there’s one complaint you hear more than any other in the working level of the intelligence community, it is that Obama is completely checked out. When analysts get to go brief their specialty in the Oval Office — a huge honor, one that many cherish as the result of hard work — too many complain that they’re barely even acknowledged. There’s no engagement on the topic. Nothing. Five months into his job, after seeing branded products produced by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency [website here], Obama did not know what they were or what they did. He never asked what “NGA” means on the corner of the image. He never asked where the color-coded maps of Afghanistan or Iraq came from. He had zero curiosity about it…

There is also this aspect:


White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday [Sept. 29] it was also difficult to assess ahead of time how well Iraqi security forces would be able to defend their own country because of the sectarian divisions in Iraq’s government…

Yep.  See these efforts to assess foreign forces from the summer of 1941:


And this confidence that the Germans could win the war against the Soviet Union was shared by analysts in other countries. ‘The American intelligence forces thought that this [war] would [last] between three and six weeks,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw. ‘They reckoned that the Red Army was in no position to withstand the Wehrmacht. And British intelligence also thought this was a foregone conclusion and the Germans would win in the Soviet Union. So nobody really at that time, inside or outside Germany, thought that the Soviet Union would withstand this assault from so powerful a force.’..

Then there’s “strategic intelligence“, note Sherman Kent at comment 2.  Knowing a bit of history may help more than a tad when assessing but is hardly any guarantee of accurate forecasting either.  But still most blinking useful.  More on history and on intercepts:

SIGINT and Another Reason Why the Atomic Bomb Was Needed Against Japan

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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