January 06, 2010

On the underpants bomber

Alarmingly for South Park fans, apparently the enemy's plan really was: Phase 1: Collect Underpants --> Phase 2: ? --> Phase 3: Profit... Of course, as usual we're all wildly overreacting.

Also as per usual, Dick Destiny has some useful stuff. I like the honey bit.

The Globe reported today the explosive in the underwear amounted to 80 grams of material. Clearly it was not created correctly or degraded in transit somehow and so would never have high-order exploded. But at that size it almost certainly couldn't have brought down the plane even if it had detonated correctly: as discussed previously, planes have survived internal explosions in the 450 gram HE range before. I also have yet to see any evidence yet that full-body scanning would have been any more successful at detecting this kind of attack than any other method would be: you'd think that'd be a claim their manufacturers would be at least trying to make. If they'd said there should be more sniffer dogs at Pearson, it would at least make some sense, but this is really just safety industry-fuelled hysteria at this point.

Airport security really is like the guy waving his arms to ward off elephants. Haven't seen any elephants, have you? Airport security guards have never caught anyone, that I'm aware of. Ever. Therefore they need more money.

And so collectively we take more infringements of our civil liberties and happinesses, out of fear of losing our liberties and happinesses. Hmm... I guess the terrorists won, then. Pity.

Also... why exactly are we going to be body-searching Cubans, again?

Posted by BruceR at 11:39 PM

On the CIA tragedy

While on the topic of intelligence failures, I think Pat Lang's saying everything worth saying on the killing of 7 CIA agents last month (second of his two posts here).

Posted by BruceR at 11:09 PM

On intelligence and PowerPoint

Yglesias focusses on what to me is the fairly minor observation in General Flynn's Great Big Intelligence Smackdown (see next post) that the tool of the intelligence trade should be Microsoft Word, not Microsoft PowerPoint. Here's the short version of my perspective on that: Amen.

Here's the long version of my perspective on that:

Intelligence officers like to talk. They have to. Intelligence staff at all levels need to be able to brief and write clearly, but when newcomers in the Canadian military ask me should they go officer or senior NCO, my advice to them on my own experience has been that if you like the heads-down, analyst work, you'll likely get more of that in the ranks. If you're a showman or a manipulator, and like influencing people, you'll get more of that as an officer. Again, that is just a general tendency, and it's based on the way most intelligence cells are structured, with the senior guy getting the most facetime with his own commander and counterparts from the other branches. But it's an asset for a corporal to be a good briefer. For an officer it's a necessity.

Because we are all part showmen, any intelligence officer I know is prepared on the drop of a hat to talk to fill the available space. You may get 5 minutes in the back of a helicopter with your boss, or you may get 50. He may ask you 1 question or 10. Doesn't matter. You roll with it.

It is commanders and their hatchet men (and I mean that in a nice way), the operations officers and adjutants, who control your time. Any important revelation you have needs to be served up on your part with a cold assessment of the commander's receptivity in those circumstances to that info. Your objective is always to influence their decisions, and every commander needs to be reached a different way. Lots of accurate assessments have been poorly delivered, and hence ignored. That is not all the commander's fault. Your second-in-command and your staff analysts don't need to worry about that stuff quite so much. They just have to convince YOU, someone who hopefully is trained to manage them and appreciate when they're being brilliant or not.

The upshot is no intelligence officer, possibly ever in history, has ever been told by their boss he (or she) didn't talk long enough or didn't write long enough. If he was good he shut the tap off at the point of maximum effect. If he was bad he prattled on until the commander or someone else told him to stop.

Watch that great scene in "A Bridge Too Far" again, where the intelligence officer tries to convince Maj. Gen. Browning he has aerial photos of tanks. He's absolutely right, but completely ineffective in getting the point across. Again, that is not all the fault of the Browning character, either. It was an ineffective brief, but not because it didn't conform to the axioms of PowerPoint purists. Putting yourself in diametric opposition to the person you're trying to convince of something is difficult to pull off in any setting. On the reverse side, you have Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur's G2-for-life, who may well have been the worst intelligence officer ever, because he never disagreed with MacArthur, ever. It's tricky.

So what does this have to do with PowerPoint? Well, PowerPoint is forced upon on the intelligence trade, frankly. Commanders are busy people. Maybe the Ops O will tell you your briefing last night was too long, and you need to bring it down to 2 slides and 5 minutes the next time. How exactly do you respond to that the next day when you or your staff just deduced something brilliant and complex and all that matters is your timely influence on the command staff before something stupid happens? Cram everything into the one slide to the point where it's unreadable? Leave important stuff out because PowerPoint best practice says four bullets only? Slip intelligence summaries under their pillows at night? Ambush them in alleyways? Hey, your call when the day comes. But it's days like that that made it the most unusual and challenging staff job in the army to me.

I was lucky in my command staff on my Afghan tour, luckier than some. But in my limited experience the best way was to push the detailed written assessments in advance, and also do up the slide with their conclusions bullet pointed for that night's brief, if only to encourage them to push through the long-form in their inbox. As a general rule, slides without the background documentation were less useful, in my experience, and documentation without slides ignored. But every audience and situation varies, and there's no one to tell you when you're doing it right; the only way you know is when they listen to you just a little bit longer the next time you're in front of them.

The intelligence staffs in Afghanistan will happily produce longer and more complex written products if they get even the vaguest encouragement that commanders and operators will read them if they do. Of that I have no doubt: influence is all to us. It's what we love doing. So if Gen. Flynn's report encourages ISAF senior officers to give their intelligence briefers one more minute, or one more slide, or one more page on their intelligence summaries, it'll be a good thing, absolutely. But just don't think it's the int guys who are ever holding them back in that sense.

Note: that does not mean there are not going to be intelligence reports circulating that prattle on for pages saying nothing new or useful. I know that all too well. Intelligence teams form a crucial gatekeeper function in a military organization, to stop that bumf at their desk as much as possible. There's nothing that can more undermine your influence with your staff colleagues than uncritically passing on another team's document they thought was clearly useless, or wasting your allotted five minutes on the immediately obvious. That of course means you have to read a lot of crap first to tease out the good, new, relevant stuff.

But the war on bumf has more to do with Flynn's other points about promoting competence, organizational redundancy, and getting commanders asking better questions. In my experience, every trained intelligence shop produces a roughly per-man equivalent amount of reading material, useful and unuseful combined, as any other team in the same role (within a factor of 2 or 4, anyway). As I said, we're all keen as individuals to churn it out. But when you have redundancies within your organization, or the commander hasn't properly focussed his own int team on what he really cares about at his level, (Flynn talks about regional-level G2 shops just repackaging and sending back lower-level intelligence summaries to the originators) that will lead to the encroachment of uselessness because of all the stuff that is being generated by the redundant cells. That's an argument for either thinning out, or kicking the redundant staffers out in the field, not limiting ourselves as a trade to one slide at the update brief, as Flynn rightly recognizes. As he says, in a COIN environment, either higher HQs need to refocus some of their int efforts, particularly on the underresourced "white," non-SOF aspects, and/or their personnel need to be pushed down to augment those thinly-staffed lower battalion-level cells that desperately need the manpower. Either would have worked for me back in the day.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I don't want to sound like some kind of int paragon here. I'm hardly a persuasive presence by nature. And I'll always be haunted by the suspicion that had I been a little bit more forceful or if I'd read one more document, or had one more useful insight, things in our little war might have been different. Mistakes, I've made a few.

But one thing I do know from making those mistakes is that it's not enough in intelligence to be right. It's not even enough to know you're right. You have to be able to convince a select group of other people that you're right. And that area, lying hidden under the big arrow on those "intelligence cycle" diagrams with the vaguely obscene-sounding words "dissemination phase," that's where the craft, the skill of our trade, gives way to the art. No one could tell me how to do it. I don't know if I could explain how to do it now. But it's kind of like when Armstrong gave the definition of jazz. If I hadta ask I was never gonna know anyway.

Posted by BruceR at 06:11 PM

Canadian intelligence lauded

A lot of people have posted on the big report on intelligence in Afghanistan, so I'll try to limit myself to the non-obvious.

Note the report focusses primarily on the ineffectiveness on the unclassified, or open-source intelligence side, at the regional and to some extent the brigade level as well, with intelligence shops at those levels reportedly overfocussed on special-ops kinetics and providing little of value in the way of information to their lower main force unit headquarters. This has been a common observation of the regional-level support structure by lower-level officers long before now. The observations that because of security restrictions, the existing intelligence offices and their products particularly at those higher levels are inaccessible to a lot of people they should be shared with, that more proactivity and getting out on the ground by all intelligence staff everywhere is required, and the observations that a lot of information is being lost in inaccessible archives, are also common self-criticisms of the intelligence branch.

The criticisms aimed at the level I and a great number of Canadian intelligence staff have operated at (that being battalion and below) were also pretty unremarkable: commanders need to ask smarter questions, and have the patience for longer answers. Check. Incompetents should not be left in key positions. Check. Ideally junior intelligence staff should still report to a battalion S2 officer, but be detached to company-level out in the field for extended periods to provide direct support to the troops. Check. I don't know many Canadian intelligence officers who would disagree with any of that either, and I saw the last recommendation in particular deployed with effect by the Canadian battlegroup S2 shop I toured alongside.

The trouble I see is, the two shining examples of intelligence brilliance detailed in the report's main text are both at the battalion level, while the main body of the critique in terms of structural change requirements, etc. is aimed at intelligence cells working at the regional and also brigade levels, with little in the way of useful examples of success for intelligence teams at those headquarters to emulate. In this context, I just wanted to point out footnote #10, reproduced below, which is the closest the most senior U.S. intelligence officer in Afghanistan comes in his report to praising a higher-level intelligence product about his own AO:

(10) The closest thing to a substantive district-level assessment that we were able to find was produced not by the intelligence community, but by a research team commissioned by the Canadian government to explain the general situation in Kandahar City. This 75-page unclassified product, widely read in Regional Command-South, offers a rough model for the sort of district assessments Information Centers would write. See District Assessment: Kandahar-city, Kandahar Province (Commissioned by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: November 2009).

Kudos to all involved in that one (even as I doubt it was entirely DFAIT). I guess we Canadians aren't completely hopeless after all.

UPDATE: A couple other quotes I liked:

"[Intelligence] is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders."

To me that was always the only game in town. But obliviousness to intelligence is a two-way street sometimes, too.

It is hard to imagine a battalion or regimental commander tolerating an operations officer, communications officer, logistics officer, or adjutant who fails to perform his or her job. But, except in rare cases, ineffective intel officers are allowed to stick around.

Yeah, that was my experience with the army on operations: all ineffective personnel, every last one I ran into, just happened to be from the intelligence branch! Everyone else, by contrast, was a frigging superhero! Riiight...

For instance, a foreign-funded well constructed in the center of a village in southern Afghanistan was destroyed – not by the Taliban – but by the village’s women.

I heard that story (supposedly from Kandahar Province) during my tour too. Except in that telling the women didn't destroy it... they just didn't use the new well. Given where I've seen it pop up before, I suspect it's the Afghan equivalent of an Urban Legend, frankly, "Too Good to Check" as the journalists, say, with whatever element of truth was there now completely lost... I was surprised to see it footnoted in this report as an example of intelligence brilliance. If all the new Information Centres did was preserve and pass around unverifiable fables, they wouldn't be much use.

Posted by BruceR at 10:35 AM