For PBS: A Chaotic Intelligence Community

The Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed over the week­end that the Pen­ta­gon is send­ing hun­dreds of spies over­seas as part of its rapid expan­sion into espi­onage- an endeav­or rival­ing the CIA. The Defense Intel­li­gence Agency (DIA) will over­see this effort, expect­ed to top the deploy­ment of 1,600 agents world­wide. And it is the wrong approach.

The Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ty (IC) is made up of a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, the Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion and the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency. The IC has under­gone numer­ous changes over the last decade fight­ing ter­ror­ism. Two par­tic­u­lar changes are cru­cial to the Pentagon’s new spy pro­gram: the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the IC gen­er­al­ly, where agen­cies become obsessed with direct­ly attack­ing ter­ror­ists and the extreme mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the CIA, specif­i­cal­ly (also a mem­ber of the IC).

The remark­able thing about the DIA’s spy­ing pro­gram is that the mil­i­tary is deploy­ing non-vio­lent “col­lec­tors,” who gath­er infor­ma­tion and report back to ana­lysts sta­tioned in the U.S. Con­verse­ly, the civil­ian CIA’s over­seas activ­i­ty is increas­ing­ly dom­i­nat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by drone strokes and by addi­tion­al para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.

This arrange­ment may seem back­ward but in fact, it’s real­ly not; since its incep­tion dur­ing World War II, the CIA has engaged in para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. As the size of the CIA has increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the last decade, it has also dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased its use of kinet­ic oper­a­tions. This shift has been mir­rored by oth­er mem­ber agen­cies of the IC, as they have shift­ed to gen­er­at­ing intel­li­gence for kill-mis­sions. As it turns out, it is an increas­ing­ly dys­func­tion­al, chaot­ic sys­tem.

The DIA spy pro­gram is a symp­tom of the IC’s decade of dys­func­tion; there is sim­ply not enough gran­u­lar, local-lev­el intel­li­gence being gen­er­at­ed, either for the kill mis­sions or even more gen­er­al­ly for the broad knowl­edge required for appro­pri­ate analy­sis and advice to pol­i­cy­mak­ers. Ergo, the DIA is cre­at­ing its own ser­vice to fill in the gap.

Dra­mat­i­cal­ly increas­ing col­lec­tors is the brain­child of DIA Direc­tor Lt. Gen. Mike Fly­nn, who explained this short­fall in a paper he wrote near­ly three years ago for the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty. He argued that the ana­lysts he had access to, as the senior intel­li­gence offi­cer in the Afghanistan war, were too bureau­cra­tized and focused on attack­ing insur­gents. In turn, he found they were not focused enough on gen­er­al intel­li­gence gath­er­ing and analy­sis which he believes would improve their abil­i­ty to plan oper­a­tions.

Flynn’s paper was obstruct­ed by two very big prob­lems. First, after cor­rect­ly diag­nos­ing the prob­lems of bureau­cra­cy and ene­my-cen­tric oper­a­tions, he pro­posed putting more ana­lysts into the field- only to add anoth­er lay­er of bureau­cra­cy. Sec­ond, he pro­mot­ed one mil­i­tary intel­li­gence ser­vice, the DIA, mak­ing him seem­ing­ly unaware of oth­er mil­i­tary intel­li­gence groups oper­at­ing in Afghanistan. Fly­nn did not acknowl­edge the CIA civil­ian col­lec­tors and ana­lysts – all of whom were already per­form­ing the work he believed should have been inte­grat­ed into Army plan­ning.

Now at the DIA, Fly­nn is putting into place his expand­ed col­lec­tion pol­i­cy. By cen­ter­ing the effort on the DIA, an orga­ni­za­tion chocked by immov­able bureau­cra­cy, Fly­nn is play­ing into a crit­i­cal weak­ness he iden­ti­fied in his paper. And worse still, an ear­li­er mis­take is now being repli­cat­ed. Rather than coor­di­nate with and sup­port oth­er agen­cies that already do this sort of work, Fly­nn is now cre­at­ing a new, par­al­lel pro­gram.

The 9/11 Com­mis­sion famous­ly iden­ti­fied the prob­lem of “stovepip­ing” in the IC as a major cause of the dis­joint­ed infor­ma­tion not pieced togeth­er in time to pre­vent the attacks. Before 9/11, the func­tions of the dis­parate ele­ments of the IC were par­tic­u­lar­ly iso­lat­ed from one anoth­er and like­wise dupli­cat­ed; pol­i­cy­mak­ers were not able to wade through the morass to gen­er­ate reli­able and action­able infor­ma­tion.

The Office of the Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence (ODNI), estab­lished in 2004, was sup­posed to solve the stovepip­ing and dupli­ca­tion prob­lem, but it has not. Because the office was nev­er giv­en bud­getary or oth­er forms of author­i­ty over the agen­cies with­in the IC, the ODNI is most­ly a tooth­less fig­ure­head that can issue some direc­tives but can­not demand com­pli­ance from the com­mu­ni­ty.

As a result, even when an agency head cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fies a prob­lem with­in his own orga­ni­za­tion, his best option is to sim­ply fix it him­self- rather than cross-check­ing the work with oth­er agen­cies. This process cre­ates mas­sive orga­ni­za­tions, all doing sim­i­lar or par­al­lel work. As a for­mer con­trac­tor at the DIA, I have seen how poor­ly coor­di­nat­ed the IC still is (I have also wit­nessed this in oth­er intel­li­gence groups in the U.S. mil­i­tary). My branch chiefs were often sur­prised at the infor­ma­tion I found buried in the data­bas­es of oth­er agen­cies.

Eleven years after 9/11, the Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ty is still a frac­tured and dys­func­tion­al place rife with dupli­ca­tion, stovepiped pro­grams, and poor coor­di­na­tion. While Flynn’s idea seems like a smart response to a fail­ure of the com­mu­ni­ty, the unfor­tu­nate real­i­ty is that in the long run it is like­ly to only make those prob­lems worse.

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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