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The battlefield exploits of Joint Special Operations Command have figured highly in its rise to prominence. From the “industrial-scale killing machine” forged during the Iraqi surge to the raid which killed Osama bin Laden, the lethal competence of JSOC is not wanting for acclaim. Critical, though, to these successes, has been the rise of new techniques in intelligence gathering, analysis, and exploitation. In 2007, unbeknownst to the rest of the intelligence community, a revolutionary event occurred: intelligence, gathered after the conclusion of a successful raid in Sinjar was being shared – with virtually no strings attached – with the West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, in collaboration with Palantir Technologies and the wider intelligence community.
The dissemination of the Sinjar raid’s so-called “al Qaeda rolodex” was in large part the brainchild of CTC’s Michelle Malvesti and then Brig. Gen. Michael T. Flynn. It was to be a model implementation of Flynn’s most well-known concept – F3EAD: Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate. For Flynn, it was not enough for JSOC to be lethally effective in tactical engagements, it could only compound on those successes by effectively analyzing and disseminating information in collaboration with the rest of the military and intelligence community. This Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Flynn was nominated to become director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The placement of someone like Flynn, whose star has only risen since his time in JSOC and CENTCOM, in an otherwise unglamorous position like DIA director might be mystifying, unless he had the confidence of the administration and his counterparts to revitalize the organization.
Critically, the DIA has responsibility for the entire Defense Department’s human intelligence network. However, in the bureaucratic fray within the intelligence community, the DIA’s reputation has often been associated with the minutiae of force structure analysis and puzzling over signals, technical, and imagery intelligence. This is, in part, due to the wide array of intelligence duties the DIA has been tasked with, including, but not limited to, the National for Medical Intelligence, the Missile and Space Intelligence Center, and the Defense Intelligence Support Center, currently under construction. The often unwieldy bureaucracy has made human intelligence gathering and exploitation a lower priority for the agency. In practice, aside from the Tactical HUMINT Teams, DIA does not often focus on collecting actionable human intelligence, but delegates these tasks and their supervision to relevant services’ military intelligence elements. With Flynn running the DIA – Senate confirmation pending, of course – it is unlikely that the agency will retain a background or passive role.
Particularly given Flynn’s past enthusiasm for enhancing and leveraging human intelligence gathering capabilities, and increasing collaboration throughout the broader intelligence community, an overhaul of the Defense Department’s human intelligence capability is likely in the works. While it is too early to speculate in detail about what specific changes Flynn will bring to the DIA, his appointment marks an appropriate time to reflect on broader changes within the military, intelligence community and policymaking generally.
HUMINT and Collaboration
Despite media fascination with the rising use of remotely piloted vehicles and other fancy pieces of hardware, the more important shifts in intelligence gathering capabilities will likely come from changes in human intelligence gathering and the networking of intelligence and military assets capable of leveraging information garnered from across the arsenal of intelligence-gathering capabilities. While the quantitative advantages of new platforms and instruments for intelligence gathering are undoubtedly important, the most challenging problems will remain overcoming bureaucratic impediments to networked approaches generally.
The DIA is hardly a stranger to many of these tasks, and indeed has a mandate to perform many of them, but because the DIA must compete with both the CIA and the service branches of the military for resources, access, and authority, it has faced persistent obstacles to fulfilling its own charter. With the appointment of Flynn, changes are likely on the horizon.
The DIA, of course, is not a stranger to efforts to integrate intelligence collection with operators on the ground. Able Danger, the controversial program of SOCOM and DIA collaboration and object of much 9/11 conspiracy theorizing, was an attempt to fuse open source data mining. Even before then was the Defense HUMINT Service, which played a frequent role in assisting the U.S. forces in the various irregular conflicts it participated in during the 1990s. In both cases, friction with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as the military branches, as well as internal organizational difficulties, were frequent. With JSOC alumni or allies such as Admiral William McRaven, David Petraeus, and Michael Vickers occupying much of the commanding heights of the defense and intelligence community, conditions are favorable for a concerted effort to reinvigorate the DIA’s role in the interagency process.
Taking JSOC Concepts Beyond the Command
The requirement for “more decentralized decision-making” coupled with “an increasing need to centralize situational awareness” applies to the whole of the military and intelligence community, not simply JSOC. While JSOC has embraced the concept of Operational Preparation of the Environment, enhancing the awareness and effectiveness of the rest of the military will require a more dynamic intelligence arm. In coming decades, the U.S. will face constrained resources, persisting non-traditional threats and challenges to the impunity of its power projection. Overcoming these obstacles will require a better understanding of power relationships at all geographical scales, a more fast-moving and integrated inter-agency effort on the part of defense and intelligence agencies, and more willingness to expose these processes to unconventional or non-traditional sources of knowledge and analysis, as Flynn did on a smaller scale with the implementation of F3EAD for JSOC raids.
Naturally, there may be fears that Flynn’s elevation is another signal towards a U.S. overseas posture that is increasingly reliant on covert operations, “shadow wars,” and high technology, without adequate consideration for conventional capabilities or the rest or restraint of SOF. However, the ascension of JSOC alumni and allies outside of the SOF world will continue to provide opportunities to mitigate, rather than exacerbate these trends. Flynn’s elevation is another reminder that even as the U.S. pares down its general-purpose forces and reduces their role in Afghanistan that the cultural shifts and transformations within JSOC cannot simply be left as a “stovepipe of excellence.”
Fears of overreliance on SOF are legitimate, but mitigating that overreliance will require, in part, disseminating effective practices beyond the SOF community. If high-demand capabilities are concentrated within JSOC, JSOC will be used more frequently. While commentators and policymakers have worried about the increasing involvement of JSOC in activities such as strategic intelligence collection, the rise of JSOC alumni and allies to higher positions within government will help better integrate SOF with the rest of the force and provide opportunities for broader collaboration, which should allay fears of excessive autonomy or unaccountability.
A Win for Disruptive Thinking?
For advocates of disruptive thinking, Flynn’s continued ascent should be welcomed. The notion that one of the most public and incisive critics of the U.S. intelligence effort in its main theater of war could not just retain his position but receive continued influence is a reassuring one. Of course, one needs to be wary of surrendering to “great man” optimism. Taking talented leadership and placing it in a dysfunctional bureaucracy without broader institutional support and commitment to change can sometimes pay off, but only with an effort unnecessarily Herculean in nature. Confidence in leadership cannot be reduced to a carelessness in supporting it, though given the number of Flynn’s allies in prominent policymaking positions, he will be better placed than many to give a serious overhaul an honest chance at success.
The opportunity for yet more influence over the command climate of the intelligence community and its components within the military branches should not be understated. In a time where tactical combat prowess and high technology continue to capture the public spotlight, the necessity of human intelligence and effective organizational techniques to leverage information gleaned from across the ISR spectrum into a product which can be disseminated and acted upon in a timely fashion is vital.
As the U.S. increasingly turns towards security partnerships with complex governments, low-footprint approaches to power projection, and smaller-scale manhunting in favor of wholesale nation-building, effective intelligence will be increasingly important to coping with the frictions of a constrained force but persistently complex battlefield. But for those interested in encouraging disruptive thinkers – and exploiting the disruption they create – Flynn provides a model useful not just for those in the intelligence community, but for anyone looking to shake up the national security establishment to positive effect.