Small Wars Journal

Flynn and the Prospects for Defense Intelligence Reform

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 5:48am

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.

Categories: intelligence - HUMINT - DIA

About the Author(s)

Robert Caruso is a veteran of the United States Navy, and has worked for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Business Transformation Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

5 November 2016 Small War’s Journal Editor’s Note (Defense One Editor’s Note Concerning Robert Caruso):

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations and later posted on Defense One. Since the article was published, it has been reported that the author has exaggerated his national security credentials.

Daniel Trombly is completing a degree in International Affairs at George Washington University. His writings on strategic and international affairs have appeared in The Atlantic and he co-authored a study for the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia.


Very well written article and comments. I have seen the same problems for 30 years in the army, the DIA and the Intel field in general. Intel people are good at identifying bureaucratic problems and collecting information. I have seen an increase in effort toward tactically-minded humint by a fraction of analysts in the MOS - but the school house still abhors the word "operational" and recruits analysts whose main goal is to avoid muddy boots. That won't change until good 11Bs are rewarded with the ASI of 35F and we quit using 35F as a means to accomplish congressional PC quotas and for achieving recruiters' missions. But what is needed most is the very thing the imperial powers will never do: 1. eliminate the knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 - the DHS (whose name should be Dept. of Fraud, Waste, and Abuse), 2. take a sword to the Gordian-knot, line-and-block chart of U.S. intelligence. It reminds me of the DOD's visual of counterinsurgency - the famous "swarming bees" graphic. Reduce the org chart into two agencies: foreign (CIA) and domestic (FBI) eliminating the inter-bureaucratic "walls" that resulted in one 9/11 and that will enable another. Sears & Roebuck flattened its' org chart in the '80s and saved itself from bankruptcy. It would take a heretofore unseen strength of leadership from the White House and Congress to enforce the necessary bureaucratic and cooperative measures necessary. Neither Goldwater-Nichols, the 9/11 Commission Report nor any other reactive legislation has been able to coerce the necessary changes in the last fifty years. There are no indicators now or for the future that there are statesmen on the horizon who can overcome the embedded resistance to the insidious empire building and information covetousness. As long as intel is the politicized weapon it has been, there is little hope for an antidote to the beltway virus.

The article generally gives entirely too much credit to LTG Flynn for his affect on any of this process. JSOC's targeting success while Flynn was the J2 had much to do with ground up innovation and demands placed on the organization by outside organizations to have access to information derived from its operation. I won't enter the debate on F3EAD...frankly, it was done before Flynn, and it was done by other people than Flynn. Not his brainchild by any means (and I don't think he would claim it). As far as the grand study performed in Afghanistan, I don't find it particularly credible in the least other than as a budgeting foil in DC. Like one of the other commenters noted, it effectively identified several problems, but the solutions fell short of anything feasible. In short, it was a lot of effort expended to tell folks on the ground about a problem they already knew about and had already communicated...and to tell folks in DC who have had other priorities (and continue to have them) to try to fund new efforts. As far as DIA's newly formed DCS -- good luck there. They need all the help they can get. It's time for Blair's Title 60 and reordering the deck along several of the yet-to-be-acted-upon recommendations of the 9/11 commission.


Wed, 04/25/2012 - 12:45pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

There were considerable efforts expended to fix Army HUMINT -- but one of the problems that Army HUMINT faced was that, in the course of the effort, they were continually providing DIA capability (trained people) while not receiving much back in exchange for support (admittedly hard to document in this forum, but it's hard for me to see what giving up people to DIA did for any of the services over the years). Unilateral efforts were stymied by a constant suck of qualified personnel to DIA. I think strengthening DIA's hand in this regard by creating the DCS simply does a disservice to the service and SOCOM-level efforts to provide capability to their own units. For those who think that DIA augmentation is the way to go, I have plenty of examples of why it isn' just isn't the same as having organic capability. DIA should've been serving as the clearinghouse and point of deconfliction, supporting service efforts, but wound up attempting to compete with them in pursuit of organizational relevancy. DCS is the logical next step, as they secure funding for the future. I hope it helps the services.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/24/2012 - 9:43am

In reply to by Jason.T

Had the opportunity in June 2007 to brief the then Army G2 Gen. Kimmons that Army HUMINT was broken and nothing that was being done then was going to correct it until all stakeholders finally admitted that yes in fact it was broken.

Nice to know that in 2012 it is still broken---not so nice to realize we have wasted five years that could have been used to come up with a better solution than what is being proposed between DIA and the CIA.

Again I emphasize this is all about funding streams and the disappearance of OCO funding not an improvement in the overall concept of military service wide HUMINT.


Tue, 04/24/2012 - 8:03am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

DIA's DHS rose from the ashes of the funding battles of the early 1990s and was taken from the hones of largely Army structure in an effort to consolidate capability within DOD as dollars dwindled. Its happening again. In doing so, it largely effectively undercut capability that should've been present and coordinated within the GCC's AORs and to SOCOM. It didn't adapt rapidly to the post 9/11 world (despite spending a ton of money) and we saw similar capabilities grow rapidly in SOCOM and, to some degree, in the services. DIA fought a lot of this growth, but the growth was a germane response to the problem of needing HUMINT in the field. Like you, I agree this is DIA reaching for future funding streams when the OCO is gone...and see the negatives that have overshadowed the HUMINT world continuing to be present in years forward, namely that DIA will continue to support three-letter agency (TLA) priorities rather than the CCDRs or services.

I think its also telling that this has gained support from Vickers' shop at USDI. Putting more DIA assets directly under CIA's control provides CIA with the authority to direct those assets (as they have exhibited to some degree in the past) and provides CIA with capability. This goes beyond deconfliction and coordination. It creates the problem that you note...CIA is not a 'combat support agency' and does not clearly support DoD requirements..and probably won't effectively leverage the DIA capability to do the same. To fix that problem, you have to work from the CIA side of the house...or, better yet, get rid of both organizations and break down both houses. After all, it's a big part of this problem that we can no longer clearly distinguish between T10 and T50 intel, why shouldn't the organization better match the current requirements? I know, I know....I'm asking for something tantamount to a Goldwater-Nichols-like change for the IC, but aren't we overdue for that? Name changes and bandaids won't help.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/24/2012 - 3:12am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

It is all about the future funding streams when OCO disappears.

DIA already had DHS not sure what they are trying to do---if they want to be truly revelant at the tactical/operational levels simply turn the intel around faster to the field instead of only analyzing a minimum of the field reporting and then after evaluating it never really telling the field in a timely fashion.

As a national level Defense asset designed years ago to provide the military with independent analysis as the US Mlitary did not trust the CIA---you become revelant by supporting the tacticel/operational levels, but that requires a completley new mindset focused on speed not merging with the very same organization that you were created to be independent against.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 04/23/2012 - 11:21am

Apr 23, 10:39 AM EDT

Pentagon spooks get own spy service

AP Intelligence Writer…

Washington (AP) -- The Pentagon is rebranding and reorganizing its clandestine spy shop, sending more of its case officers to work alongside CIA officers to gather intelligence in places like China, after a decade of focusing intensely on war zones.

A senior defense official says several hundred case officers will make up the new Defense Clandestine Service.

Defense Department personnel already gather intelligence globally on everything from terrorism to weapons of mass destruction, mostly working out of CIA stations in embassies.

But the Defense Intelligence Agency did not always reward that experience with promotions, so its officers often left for the CIA, one senior defense official said. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the classified program. The new service is meant to change that.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Mon, 04/23/2012 - 11:08am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


As an intel guy with lots of ISR experience I agree with a lot of what you say here. Flynn's famous critique was a mixed-bag for me though - I think he did well with problem identification, but not so well with regard to solutions.

I think the big problem with tactical HUMINT is that it is risky and dangerous and we operate as a very risk-averse force. Few Commanders are going to give the HUMINT folks the latitude necessary to take the necessary risks - that really only happens with any regularity in the SOF world. There are organizational issues as well - compare, for example, the NRO budget to resources spent on tactical HUMINT.

I know as an ISR guy (predator, reaper, GH, U2), I always tried to find "on the ground" information on whatever area we were working in order to provide better support. This was never easy and it was, in fact, often quite difficult to get basic information on what the units we supported were doing, much less timely, relevant intel from the local area. One of the problems that Flynn identified was that information from units in the field never reached HHQ and so was never seen, much less analyzed. Units out on patrol are a tremendous source of intel and I don't understand why there isn't a debrief and summary readily of each available, even if it's a NSTR. Why can't I, for example, put in a set of grids and pull up patrol reports for that area, just as one example? It wasn't common to have analysts sitting around doing nothing for lack of information on the local area. We tried to elicit information from our designated contact in the TOC, but it was often a lone, overworked NCO who simply didn't have time to try to feed us information beyond an email with some conop slides. And really, that NCO shouldn't have to - the supporting echelons should be able to pull the information, but it's just not available.

It doesn't help that our supporting intel/ops systems infrastructure continue to be so balkanized and stove-piped.


Fri, 04/20/2012 - 4:39pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The impression that I got from an early SWJ article: The Targeting Process: D3A and F3EAD ( was that the methodology itself was actually quite old but found new life in COIN. Not to argue semantics or the pros / cons of either process - I think the article is incorrectly crediting General Flynn with creating the F3EAD concept - or at least that's how I read it.

That said, I've always been a bit wary of some of his work, "Fixing Intel" being a prime example. I wrote a bit about it here:

I'm inclined to agree with you that chances are his appointment there will likely do little to change anything. Realistically, I've never really believed intel was broken to begin with, but I suppose the phrase du jour is disruptive 'insert something' so let's just hope he is the right kind of disruptive.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/20/2012 - 2:51am

Just a side comment---when reading the article all is fine until this particular sentence "Flynn did on a smaller scale with the implementation of F3EAD for JSOC raids". Flynn was not responsible for F3EAD which by the way is actually F3EA the D was added by Army BCTs starting in Iraq in 2007 after watching JSOC Iraq use it.

Even after Army BCTs started using it in 2007 it was not doctrinally accepted until the recent new FM 3-60 release as the FIRES community used the standard D3A model.

F3EA is used specifically due to the short targeting cycle that SOF has vs the regular BCTs.

Secondly I would argue that even today the military intel community while mouthing their acceptance of Flynns critique still has not addressed the concerns that he voiced, nor will they as I would argue that the field of military and civilian intelligence resists the idea of "disruptive thinkers" as it would in fact challenge existing processes.

In some aspects the problem with DIA today as in the past is the simple fact that the tactical HUMINT in the field can collect tonnes of information and send tonnes of information upward, but as long as the evaluation of that information never really makes it back down to the tactical/operational levels in a timely fashion as is the current case then HUMINT will be as ineffective at the tactical/operational levels as it is today.

Example---when BCTS plan and organize their ISR requiremenets HUMINT is not considered by many BCTs to be a valid ISR asset and if it is handled as an ISR asset then in the wrong fashion. Even those countless costly mobile ISR training teams still ignor HUMINT and focus on the "toys" and until Flynn shakes up that mind set then nothing will happen.

"Toys" can never provide you some aspect of intent.

"Completing a degree" is possibly the classiest understatement I have ever seen. If I were informed that Trombley was a tenured, doctorate-holding academic, I would not be surprised. Learning he is completing a [bachelors] degree is arguably nothing less than stunning. Kudos to Trombly for his exemplary writing.