The New Paradigm of Intelligence Agility

Whether you believe 9/11 and subsequent events to include massive intelligence failures or not, it has become clear that our intelligence capabilities lack agility. As a nation, we have not moved beyond the Cold War paradigm of threat-based strategic thinking. This thinking was well suited to deterring and defeating specific threats, but has left us unprepared to effectively respond to emerging threats such as terrorism.

The problem with most calls for intelligence or military reform in the post-9/11 era is that they are all still stuck in that Cold War paradigm. In the future, we may be able to cope with the terrorist threat, but what about the next big threat to come along? The true solution, as Bruce Berkowitz suggests, is not to simply change the list of specific threats, but to be agile. We need to be able to respond to new and emerging threats quickly and effectively.

Fortunately, the ability to effectively respond to terrorism may not be possible without instituting at least a measure of agility in our intelligence community. When planning against the Soviets, we had the luxury of knowing that the “threat changed incrementally, came from a known geographic location, and was most likely to follow a well-understood attack plan.” The nature of terrorists is less static than that of the Soviets, so if we are to succeed, we will need to orient ourselves towards a condition of agility. The Soviets required an intense focus of resources on a single threat, whereas terrorism requires our resources to be more dispersed. Agility will give us the ability to evaluate new and emerging threats, and to dynamically adjust resources based on where we need them.

So, in this context, what is agility? Berkowitz has the answer:

For an intelligence organization, agility can be defined as having four features. First, the organization needs to be able to move people and other resources quickly and efficiently as requirements change. Second, it needs to be able to draw on expertise and information sources from around the world. Third, it needs to be able to move information easily so that all of the people required to produce an intelligence product can work together effectively. And, fourth, it needs to be able to deliver products to consumers when needed and in the form they require to do their job.

And how do we achieve this goal? The answer isn’t necessarily a dramatic restructuring of our intelligence community. Agility in this context depends on unglamorous, mundane things like standardized clearances and feedback loops between managers and analysts. We should be encouraging innovation in analysis and ways to penetrate targets. Perhaps most important is the need for a system to escalate activities when the stakes are high:

[We need] Procedures that tell everyone when the stakes are high and they should take more risks and act more aggressively-despite the potential costs. The Defense Department has these procedures… the “Defense Condition,” or DEFCON, system. The CIA does not.

Out intelligence community correctly recognized the threat that terrorism posed long before 9/11, but lacked the organizational agility to shift resources to counter that threat. Currently, we are doing a better job of confronting terrorism, but we will need to be agile if we are to respond to the next big threat. As Bruce Shneier comments, taking away pocket knives and box cutters doesn’t improve airline security:

People who think otherwise don’t understand what allowed the terrorists to take over four planes two years ago. It wasn’t a small knife. It wasn’t a box cutter. The critical weapon that the terrorists had was surprise. With surprise they could have taken the planes over with their bare hands. Without surprise they couldn’t have taken the planes over, even if they had guns.

And surprise has been confiscated on all flights since 9/11. It doesn’t matter what weapons any potential new hijackers have; the passengers will no longer allow them to take over airplanes. I don’t believe that airplane hijacking is a thing of the past, but when the next plane gets taken over it will be because a group of hijackers figured out a clever new weapon that we haven’t thought of, and not because they snuck some small pointy objects through security.

I’ve been hard on the intelligence community (or rather, the way they interact with our politicians) lately, but theirs is truly a thankless job. By their nature, they don’t get to publicize their successes, but we all see their failures. Unfortunately we cannot know how successful they’ve been in the past two years, but given the amount of terrorist attacks during that period, the outlook is promising. We may be more agile than we know…