Using Intelligence Intelligently

As always it seems we are faced with several concerning issues around the world that pose a threat to our security.  We have to deal with the Islamist terrorists on virtually every front globally and certainly here at home.  In addition to those immediate threats we face chilling prospects from Iran and N. Korea regarding their acquisition and stated intention to use nuclear weapons against either us or our close allies.  Intelligence can only take you so far but it is a vital advantage if it is used correctly.  Sometimes the best intelligence in the world doesn’t affect the outcome of conflicts on the battlefield.  We had the advantage of Engima during WWII and knew many of the most secret strategic plans of the Germans during the war but that didn’t do us any good at Kasserine Pass in North Africa or during operation Market Garden when we tried to oust the Germans from the Netherlands.  Both operations resulted in dismal failure by superior German tactics and their faster response to events on the field of battle.  With a nod to John Keegan for the outline, there is the age old problem of the process of getting the intelligence and then deploying a response in a timely and effective manner.

Gathering intelligence has been with us for all recorded history.  Your bible is filled with stories of the Jews using scouts and spies to first conqueor the Holy Land and then to fight their enemies over the centuries afterward.  Just remember the story of Joshua and his use of spies.  The mis use or mis reading of intelligence has occurred often and by all parties and nations.  We criticize ourselves most recently about the failure to find WMD in Iraq but that blunder is par for the course for most nations.  We have lots of company in stubbing our toes with intelligence gathering or evaluation.  A couple of notable examples come to mind that far exceed any miscues we made.  Stalin was warned of the German surprise attack in June of 1941 before it happened.  He was informed by a German double agent in Japan that was a communist sympathizer of the exact date and location of the attack.  Churchill from information from  his secret service agents also warned Stalin of the impending attack.  Stalin didn’t believe the information.  The Red Army wasn’t even on alert when the attack came.  Talk about a gigantic blunder, that one ranks right up there.  At the battle of Gettysburg it was lack of intelligence that contributed significantly to the Southern defeat.  JEB Stewart didn’t do his scouting as he should have and thus Lee didn’t realize the size of the force he was engaging.  He made his attacks against an enemy that was larger and more entrenched than he realized.  The battle might have been lost anyway but the size and scope of the defeat would have been quite different if Lee had known the location and strength of the Yankees.

There are stages to intelligence work.  The first one is to obtain the intelligence.  Today that comes from electronic surveillance or human intelligence.  Human intelligence is the oldest obviously and sometimes the far more accurate in painting a picture of the enemy and his intentions.  Human intelligence is also fraught with problems.  If a guy shows up at a US embassy in India and says he worked with the Iranian nuclear program and he is defecting and gives us the exact date and location of a planned nuke attack by Iran we still have a problem.  Is he a double agent merely spouting info to confuse us?  Even if we can verify he did work at the nuclear facility through other sources how do we know he is reliable?  Sane even.  His information is just one piece of a complex puzzle.   Maybe he is looking for a good life in the US and nothing more and trying to “upgrade” his life.   Using human intelligence is very dangerous because you have to inevitably use locals for most of the work and you never really know how much you can trust them.   Even if your agent speaks the language he will have an accent.  Recruiting those local sources is fraught with danger and entrapment.

Next if you get intelligence from a local source you then have the problem of communicating it home.   Do you use a “drop” somewhere?  What if you are being followed by the bad guys?  Using a radio is dangerous.  Most of our agents caught during WWII were found out by the Germans due to radio transmissions that were tracked by them.  Over the centuries codes and microdots and all manner of other means have been employed.  You recall that just recently Ames was using the old method of placing documents in a park in D.C.  

When the information is finally received it has to be evaluated.   Reams of information is always pouring in and the data sent will only be part of that picture.  You first have to determine if the source is reliable and the information is even believable.  Normally this means checking or comparing the intelligence with other sources available.  Even then miscalculations can and do occur.   Evaluation is as much an art as it is a science.   Today we can compare human intelligence with electronic data from satellites and drones or phone taps or distant visual observation.  In hindsight we can see there was plenty of evidence that the Germans were capable of a significant offensive in late 1944 but all the other indicators were that they were on their last legs and that only our own logistical bottleneck prevented us from marching right into Germany proper.  We all know how the Battle of the Bulge worked out.   People often believe what they want to believe rather than what the facts indicate.

Next after all the above the intelligence has to be presented to the authorities whether civilian or military.  Those who are the decision makers have to believe the intelligence given to them.  Politics and personal proclivities come into play here and history again is replete with examples of the leaders either relying too much on reports from their intelligence sources or just as bad relying too little on the information.  Stalin ignored his information about German intentions and it cost millions of lives and vast destruction.  Woodrow Wilson relied on very flimsy data to make his decision to send American troops to Russia in 1918 and squandererd American lives to no purpose.   He relied mostly on data from our ambassador who wasn’t even close to the scenes of conflict in northern Russia when he called for the troops to be sent and Wilson complied along with the English and French.  They all misread the data.

Intelligence is great and we can’t stop gathering all we can.  We need it.  Someday it might prevent another 9/11 and we have to accept the fact that it will also produce miscues and blunders.  That is the very nature of any war.  Regrettably we are at war.  We now deal with home grown Muslims who want to be terrorists. 

Let’s hope there is lots of talk in August about health care reform.   Be nice if the folks in Congress would at least read the bills proposed and that a few of us would do the same.  Does your personal experience with governmental agencies enhance your confidence level in the ability of government to run our health care system?  If so, then go for it.  If not then oppose it.  I would rather be left alone by government as much as possible.


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Filed under Foreign Affairs, government, history, military history

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