The sudden invasion of Georgia by Russia has, once again, brought strong criticism on America’s intelligence community. Some of it is justified critique of a bloated bureaucracy, some of it is a kneejerk reaction from people who hate the intelligence services, and some of it comes from people who simply do not understand the structure, functions, and limits of intelligence. For example, more than a few people have blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for missing the warning signs of Russia’s invasion, while in fact it is the responsibility of the DNI, or Director of National Intelligence, who has the duty to advise the President of such threats. The head of CIA, the DCI, has since 2005 been a deputy to the DNI, one of several people who report events and analysis for his review. On paper, this arrangement gives the DNI more complete information to consider before he makes a recommendation to the president. In practice, however, the new office adds another layer on a system which is notorious for delay and in-house feuds. It’s very difficult from the outside to know whether the change in organization made things better or worse overall.
Looking more closely at the Russian invasion, though, it should be mentioned that effective deterrence would have required a number of things to have gone right. We would need to have understood the early troop movement in context, for example. That’s not as easy as it may appear – the Russians engaged in a full-scale military exercise in the area during July, for example, and it would have been all but impossible to determine when the troops stopped their exercises and began real combat operations. Satellite imagery and phone intercepts would not have told us Putin’s intentions.
So, we obviously needed HUMINT, human sources to provide insight about intentions and plans. Frankly, we have never had a lot of those, especially at the executive level. If it’s any consolation, no nation’s intelligence service has more than one or two such sources in a major country’s decision-making office, not least because such offices are careful indeed to protect access to national strategic decisions. If you ever want to know what sucks more than an IRS audit, check out sometime what goes into a “Personal Data Statement Questionnaire”, one of the key source documents compiled in the clearance process for vetting potential appointees and their staffs. And Russia, even before Putin, was legendary for its paranoia.
A third avenue of information is building a network of informants. Some information can be deduced by building a profile using alternative sources, and either putting together a composite of data removed from the primary source, or by using low-level sources to produce intelligence to support strategic analysis.
There are other means of collection and analysis, of course, which is one reason why there are so many different agencies and offices which handle intelligence. In addition to military concerns, economic, political, social, demographic, topological, and even weather information can be used to suggest a nation’s intentions and plans. More, events do not generally happen in the singular, which is to say that for every intelligence failure like the invasion of Georgia, there are unheralded intelligence successes. It is a rare individual, for example, who stops to consider why the recent border flare-up between India and Pakistan suddenly cooled down, without any publicly apparent diplomatic action. Of course, an observant reader would understand that the media is not in the business of accurately reporting events and their context, but rather the business of creating reaction and driving attention and emotion. As a result, wars which happen get press while wars averted are ignored. Also, intelligence services do not generally seek attention for their activities, especially when such scrutiny might reveal sources and methods of collection and analysis, in other words giving the enemy tools to close off access the next time they want to do something without us knowing about it in time to react.
Some folks have observed that the United States may have understood the Russian intentions, yet been unable to stop the invasion. One indicator of that is this week’s agreement between the US and Poland to station ten missile defense bases on Polish soil. The agreement’s timing suggests that the United States had been working towards the action as a optional response to potential Russian aggression; it was far too specific and finished to have been begun after the Russians invaded Georgia. This agreement and certain indications of additional protocols put into performance (ever wonder what Russia was reacting to, when it suddenly threatened NATO this week?), provide glimpses into how the event analysis helped structure an effective US response without escalating the crisis. Using warships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia is another tactic which suggests careful and early planning by the US, making the Russian position more difficult without inviting casualties.
The intelligence community has its share of suck-ups, political assassins, incompetents and outright traitors. But it is important to understand that there are many agents and officers, in analysis as well as in the field, who do a difficult job well, without credit or reward, serving America as well as the troops sent into harm’s way.