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The Lessons for U.S. Intelligence From Today's Battlefields

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 370

Posted - February 13, 2012

Edited by Matthew M. Aid

For more information contact:
Matthew M. Aid - 202/994-7000

Meet the Author

Intel Wars author Matthew Aid will be appearing tonight, February 13, 7pm at Politics and Prose

5015 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, District Of Columbia
United States

Purchase Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror at Amazon.

Review of Intel Wars by Dina Temple-Raston, The Washington Post, February 17, 2012.

Other posts by Matthew Aid

Project Azorian
The CIA's Declassified History of the Glomar Explorer.

The Secret Sentry Declassified
Declassified Documents Reveal the Inner Workings and Intelligence Gathering Operations of the National Security Agency.

National Security Agency Releases History of Cold War Intelligence Activities
Soviet Strategic Forces Went on Alert Three Times during September-October 1962 Because of Apprehension over Cuban Situation, Top Secret Codeword History of National Security Agency Shows.

Declassification in Reverse
The U.S. Intelligence Community's Secret Historical Document Reclassification Program.

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Washington, D.C., February 13, 2012 – Spendthrift, schizophrenic policies and a massive, multi-tiered bureaucracy more focused on preserving secrets than on mission accomplishment leave our intelligence operatives drowning in raw data, resource-starved, and choked on paperwork, according to a new book, Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror (Bloomsbury Press, 2012), by intelligence historian Matthew Aid. Excerpts from the book and declassified documents cited in it were posted today by the National Security Archive, where Aid is a Visiting Fellow.

Even after the celebrated raid by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos in May 2011, which killed al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, America's spies are still struggling to beat a host of ragtag enemies around the world, Aid argues.

Thanks to more than $500 billion in taxpayer dollars spent on revamping and modernizing America's spy networks since 9/11, the U.S. today has the largest and most technologically sophisticated intelligence community in the world, consisting of 210,000 employees, CIA stations in 170 countries, and an annual budget of more than $75 billion. Armed with cutting-edge surveillance gear, high-tech weapons, and fleets of armed and unarmed drone aircraft, the U.S. intelligence community is now producing more and better intelligence than at any time in its history.

But, according to Aid, overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic inertia often stall intelligence operations, such as U.S. military operators in Afghanistan who have to wait seventy-two hours for clearance to attack fast-moving Taliban IED teams planting explosive devices. U.S. military computers – their classified hard drives still in place – turn up for sale at Afghan bazaars. When you dig beneath the surface, swift, tightly focused intelligence-driven operations like the Osama bin Laden raid seem to be the exception rather than the rule, Aid concludes.

Intel Wars – based on extensive, on-the-ground interviews, dozens of declassified documents, and revelations from Wikileaks cables – shows how our soldier-spies are still fighting to catch up with the enemy.

Today's posting of 12 documents consists of a selection of reports and memoranda cited in Intel Wars concerning the role played by the U.S. intelligence community in today's military conflicts and crises, particularly in Afghanistan.


Commentary by Matthew M. Aid

Is the U.S. intelligence community working the way it should ten years after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks? As detailed in my new book Intel Wars, the answer is that a number of important changes for the better have taken place over the past decade, but the intelligence community still has a long way to go before it can be said to be working at anywhere near its fullest potential.

Getting the U.S. intelligence community to work properly is not just an academic exercise. The 9/11 Commission's report found that a host of systemic problems within the U.S. intelligence community contributed to the failure to prevent the al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which resulted in 2,973 Americans dead and thousands more wounded. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and became bogged down in a quagmire that has taken the lives of 1,875 American soldiers over the past decade, in part because the U.S. military has repeated many of the same mistakes made by the Soviet military in Afghanistan during the 1980s.[i] And 4,484 American soldiers died in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 in a war caused by a series of systemic failures by the intelligence community and the White House over the question of whether or not Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


The intelligence community can point to a number of significant successes. There have been no terrorist attacks inside the U.S. in the ten years since 9/11. Osama bin Laden is dead and his al Qaeda organization in northern Pakistan has been decimated. And the al Qaeda networks that used to exist in Western Europe and in Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines have been almost completely destroyed.

Thanks in large part to $500 billion invested in new personnel and high-tech spy gear over the past decade, the U.S. intelligence community today is producing more and better intelligence that at any time in its history. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)'s National Clandestine Service has succeeded in planting high-level agents inside some very important overseas targets, and the National Security Agency's elite team of computer hackers has wracked up some impressive successes against terrorist targets in recent years. The 6,000+ unmanned drones currently in the inventories of the U.S. military and the CIA have revolutionized how the intelligence community monitors foreign insurgent groups and eliminates terrorist targets.[ii]

But the array of new high-tech collection platforms collect far more data than the U.S. intelligence community's analysts can process, analyze, and report to consumers. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in a declassified memo, the intelligence community still produces "more data than we can translate into useable knowledge."[iii] According to sources, less than one-percent of all the data that is collected every day gets reported to intelligence consumers in Washington and overseas, meaning that 99% ends up on the cutting room floor and is never used. And this problem is getting worse by the day. New high-tech intelligence collection systems, such as the latest generation of unmanned drones, produce so much raw information that they are overloading the capacity of the communications satellites that relay their data to the U.S. and drowning the intelligence analysts, a phenomena referred to within the intelligence community as "data crush." By 2009, the situation had become so acute that the head of the Kandahar Intelligence Fusion Center in southern Afghanistan wrote in a memo that "Information is like confetti; it is everywhere, but no one will turn off the fan!"[iv]

Hundreds of new computer databases have been created since 9/11 to store the vast amount of data that the intelligence community's growing array of collection sensors vacuum up every day. But analysts complain that they still cannot freely access this data because many of these databases were not built to handle the vast amount of information coming in every day; the search engines used today have oftentimes proven to be inadequate to the task of filtering through this data to find the "needle in the haystack;" and many of the systems built since 9/11 still cannot communicate or share data with one another.

But perhaps most importantly, many of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission about reforming the intelligence community were never fully implemented, so many of the systemic structural and procedural failings that bedeviled the intelligence community before 9/11 still exist today. An important reason why intelligence reform never happened was because senior U.S. government officials, especially at the Pentagon, successfully derailed key provisions in order to ensure their continued control over key components of the U.S. intelligence effort. One of the fiercest opponents was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in a September 2004 memo to President George W. Bush characterized some of the key intelligence reform proposals coming out of the 9/11 Commission as "a train wreck."[v]

The intelligence community does not lack the financial resources to fix the problems if it wanted to. In May 2011, Congress passed a new spending bill, which increased the amount of money allotted for America's spies to over $85 billion, which is more than the combined budgets of the Departments of Transportation and Education. But sadly, intelligence reform is no longer a priority for the White House or with the intelligence oversight committees on Capitol Hill, where partisan rancor and bickering have replaced the collegiality that used to be the hallmark of these committees. The result, according to senior U.S. intelligence official Patrick C. Neary, is that the intelligence community remains "fundamentally unreformed."[vi]

So not surprisingly, many government officials believe that the U.S. intelligence community has not become any easier to govern. Available evidence suggests that the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), created in 2005 in response to the findings of the 9/11 Commission, still has not been able to effectively integrate the vast number of appendages comprising the U.S. intelligence community into a cohesive organization that performs its mission in an efficient and efficacious manner. Which means that unity of command, cohesiveness, and a clear direction for the U.S. intelligence community still have not been achieved a decade after 9/11. Attempts by DNI Admiral Dennis C. Blair during the first sixteen months of the Obama administration to assert his authority and make the CIA responsive to his wishes were an unmitigated failure. Not only was Blair defeated at every turn by his opponents within the White House and the U.S. intelligence community, but he ultimately lost his job in May 2010 for his efforts.

And what about the intelligence community's primary mission of "informing statecraft," that is to say, providing the U.S. government with the kinds of information needed to make informed national security and foreign policy decisions. As detailed in "Intel Wars," there have been in recent years marked improvements in the quality of the intelligence estimates and analytic reporting coming out of the U.S. intelligence community. This has not always been the case in the past. Despite the vast amounts of raw data pouring into Washington every day from the National Security Agency's listening posts and the 170+ CIA stations around the world, many senior U.S. intelligence officials worry that more than a decade after 9/11, we still don't know who our enemies are. In December 2004, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, wrote a secret memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arguing that, "We remain largely ignorant of who fights us, why they fight and what their weaknesses are."[vii]

This condition has apparently changed for the better since the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) post was created in 2005. The intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Afghanistan and Pakistan have proven to be more accurate and balanced assessments than the rosier "emphasize the positive" reporting coming out of the Pentagon. For instance, in September 2008 the intelligence community concluded that,"the security situation [in Afghanistan] declined dramatically in 2008. The increased military proficiency of the Taliban, combined with their ability to find a safe haven in the border regions of Pakistan, has made the Taliban increasingly difficult to defeat."[viii] These findings directly contradicted the far rosier assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan that the Pentagon sent at about the same time to Congress, which assured the lawmakers that "the security situation in [Afghanistan] was improving."[ix]

As detailed in "Intel Wars," the events that followed in Afghanistan proved that the intelligence community's conclusions were far more accurate than those of the Pentagon. Being proven right, however, did not result in a greater level of acceptance of the intelligence community's views in Washington. The intelligence community's subsequent intelligence estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan have been very unpopular in certain parts of the Washington establishment, especially at the Pentagon, which filed numerous dissents to both the 2010 and 2011 NIEs on Afghanistan, arguing that the intelligence community had ignored many of the positive gains that had been made. But again, it would seem that events on the ground have proven that the intelligence community has done a better job of "speaking truth to power" about the events taking place in Afghanistan than the rest of the national security establishment in Washington.[x]

But problem areas still exist here as well. It took a long time to accomplish, but there is today a better and more nuanced appreciation of the fighting power and resiliency of the Taliban guerrillas our troops face in Afghanistan.[xi] But huge gaps in our knowledge of the enemy still remain. We do not even know much about the leaders of the Taliban insurgency. In 2010 an imposter was able to pretend for several weeks to be a high-level Taliban official sent to Kabul to negotiate a peace agreement with the Karzai government before being discovered. In other words, our understanding of the enemy we face is still nowhere near what it should be.

Read the Documents

Document 1
Memorandum, Meigs to Secretary of Defense, Answers to SecDef "23 Questions", July 28, 2001, DOD FOIA. Secret/Close Hold/NOFORN.

Written by General Montgomery C. Meigs, the commander of U.S. Army, Europe (USAREUR) in Germany, this memorandum to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gives a clear and concise description of some of the major ailments afflicting the U.S. intelligence community prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Document 2
Memorandum, Franks to Secretary of Defense, Trends in Afghanistan, October 1, 2002, DOD FOIA. Secret. Excised copy.

This intelligence assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan, which was produced by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), was written at the request of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in order to forcefully rebut a critical Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intelligence estimate written several months earlier which apparently angered the Pentagon. The CENTCOM document concluded that, "the CIA assessment overstates the immediate risks to stability and security, and understates the positive developments underway to bring stability to Afghanistan." This language is roughly the same as that used in Pentagon dissents to national intelligence estimates on Afghanistan issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in December 2010 and December 2011.

Document 3
Memorandum, Rumsfeld to Cambone, September 12, 2003, http://www.rumsfeld.com. No classification markings.

Complaints from the Washington national security bureaucracy about the quantity and quality of the data coming out of the intelligence community since 9/11 are legion. This memorandum from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (referred to within the Pentagon as "Snowflakes") contains a typical complaint about the quality of the information he was receiving from the U.S. intelligence community. The gravamen of Rumsfeld's complaint was "I wish we had better information about the enemies so we could design a better approach."

Document 4
Memorandum, Rumsfeld to President, Intelligence "Reform", September 11, 2004, http://www.rumsfeld.com. No classification markings.

This memorandum to President George W. Bush by Donald Rumsfeld is remarkable because it reveals the nature and extent of the efforts by the Secretary of Defense to scuttle key provisions of the legislation creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Document 5
Carter Malkasian and Jerry Meyerle, Insurgent Tactics in Southern Afghanistan: 2005-2008, (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), August 2009). Unclassified/FOUO.

Written under contract for the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, this restricted access report, which although unclassified was not meant for public distribution, contains a frank assessment of the combat capabilities of the Taliban guerrillas facing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The study's conclusions in a number of important respects ran contrary to what the Pentagon was saying publicly about the resiliency and fighting skills of the Afghan insurgents.

Document 6
Major General Michael Flynn, USA, Director of Intelligence, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan (ISAF), Powerpoint Presentation, State of the Insurgency: Trends, Intentions and Objectives, December 22, 2009. Unclassified.

This presentation by the former director of intelligence of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan shows that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, despite the doubling of the size of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 34,000 to 68,000 troops since January 2009. Three weeks earlier on December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to try to stabilize the security situation in the country.

Document 7
Patrick C. Neary, "Intelligence Reform, 2001-2009: Requiescat in Pace?," Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 54, No. 1, March 2010. Unclassified.

This article from the CIA's in-house journal, written by Patrick C. Neary, who was the chief planner for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) from 2005 to 2010, concludes that many of the most serious problems that directly contributed to the 9/11 and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction intelligence failures remained unfixed, leading the author to conclude that the U.S. intelligence community remained "fundamentally unreformed."

Document 8
Paul D. Miller, "Lessons for Intelligence Support to Policymaking During Crises," in Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 54, No. 2, June 2010, pp. 71-78, Unclassified.

This article from the CIA's internal magazine Studies in Intelligence, written by the former head of the National Security Council's Afghan Desk, describes the intelligence support given to the White House concerning the war in Afghanistan during the Bush administration. It reveals that in 2007-2008, senior White House officials were so focused on the insurgency in Iraq that they gave short shrift to reports that the security situation in Afghanistan was rapidly deteriorating.

Document 9
U.S. Embassy to Afghanistan and Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan, United States Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan, February 2011. Unclassified.

This internal planning document prepared jointly by the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is remarkable because it contains the following warning (p. 2) that portions of the Afghan populace still do not perceive that Hamid Karzai's Afghan national government represents their interests, "Despite improvements, some of the Afghan population, particularly in rural areas, does not recognize the central government or perceives that it does not represent its interests. the perception in some areas remains that the Afghan Government is not able or willing to protect its people or prosecute those inclined to prey on them."

Document 10
U.S. Senate, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons From the U.S. Government's Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack, February 3, 2011, Unclassified.

This is the unclassified executive summary of a longer, classified congressional investigative report into the intelligence failures leading up to the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shootings committed by Major Nidal Malik Hasan. The report found systemic failures in how the Hasan case was handled, concluding that the Department of Defense and the FBI "collectively had sufficient information to have detected Hasan's radicalization to violent Islamic extremism but failed both to understand and to act on it."

In other words, the U.S. intelligence community is still having problems "connecting the dots" in its efforts to prevent terrorist attacks.

Document 11
Jeffrey Bordin, Ph.D., A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility, N2KL Red Team, Jalalabad, Afghanistan, May 12, 2011, Unclassified.

This document, which The Wall Street Journal first reported on in June 2011, was at first unclassified and available on the World Wide Web until the U.S. Army recently reclassified it as SECRET (an act the former head of the U.S. National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, William Leonard, called a "metaphysical impossibility"). The report examines the reasons why Afghan government soldiers and police have killed 58 Western personnel, including American soldiers, since 2007. The report concludes that a growing feeling of resentment and animosity towards Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, among our Afghan allies is fueling these incidents. The report also found that U.S. troops in Afghanistan had extremely negative views of their Afghan allies for a number of reasons, including the fact that some Afghan troops were secretly cooperating with the Taliban insurgents to kill American soldiers.

Document 12
Memorandum, Colt to Commander, United States Central Command, Executive Summary (Crash of CH-47D Aircraft in Wardak Province, Afghanistan on 6 August 2011, September 9, 2011, Unclassified.

This is the summary of the U.S. Central Command post mortem investigation into the shooting down of a CH-47 helicopter by Taliban forces in Afghanistan, which resulted in the deaths of 38 U.S. Navy SEALs and Afghan commandos, including a Navy signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercept operator. The commandos were engaged in a nighttime raid whose purpose was to kill a senior Taliban commander named Qari Tahir.


[i] Central Intelligence Agency, Open Source Works (OSW), Afghanistan: Lessons of the Soviet War, March 27, 2009, Unclassified/FOUO.

[ii] U.S. Army, U.S. Army UAS Center of Excellence, Fort Rucket, Alabama, "Eyes of the Army": U.S. Army Roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems: 2010-2036, April 2010. Unclassified.

[iii] Memorandum, Rumsfeld to Cambone and Haver, Intelligence System of 2025, June 23, 2001. Secret. Located at http://www.rumsfeld.com.

[iv] Brigadier General Michael Shields, Director, National Joint Operations and Intelligence Center (NJOIC), PowerPoint Presentation, NJOIC Collaboration and Web 2.0, April 22, 2010. For Official Use Only.

[v] Memorandum, Secretary of Defense to President, Intelligence "Reform", September 11, 2004. Unclassified. Located at http://www.rumsfeld.com.

[vi] Patrick C. Neary, "Intelligence Reform, 2001-2009: Requiescat in Pace?," Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 54, No. 1, March 2010. Unclassified.

[vii] Memorandum, Abizaid to Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Investing in Human Capital for the Long War, December 3, 2004. Secret. DOD FOIA.

[viii] Cable, State 106079, Secretary of State to Amembassy Canberra et al., Trilateral Strategic Dialogue Senior Officials, October 3, 2008, Wikileaks Cablegate Files. Secret.

[ix] U.S. Department of Defense, Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, June 2008, p. 5. Unclassified.

[x] "Bleak Afghan and Pakistan Intelligence Reviews," Associated Press, December 11, 2010; Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, "U.S. Intelligence Report on Afghanistan Sees Stalemate," Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2012.

[xi] See for example, Carter Malkasian and Jerry Meyerle, Insurgent Tactics in Southern Afghanistan: 2005-2008, (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), August 2009), Unclassified/FOUO; Major General Michael Flynn, USA, Director of Intelligence, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan (ISAF), PowerPoint Presentation, State of the Insurgency: Trends, Intentions and Objectives, December 22, 2009, Unclassified.

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