Intelligence, Without Smarts


By Stan Crock It's standard Bush Administration dogma -- and many Democrats agree -- that U.S troops shouldn't vacate Iraq until they have trained enough Iraqis to provide security for the fledgling democracy. That notion both amuses and dismays me. If one were to judge by the American experience to date in Mess-opotamia, as comedian Jon Stewart calls it, this exit strategy is dependent on the blind leading the blind.

Yes, the political situation has improved. But the number of daily attacks in Iraq is about the same as a year ago, according to Pentagon data. That may be due to how little Americans can teach the Iraqis about gathering and using intelligence. We can explain combat techniques and military doctrine, and eventually create a decent corps of junior officers. While those aspects are important, they won't do much good if Iraqi forces don't know where and who the enemy is.

Roy Godson of Georgetown University and Richard Shultz of Tufts University's Fletcher School say they have a solution. The two have studied the lessons learned by countries that have successfully degraded armed groups, whether they were terrorists, insurgents, or criminals. But the two academics say the U.S. intelligence community hasn't yet adopted their ideas, and recent intelligence-reform legislation dealt more with the structure of intelligence than how it's conducted.

"BLOCK BY BLOCK." Godson and Shultz contend that human intelligence, rather than high-tech gear, is the critical element in a successful program. The organizational keystones are hybrid local intelligence units distributed along a geographical grid. Members of a unit should include covert operatives, analysts, law-enforcement types, signal intelligence experts, and skilled local interrogators who know local clans and their dynamics.

The goal of such a program: collect information about a group's strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and cleavages that may be subject to influence. This requires penetration of the group itself or of factions that have information about the group -- friends, family, local political powers, and financial networks. And the data must be gathered "block by block, village by village," the scholars said in a briefing they gave to the U.S. government.

By leveraging such knowledge, interrogators and analysts "can turn someone in 24 to 48 hours," Godson says. He estimates it would take one intelligence officer for every 10,000 or 20,000 people in a targeted area.

RUMORS AS WEAPONS. The two scholars interviewed intelligence officials in several countries, as well as retired or captured armed-group members, to find out what's needed to arrest, kill, co-opt, or divide and conquer members of these organizations. While Godson and Shultz wouldn't identify the countries contacted, it's a good bet they included Britain and Israel.

Godson and Shultz also argue that political covert action should be added to the arsenal of paramilitary covert action. For example: When rivals are vying for power inside an armed group, spreading rumors that one of the rivals is stealing money from the group can undermine the organization's cohesion and prompt members to divert their energy toward internal fighting rather than external terrorist acts.

The former armed-group members the scholars interviewed "stress the value of using covert political action and their vulnerability to it," the Godson-Shultz briefing says. Godson suggests the exploitation of suspicions and feelings of betrayal played a role in the destruction of the notorious Abu Nidal terrorist organization. "It didn't splinter apart all by itself," says Godson.

LATE START. Some branches of the military seem receptive to Godson's and Shultz's suggestions, but without more widespread acceptance of the practices they champion, Godson and Shultz fear the lessons Americans teach the Iraqis could be the wrong ones. The government thinks "the way we do it is the way it's done," says Shultz. But "we know a lot of what we do doesn't work."

The irony is that the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein and the Afghans under the Taliban learned a great deal about the benefits of local intelligence units. But "they learned it in a school we didn't like," Godson says. Even the U.S. has a fair amount of experience with it, courtesy of Vietnam, Laos, and Nicaragua. But intelligence about armed groups always was considered a sideshow, and what was learned was never formalized into doctrine.

Each time Uncle Sam faced threats from an armed group, it started from scratch. The Central Intelligence Agency didn't have an office dealing with armed groups until 2000, and the Defense Intelligence Agency still doesn't have one. In Iraq, the U.S. is paying the price for that lack of foresight. If the learning curve is as steep as Godson and Shultz believe it is, American troops could be in Iraq for a lot longer than people think. Crock is senior diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek, based in Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online


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