A Roundtable Conversation on Intelligence and Terrorism Part Two: Requirements and Roles and Missions

The participants in this conversation were guaranteed anonymity to encourage a frank discussion of sensitive issues. Their opinions are their own and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the U.S. government or any other government, agency, or official entity. The icons at the beginning of paragraphs are assigned to individual speakers.

Intelligence Requirements

MODERATOR: I would like to talk about roles and missions based on the various points that were brought up in the previous discussion on the changing character of terrorism. As a transition to that, could we talk a bit about intelligence requirements for terrorism, keeping in mind all the varieties that we have talked about? We talked about organizations, and dispersed organizations like al Qaeda, and individuals who suddenly pop up. Is it possible to talk about a set of requirements for collecting intelligence on terrorism, or does that depend on the particulars of the problem we confront?

 The problem [with trying to identify requirements in the abstract like this] is that the intelligence community reacts to what our leaders decide are the problems. Dick Cheney used the term sleeper cells, and all of a sudden everybody in the American intelligence community was looking for something that doesn't exist.

 But we, in this room, don't have to respond to Dick Cheney…

 But the political leaders decide what is important, and we do respond to them, and it's very difficult to try to explain to political leaders what this stuff is all about.

 It is possible to define terrorist requirements. I don't think, actually, that intelligence requirements have changed, even if we posit the possibility that the form of terrorism has evolved in a changing environment. I think the intelligence requirements have remained constant. Whether it has become more difficult to meet those requirements is a different issue.

MODERATOR: And how would you describe those requirements?

 Well, I think they have always been who, what, when, where, why, how. Globally, those are the questions. Increasingly we become fixated with the "why" to try and work out how on earth we are going to stop it in the future. But I think the perception is that those are the key questions.

 In the U.S. case, since 9/11 we have seen two different approaches to looking at what we need for intelligence to counter terrorism. One is the international connections that national-level [intelligence] organizations go after. At the same time, in the U.S. and probably in most other countries, we are developing domestic, local law enforcement intelligence structures that aren't as well understood, and that gets back to the point about whether or not high school teachers are collecting intelligence. In the United States, we have programs of suspicious activity reporting that we are trying to grow. In some communities, we train trash collectors, garbagemen, to watch for indications of bad activity and then call the cops or [an emergency number]. That is an area that I think is more important when we are trying to prevent homegrown and domestic terrorism and the "lone wolf " sorts of things.1 What clues law enforcement on to those individuals, in my experience, is a tip from a neighbor or somebody who talks to somebody else. We don't seem to get the sort of intelligence that actually prevents attacks within the United States so much from international connections.

 You don't hear about them because it is classified. I can tell you from the inside looking out, having experienced that, that there is a significant amount of terrorism that is mitigated—maybe not prevented, but at least mitigated— as a result of pocket litter that is collected in Afghanistan that reveals a phone number in Seattle that sends an FBI agent out to talk to somebody. So we now know who you are, and we are going to begin an investigation on who is in your network.

 I think a state must have a permanent intelligence system with enough resources. The work requires mid- and long-term investment, including in [electronic surveillance]. Political leaders usually want immediate results, certainly in case of attacks, and they don't understand that [investigating] these things often takes time. The problem is that we can't succeed every time. We have to take this into consideration, and the politicians don't understand that. They don't want to understand that. The important thing is to make politicians give us the possibility to build a system, inside and outside, and to put all the resources together to do the maximum. Another thing, you were mentioning the [surveillance] work in the United States. Things have changed, mostly because of 9/11. I remember the first attack against the World Trade Center in 1993. It was made by a cell living in the United States, the Blind Sheikh2 and some affiliated with him. When we talked to our friends in the FBI and said, "You have to put a telephone tap on them," at that time, Congress was absolutely against it. Of course, we can be accused of bugging only Muslims, but it is not the case. We also look at the extreme right. It is sometimes difficult. We recently arrested a friend of [Anders Breivik]. He had plenty of weapons, but we had nothing against him, so we had to release him. So we must keep an eye on everything, but we must concentrate much more on the main threat. I think this is fundamental.

MODERATOR: When you were saying who, what, when, where, and why—is the assumption there that the principal purpose is to capture somebody before they commit the act or target people who may be involved in supporting those acts? Someone said earlier that is a losing game, so to speak. If we think about the way we have been describing this—lots of information out there, self-radicalized people—are those requirements sufficient, or are they really the only thing that intelligence can provide? There may be other things that need to be done or that we need to know, but is it simply not the business of intelligence?

 Crikey,3 where do I start? I think those requirements remain valid because if they weren't, what would you be admitting? You would be admitting that actually the task is so impossible that there is no point in even trying to identify the perpetrators before they commit an act. I think that would be an admission of failure that none of us would be prepared to make. So I think those requirements remain valid. I think that is still the primary responsibility of both the intelligence community and law enforcement, the whole of the state apparatus, to do everything that it possibly can to identify those individuals who may be thinking of committing a terrorist act before they get to that point. It may be very difficult, but we still have a responsibility to do that because our fundamental responsibility is to protect the communities in which we serve.

Roles and Missions

 The target community, if you want to call it that, is now so diffuse that it actually requires an integrated approach that is very different from what we were doing 10 or 15 years ago. I think that takes us into the area that you wanted to explore, which is, what are the respective roles and responsibilities of intelligence services and the law enforcement community?

MODERATOR: What I had in mind was the criticism made of certain elements of the U.S. military in Iraq, who focused on identifying and killing or capturing individuals. The argument made by General Flynn in his article4 was that the environment, the surroundings, so to speak, were ignored. If you think about the need for a high school teacher to be a collector of information, as someone who knows the environment, the social relationships, it seems to me there is an analogy with the kind of argument that General Flynn made. His criticism of his own intelligence service in Afghanistan was that it was missing perhaps the most important part of what it should be collecting on. Then the question becomes, If that is true, how do you collect all of that other stuff, the kind of stuff the teacher knows? Is that even a legitimate intelligence function, or do we simply say, "No, that is a policing function"? It is the same way the police might deal with a group of kids who are stealing cars or something. We don't think of that in terms of intelligence.

 We are now taking a quantum leap from a generic discussion of the problem to some very specific areas. This takes us into the whole realm of intelligence providing the forward screen that enables us to identify potential targets that are going to attack us domestically, and also the role of intelligence in supporting expeditionary campaigns in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I think those are two very different areas. I think on occasion, unfortunately, they have been seen as one and the same thing, which would be a mistake. You are also addressing issues that take us into the examination of the different approaches required to conduct a counterterrorist campaign or a counterinsurgency campaign. Again, I think those have been confused. Certainly they were confused in Iraq. I don't think the term counterinsurgency ever passed the lips of most of the U.S. generals I talked to until long after 2005. It was an absolute refusal to recognize what was going on, on the ground. But if you want to start trying to delineate the various intelligence approaches that are required in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, then I would be happy to try to start you off on that.

MODERATOR: I thought when you were talking about requirements [who, what, when, where, why, how], you might have been putting more emphasis on counterterrorism. I don't know if we want to continue to use those terms [counterinsurgency and counterterrorism] because I don't know if they are necessarily very helpful. But if, as others have said, the environment—what causes people to get involved in terrorism, or what contributes to people doing those kinds of activities—is important, then there is presumably information out there that we should know or could know that would help us affect that environment. The other view would be to say no, what we are going to do is try to go after the individuals before they commit the act, to prevent them from carrying out the attack. I don't mean to say those are mutually exclusive approaches; they probably have to be combined. I think other people here have suggested that. But they suggest to me different kinds of requirements and maybe even different kinds of intelligence functions.

 I think it is important; it is a duty to prevent. In my country, we have special legislation: we are allowed to arrest people even before they begin to do something. It is with this legislation that we have arrested more than 1,000 people and we dismantled 40 or 50 or 60 plots. The situation is different outside [one's country]. I think there is no one policy [for dealing with terrorism]. You must prevent and you must attack outside also, because the people that we face in our countries have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and so on. Where are the people who trained them? Where are the high-value targets? Recently, France had to act in Mali because of the AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb]. You have to find these people. You have to neutralize these people. So you have to have both policies: prevention inside and attacking outside.

There is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in France is called the Union of Islamic Organizations of France. He is a very well respected man. He doesn't ask people to go to fight, to become terrorists. But he is talking to the community, and he is developing the argument that you, the Muslim population, you are the best. You are different. You will be the future, and so on. So it pushes people to feel different from the rest of the population, exactly the thing against which we are fighting.

 The way that we have prosecuted our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, until relatively recently, has been very different from the way we have prosecuted the intelligence campaign domestically, in one very important respect. In the first few years, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, we weren't addressing the intelligence requirement. And, I think we confused counterterrorism with counterinsurgency. The name of the game was just going after high-value targets in both of those countries. A consequence of that, in part, was actually to fuel the sense of grievance among the local population, to actually make the operating environment both in Iraq and Afghanistan even more difficult because we were failing to win ground with the local population. I think we have become more sophisticated now, and the point that General Flynn was making when writing his report was that we had completely neglected a critical element, in terms of our ability to operate securely in Afghanistan, which was understanding the environment in which we tried to operate.5

You know, we hadn't actually collected what in old parlance we would call "ground truth," which is who lives where, what do they do, who do they know, how do they relate, and how do those communities work, how do they then relate to each other, etc. [We didn't collect that] because we were so focused on chasing after high-value targets. So I think we are now much more focused on the why. The question then, of course, is who is responsible for collecting the why, for collecting that mass of local information? I am not sure you can call it intelligence in strict parlance, but who [is responsible for] developing that ground truth, for developing the understanding that allows us to then operate more effectively and engage with the local communities?

 I agree with that. What I took from General Flynn's report was that we understood very poorly the environment we were operating in. That was the fundamental lesson.

 If that is true, in a certain way, this actually diminishes the role of what I think of as intelligence. It seems that domestically, if we need to understand the environment, that is essentially a police function. If we are talking about [understanding the environment] overseas, it seems to be something that intelligence, as it has been traditionally practiced, is not very good at. In a combat environment like Afghanistan or Iraq, you could argue that it is primarily a military function because that is where the military ought to have the primary role.

Maybe [our former FBI colleague] would object to this, but in the United States, there is no national domestic intelligence service…

 Yes, I would object…

 But it seems to me that [understanding the domestic environment], or understanding about certain people dispersed in a population, is really a police function. That is what [our colleague] was saying about India. And that seems to be the situation in France. That's different from Iraq or Afghanistan. It seems to me that the people who are most likely to collect that [environmental] information are not traditional intelligence people carrying out traditional intelligence functions.

 In [France], it is now not the police with intelligence power; it is an intelligence service with law enforcement power. But we use the same methods to penetrate, to infiltrate, and to work on terrorism. There is also a separate external service that belongs to the Ministry of Defense, but they are completely different [from the internal services].

 In [India], police are provincially organized. Police always had an intelligence wing, and this comes from the time of British control of India. In our country, the analysis is done by the intelligence agency because they have a pan-country vision or idea of what is happening. They can put things together and make a big picture, whereas the fragmented police at the local level are looking at individuals and trying to understand why they do this, or why they have these friends, or where they were for the last three years. The big picture is given by intelligence services to the police. The police and intelligence have been working hand in hand. We have problems of sharing intelligence, but the intelligence agencies are expected to pay attention to the big picture.

 To go back to the example of Iraq or Afghanistan, I am not sure which organization should take the lead in producing the rich picture of that particular country that would enable us to really understand who the key players are and where the communities are, etc. To be effective in the future, there needs to be a recognition that this is something that needs to be done, and that therefore anyone who is deployed on the ground ought to be collecting and offering up that local information to be fused into some kind of countrywide report.

I think it is a very good argument that the military should take the lead. Generally speaking, the military people have the biggest footprint, and they also have the critical mass that would enable them to do this piece of work. That is not to say that there isn't a very important contribution to be made by a country's external service, be it the intelligence service, or the diplomatic service, or NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], or coalition forces. But there is a requirement to try and capture all of that information as quickly as possible and to draw on, for instance, the expertise that may exist on that country before you even deploy. So, for instance, academics, authors, again NGOs, foreign service departments, and so on. What I am not saying is that it must be the military. It might make sense for the military to do this, but in fact, there needs to be a product that enables everyone involved to understand what is going on in that country and how it works and why it works in the way that it does.

MODERATOR: In a situation like Iraq or Afghanistan, what do you understand to be the specific contribution that the intelligence service can make?

 I am going to reference a point that [was] made before, which I think is absolutely right: the role of the intelligence service is to help support the national policy in that country. Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule, but certainly in the United Kingdom, the role of the intelligence community is to answer intelligence requirements that flow directly from an articulation of whatever the national strategic interests may be. Those national strategic interests are then translated into various different policies. Where it becomes more complex is that there is also a role for the intelligence community to provide force protection–related intelligence. Now you can argue where that starts and where it ends. Clearly there is a link between strategic interests and ensuring that your nationals deployed in a particular country are as safe and secure as possible. There is a role for the intelligence service in that. But how you then articulate those intelligence requirements and how you then meet those requirements, I think, becomes a separate issue.

 Are you saying that the intelligence service has a focus that is more political and strategic, and that the military will probably focus more at the tactical level? That is a traditional way of understanding the division of labor in a situation like that.

 In 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, the [intelligence] products that I was seeing coming from the CIA were very focused on high-value targets. The things that I was reading coming from the military had to do with broad political understandings.

It depends on the specific time period you are talking about [in Iraq]…

 In the French case, the DGSE6 does both [tactical and strategic intelligence]. They have their own forces and may make their own operations if necessary, but generally the problem is really how to put all of that together.

In the Bosnia campaign, we had 41 nations in the "coalition of the willing," and we worked out the intelligence support with the commander of SFOR [the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia] almost on a weekly basis. What do you need? What are you planning to do? Where are people going to be in harm's way? Is there anything we can do to make sure that you don't run into harm? Is there anything you would like us to look at? The intelligence services played that role. Not tactical military intelligence collection; [the military] did that themselves. But [we worked on] reports, for example, that the Iranians had a secret training camp in Bosnia. A team spent four days hiding, going through the woods, to check that out, but they weren't soldiers in uniform. One of the goals that General Shinseki7 had at the time was to reduce the potential points of conflict by reducing the presence of the soldiers among the civilian population. So the whole point was to keep it as clandestine as possible. I think you can work those things out on the ground fairly easily if you have a willingness on both sides. If you don't, then no matter what they say at the headquarters level or the national [capital] level, then it is never going to work. I do see a complementary role between the two services.

MODERATOR: How would you specify that complementary role? Or are you saying that there might be some general principles that explain what those complementary roles are but it really depends more on what needs to be done in the circumstances?

 At the time [in the Balkans], we had people who concentrated on the national strategic objectives and reported on those. Then we had a small group that was assigned to support SFOR in Bosnia and Croatia. That was our job—to support General Shinseki. Other people provided the regular flow of intelligence. My job on the ground was to support his lead, not to go out and do tactical military intelligence collection or anything like that. We didn't do any reporting on the Serbs manipulating their tank parks and moving vehicles around secretly and things like that. The military was covering that. On at least a weekly basis, sometimes more frequently, we asked, "Okay, what do you need?" The commanders would say, "Well, we are going to go and inspect this factory. We believe this factory is producing such and such. Go by beforehand and make sure that we are not going to run into a hostile crowd or we are not being set up for any ambush." So we were doing a role that was complementary to and supportive of their mission.

 From my much more limited experience in the intelligence community, [I would say] there aren't clearly delineated roles, per se. At the higher level there are, but [intelligence] is mostly about supporting the customer. Intelligence isn't done in a vacuum. A lot of those things are worked out based on the customer and supporting whatever the customer wants.

 The consequence is that it is really messy and redundant and expensive because everybody has different intelligence organizations doing overlapping things. You don't have a lot of coordination to start with, not top-down coordination.

 Right, but I know exactly [what our colleague was talking about before, i.e., intelligence focused on high-value targets]. Many of us within the intelligence community were horribly disappointed by the CTC's [CIA Counterterrorism Center's]8 insistence that they were only going to deal with the top five high-value targets of the week. Many of us saw that as a total perversion of the intelligence process. There is nothing any one of us can do to change that, unfortunately.

 We still have to deal with nation-states, but now what can hurt us are small numbers of people, even individuals, who can do a great deal of damage, as [the] 9/11 [attacks] and subsequent attacks have shown. So one of our missions has morphed [from warning] into the notion of preventing—capturing and killing those people who can hurt us—and requirements have changed because of this. When we capture a terrorist, the very first question that people are trained to ask is, Do you know of any operations that are planned that can cause imminent damage to our country, to our allies? That is always the first question. Then you build from there. You jump from that person, going through his pocket litter and the information he has, to go immediately on to his confederates, linking to them right away and, you hope, wrapping them up in a matter of hours before they know that their colleague has been captured. That was an emphasis in Iraq and Afghanistan. It then gets to your question. The intelligence community and intelligence agencies develop certain skills at [finding high-value targets]. And you are asking the question, Is that really the right kind of specialization for the intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military? You laid out some different ways to consider Afghanistan. The environment is so complex because, yes, it is a combat zone, but the enemy that we are dealing with is not a uniformed army and doesn't have the kind of assets and physical infrastructure that armies have, so I think it does very much call for the experience and skills of intelligence agencies as well [as the military] to find, fix, locate those individuals.

The problem that has afflicted the U.S. intelligence community, the civilian agencies, and the military is unique to the United States. Seen from the outside, certainly in Iraq and possibly in Afghanistan, a lot of tension arose out of competing interests and competing political interests. Certainly what I have witnessed is a struggle for primacy between the CIA and the DoD [Department of Defense] when it comes to who is going to take the lead on delivering intelligence. That struggle was only possible because of the scale of those two organizations. It was not a struggle, certainly, that existed within the UK community, and in my understanding, working with close allies didn't afflict our other allies. It is a problem that is very specific, I think, to the United States. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia—these were very different problems from a number of different perspectives, and it was a lot tidier to be able to distinguish who was responsible for doing what. The moment you get to something as complex, as big, as difficult, as intractable, and as messy and as dangerous as Iraq or even Afghanistan, then this neat, tidy division of responsibilities falls away very quickly.

 Well, I think that is true. It seems to me that what was missing in Afghanistan, for example, was what, I believe, police normally gather just in the course of doing their business walking around the neighborhood—or they should. As far as I could see, neither the foreign intelligence service nor the military—again, this is a U.S. perspective—was able to do that effectively in Afghanistan. I understand the coordination problem, but it also seems to me that there is an element of information or kinds of information that we are not collecting.

 I completely agree with you, but I think you have to go back to the reason behind our deployment to Afghanistan. We deployed to Afghanistan very specifically to destroy al Qaeda. Now to destroy al Qaeda, we had to dismantle the Taliban regime, but the reason we put boots on the ground in the first place was to destroy al Qaeda. It was not to create a new state of Afghanistan. Therefore, when we first deployed to Afghanistan, there was no requirement placed on anyone to go out and understand the communities because that wasn't relevant. So when suddenly it became really important to know and understand the community, we had already been there for many years, and the damage in some sense had already been done. So we are constantly having to play catch-up. Now the requirement is to understand the communities, but I think where General Flynn was both right and unfair was in saying, "Well, we didn't have that information." That is correct, but it is unfair because I don't think anyone was actually tasking anybody to go out and collect that information. So, from a U.S. perspective, you may argue, and I can see the sense of this, that in fact it is the primary responsibility of the military, because of their footprint in the country, to go out and collect that kind of information. But the U.S. military isn't everywhere. So how are they going to get the information they need about what is going on in Helmand before they deploy there? In Kandahar before they deploy there? The areas where the Germans are, the areas where the French are, the areas where all the close allies are? Whose responsibility is it to task those coalition allies to go and collect intelligence, and where does that information then go?

The big difference between operations like Iraq and Afghanistan and the Balkans was that in the Balkans, all we were trying to achieve was peace and stability. Fundamentally different from what we have been trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MODERATOR: Your comments bring us back to the point [our colleague] made when we first began to talk about requirements. Ultimately, those requirements and what intelligence organizations do depend on what the policymakers say is the mission, or what they say they want to accomplish.

 Let me add one thing about policing and intelligence. Cultural intelligence, or understanding the community, means tracking information [on activity] that is not inherently or necessarily illegal or wrong. When the U.S. intelligence community does that in Afghanistan or Iran or North Korea, Americans would say, "Sure, let's do that." When we do it domestically, that is a problem. So that is where it may or may not be law enforcement's role; we are still trying to figure that out.

 Yes, you are exactly right. I am a recovering cop, so I will tell you that you just don't do that stuff in the United States. It is exactly when you start keeping track of it in some database that it becomes a problem.

 [In my country] as well, that is a problem. In one of our provinces, they tried to make a database. It was struck down [by the court], a big embarrassment for the government and everyone. Putting it in a database, that is the problem. But there is a need for that database because that helps you do [your job]. I don't know how we will do that.

 So the situation is difficult in your country. In Europe—in Britain, Germany, Holland, France—most of the domestic intelligence organizations are not police.

 But there is an advantage to that approach because the police function is separate from the intelligence function. Normal policing is understood as a coercive force to prevent crime, and that is separated from the information collection function, so [intelligence collecting] is not as threatening.

 Let me say again that, in my view, based on our experience in the United Kingdom, the best strategy engages not just the police but also all of those other governmental institutions that come into daily contact with the communities. I mean teachers, health providers, etc., in the hope that, with everybody engaged in this information-gathering enterprise, a much better understanding of those communities will be developed, and potentially people who are becoming radicalized or have become radicalized will be identified much more quickly. But if you go to Afghanistan, then none of that [community] infrastructure exists there. The question, then, is, who should collect it? Well, that goes back to who has got the most boots on the ground, who is going to have the best ability to collect it, and that almost certainly is the military. But then the other people who are engaged [overseas] with those communities must not be forgotten. Their information needs to be collected and become part of the intelligence product.


1. A "lone wolf " terrorist is someone who acts alone, without belonging to or taking orders directly from a larger organization.

2. Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric (born in 1938) who came to the United States, was convicted of seditious conspiracy for terrorist plotting and is serving a life prison sentence.

3. The exclamation crikey is apparently of Australian origin.

4. Michael T. Flynn, Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, 2010): http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/AfghanIntel_Flynn_Jan2010_code507_voices.pdf

5. Flynn, Pottinger, and Batchelor, Fixing Intel.

6. Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, or General Directorate for External Security.

7. General Eric Shinseki, U.S. Army, served as commander of SFOR from 1997 to 1998.

8. The CTC is an office in the CIA that integrates collection and analysis, including the information provided by other intelligence and operational agencies, which send staff members to work at the CTC. In addition to analysis, the CTC directs operations. Established in the 1980s, the CTC is often cited as an example of effective interagency cooperation. For this reason, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 established a National Counterterrorism Center as part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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