Best Defense

Does the intel suck? Here’s why

Here Army Maj. Nathan Murphy, who toils on AfPak counterterrorism issues in the SO/LIC salt mines of the Pentagon, suggests that more collection platforms and more computer databases are not the answer to the problems that plague the American intelligence community.  We now live in a time where a simple order of any item is ...


Here Army Maj. Nathan Murphy, who toils on AfPak counterterrorism issues in the SO/LIC salt mines of the Pentagon, suggests that more collection platforms and more computer databases are not the answer to the problems that plague the American intelligence community. 

We now live in a time where a simple order of any item is just not good enough. It has to be faster, bigger, and the very best ever seen by mankind to this point. It’s not good enough to have a burger and fries; we have to make them enormous providing enough calories for a long day toiling on a construction site which very few of us do. Our quest for portion dominance on the world’s culinary table pours over into other aspects of American culture as is evident from our oversized SUVs to our 42 roll packs of toilet paper. Am I against such luxuries afforded to us as arguably the world’s last super power? Of course not. The 72 oz. big gulp sitting in the cup holder of your Hummer is a part of modern Americana but is unfortunately an indictment on our society as a whole.

I do not view this as a downfall as much as an impediment to progress when we take these expectations into the realm of intelligence and how we support the war effort. We must have more surveillance platforms, more analysts, more images, more reports, more systems, and more actionable intelligence – a term which I find redundant but remains popular. All that comes together to form this unwieldy giant we have come to know as the Intelligence Community (IC) as a result of perceived necessity. We have neglected the single point of failure which is to be able to think critically. We are currently involved in an insurgency in Afghanistan against a force that is routinely better informed than US forces. The enemy provides a painful example of doing more with less. What’s that you say? In the age of information dominance are we not the standard bearers for information gathering and sharing at the speed of light? Yes, we are in the academic sense of having forms to fill out, processes to follow, and more systems than we can efficiently use. We must be dominant because we have a line and block diagram for every occasion. Unfortunately, we focus on the form far more than the function of intelligence. So that there is no confusion among my tactical brethren who do more with less every single day, I am referring to those organizations that exist “for the benefit of the Warfighter.” A buzz phrase that held so much promise when I was commissioned, but a phrase now that elicits a wry smile and knowing nod among those of us who depend more on each other as tactical intelligence officers and enlisted analysts on the battlefield than those who have never set foot on blood stained ground.

As I was reading the 2007 – 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Strategic Plan, the lack of emphasis on critical thinking was clearly evident.  DIA has laid out eight overall goals for the next five years during which we will undoubtedly face some of our most serious challenges and threats to US foreign policies and objectives. Unfortunately, the objective to “foster critical thinking and promote long-term strategic analysis and warning” is ranked as subset number three to goal number three which it to “produce the right intelligence for the right customer at the right time.” This third goal is superseded by goal number one which is to “transform the defense intelligence enterprise” and goal number two which is to “achieve next generation collection capabilities.” We still do not promote the ability of the analyst to think critically on a problem. Original thought hurts plain and simple and is not always possible when facing a deadline. So an analyst Googles a particular item and reads the thread of reporting without 1) having a base of knowledge and 2) the ability to sift through what is important and what is not. An experienced analyst can achieve that rapid rate of return on a requirement but that ability takes years to mature and usually involves the analyst playing catch-up for most of their career. E-mails, report reading, meetings, and section softball games all compete for the time needed to focus on an issue and wrestle with it until useful intelligence is gained as the prize for the struggle. That unfortunately is the world in which we operate and represents the true intelligence cycle. Deadlines will always exist but they have come to foster an environment of microwave analysis. Stick the problem in and press a few buttons and out comes the answer but not always necessarily the solution.

The world of intelligence is, on paper, divided into divisions and work groups that address current and future issues, but we have become an entire organization focused on, if not rewarding only for, analysis of current events. Thought pieces do not get the same attention as daily briefs to the Joint Chiefs and so remain unexplored or entirely ignored territory until a catastrophic event occurs causing us to blow the dust off of them to answer the question of why it took place when and where it did. Analysis of current events is obviously necessary especially when a tasking affectionately referred to as a snow flake is sent down from the galaxy of stars residing in the beltway. But those in the position of producing long term analysis must be left to do so and be rewarded like those who answer requirements on a daily basis.

William Graham Sumner, who was a lauded professor at Yale University during the late 1800s, eloquently proposed an objective that should be addressed by the IC and especially those who direct it. “The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators … They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery.” The transformation that must take place within the IC does not only involve technology and information flow. It involves training analysts either a tie or a uniform to think critically.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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