Best Defense

The surge’s ‘secret weapon': Lessons of interagency high-value targeting teams

The surge’s ‘secret weapon': Lessons of interagency high-value targeting teams


There’s a good new study out of interagency high value target teams and the role they played in Iraq in 2007. Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational Innovation, by Christopher Lamb and Evan Munsing, argues that the interagency targeting teams are neither well understood nor much liked inside the national security establishment. It also is one of the most interesting monographs I’ve read in some time.

The study’s core conclusion is that, in Iraq in 2007, "the interagency teams used to target enemy clandestine networks were a major, even indispensable, catalyst for success" (6) Even so, the authors note, the bureaucracies in Washington were not much interested in supporting them. "Cajoling parent organizations for support was a major preoccupation of senior leaders in Iraq." (58)

The most compelling part of the study is the discussion of interviews with former members of the high-value targeting teams about what worked and why. Some highlights:

–The single greatest variable of success was "access to the most senior decision makers…because it allowed the interagency teams to bypass multiple layers of mid level approval and obtain cooperation that otherwise would not have been forthcoming " (40)

–Middle management at the home headquarters and agencies of team members proved to be an impediment to information sharing, which was not the case with top management. The way to get around this, the study says, was to recruit personnel with enough seniority and experience to enjoy direct access to top level officials.    

–Smaller teams generally worked better than large ones. "Team members we interviewed …agreed that smaller teams, usually 8 to 15 people, were more effective and allowed greater cohesion and trust."

–The safer the area in which a team was based, the more pronounced bureaucratic differences became, with the Green Zone being the obvious example of a bad environment in which the sense of a common purpose was undermined.

–Teams that tried to operate "virtually" were far less effective than those that were physically co-located, eating and living together.

–One area that required constant attention resulted from the different view points of SOF and intelligence analysts. "There was a constant tension between the desire of the intelligence organizations to develop sources and targets and the desire of … operators to take out targets even at the expense of compromising sources." (45)

–The SOF general overseeing the joint targeting teams found that in order to get cooperation from CIA, FBI and other officials, SOF culture had to change to become more transparent. "SOF Task Force personnel were directed to set the example by being first to give more information. They were told to ‘share until it hurts.’ As one commander explained it, ‘If you are sharing information to the degree where you think, "Holy cow, I am going to go to jail," then you are in the right area of sharing.’ The point was to build trust, and information-sharing was the icebreaker." (46)

–The leadership of the teams was hand-picked by the SOF general. He knew that the team leaders had only limited authority over their team members and so could not order, but only ask, their members to do things, so he chose officers he thought were hyper active Type As who could pull back to Type B as needed.

It took several years for the teams to become effective, but "By 2007, the interagency high-value target teams were a high-volume, awe-inspiring machine that had to be carefully directed." (50) As it happened, there was a new top American commander who came, Gen. Petraeus, who embraced the teams and used them effectively.

Unfortunately, they conclude, once the crisis passed, the bureaucracies back in Washington who were contributing to the teams began to lose interest in supporting them. They also began to re-assert their own priorities. "By 2008, other departments and agencies, particularly one unidentified intelligence agency, began pulling back people and cooperation, believing information-sharing and collaboration had gone too far." (54)    

It reminds me of something I once read about the British defense against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, that the real trick was not radar but the organization that was able to combine radar, radio and aircraft to get the right planes to the right places at the right times, and keep doing it for months.