US Intelligence and The Eye of Sauron

on March 30 | in Bureaucracy, Intelligence Analysis, Intelligence Collection

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Last year I had the opportunity to do something most intelligence professionals never do: I took a year off away from the community, and I studied analysis as an academic subject. In researching the topic, I also got to think a lot about what it means to create strategic intelligence and how well we really do it. Much of that year’s thinking was channeled into a graduate course on analysis that I’ll be teaching this summer through American University.

Looking in-depth at our history and our culture revealed more to me than nine years of working down in the trenches—and that’s telling. Granted, without those trench years, I wouldn’t have the foundation of experience to question or validate outside perspectives. But at the same time, it revealed the degree to which our culture and our processes inside the IC blind us to a honest evaluation of our capabilities, our strengths, and our shortcomings. That blindness is so routine that it has become part of our worldview.

Blindness? Well, more precisely myopia: the condition of being able to see things right in front of you clearly, while not being able to see things farther away. For this reason—and others—I began using “The Eye of Sauron” as a metaphor when I talk with my students about the powers and limitations of US intelligence.

If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies (or read the books), you probably remember the image: a giant, red, lidless eye hovering in the air, casting a searchlight-like beam of baleful maleficence out over the lands of Middle Earth. (An aside: I’ve never managed to get “baleful maleficence” past PDB editors, much to my chagrin.) Like the Eye, we have enormous capability and reach—but we still miss things that could kill us.

In Tolkein’s story, The Eye represents the hidden, oppressive surveillance that threatens to detect any misstep in the journey. (As some have said, one does not simply walk into Mordor.) Like The Eye, the surveillance and detection capabilities of the U.S Intelligence Community today are seemingly omnipotent. While analysts used to have to wait days to obtain collection taken from separate sensors, collection systems, and sources, today we increasingly can see a holistic, near-real time picture using fused collection inputs and sophisticated visualization. At its best, the “Eye” can see through cloud cover, past darkness, around walls—it can sometimes even fill in gaps and see things that aren’t there.

Like with Sauron, you really do not want to be the one thing that the IC is looking for. When focused on a single individual or network, the pressure of sophisticated technology and human innovation quickly limits your options and makes it dangerous to move or communicate. The “Eye” has now been honed through fifteen years of nearly-nonstop targeting operations designed to find, fix, and finish terrorist networks. Operational freedom depends largely on not doing anything that escalates your importance and calls the full gaze of the Eye on your movements, network, communication, and habits.

Yet the Eye is also fickle and myopic—it frequently lacks perspective, it’s schizophrenic, and it has difficulty “seeing” more than one thing at a time. Starting with a solid appreciation of the unrecognized challenges of analysis, I expected that I would emerge more sympathetic to the IC and more critical of the demands of policy. Instead the opposite proved to be true. I found myself concluding the IC very often falls short of what it is capable of and frequently fails in its core mission of providing insight, context and opportunity.

Ask policymakers what they rely on, and the honest ones will tell you they consider newspaper articles, expert opinions, and personal experience in addition to intelligence assessments. Why? We should dominate this field: we have both peerless expertise and top-secret information. But while intelligence provides technical precision and careful conclusions, newspapers, experts, and personal experience often provide more valuable for insight and context. Analysts are often limited in conveying their insight by the tradition of eschewing quotes, metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, and symbols—the very things linguists have identified as essential tools for human cognition. For many policymakers, intelligence is often technically correct but too cautious, too slow, and too caveated for decisions.

The Intelligence Eye is also dangerously prone to shifting anxiously from emergency to emergency. Declassified analysis demonstrates the IC has been remarkably good at interpreting and reporting on current events—and pretty terrible at understanding and predicting big-picture shifts. Put another way, relying on the Intelligence Community to understand the policy world is a bit like navigating a highway by looking through a telescope—you’ll get exceptional accuracy and detail anywhere you look, but you’ll probably still miss your exit and get hit by something you can’t see coming.

But perhaps the biggest shortcoming is our schizophrenic focus. Technically, we maintain a baseline coverage all over the world through satellites, SIGINT capabilities, HUMINT contacts, and open source collection (a capability no other country is capable of). But in fact both our policy and intelligence communities are frequently in a frenzied state of activity focused around one or two problems—if something isn’t blowing up right now, it’s second priority. Even if an analyst can accurately predict an emerging challenge, they may have to wait until it arrives—fully formed and dangerous—to get the queasy satisfaction of saying “I told you so.”

Consider our struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is getting crushed right now; it’s in the focus of the Eye. But on the periphery of our vision is Iran, slowly and methodically remapping Iraqi society and preparing the way for a future where Iraq is an Iranian proxy. Does the IC detect Iran’s intentions? Almost certainly.

But when there are bombs going off in Paris and Brussels, it’s difficult to convince anyone that the Iranian-backed sectarian tilting of the Iraqi government further cements the distorted power structure that allowed ISIS to arise in the first place. So predictably we’ll defeat ISIS, then be asked why an angry disenfranchised Sunni population is still making Iraq violent, divided, and unstable.

Let’s remember that in the end, two hobbits from the Shire walk up right under the Eye and manage to destroy it. That’s my fear—that by focusing so intently on the threat of the moment, by focusing the Eye on whatever the customer wants to see, we’ll miss the thing that walks right up under us.

David Millar most recently served as the Senior Intelligence Analyst for Northeast Asia at Special Operations Command – Pacific (SOCPAC), providing strategic insight and analysis for planning and operations in the PACOM region.  He also served for five years as an intelligence analyst in support of the Executive Branch, specializing in political institutions, leadership dynamics, and decisionmaking. 

Photo: This Eye of Sauron actually exists. A Hubble image of a ring of dust around star Fomalhaut. (NASA)

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