With a massive intelligence program, the US is still caught off guard
Image from Flickr user DVIDSHUB
By Tom Engelhardt
By arrangement with
That figure stunned me. I found it in the twelfth paragraph of a
Think about that. CENTCOM,
And mind you, that’s just the analysts, not the full CENTCOM intelligence roster for which we have no figure at all. In other words, even if that 1,500 represents a full count of the command’s intelligence analysts, not just the ones at its Tampa headquarters but in the field at places like its enormous operation at
Of course, in the gargantuan beast that is the American military and intelligence universe, streams of raw intelligence beyond compare are undoubtedly flooding into CENTCOM’s headquarters, possibly overwhelming even 1,500 analysts. There’s “human intelligence,” or HUMINT, from sources and agents on the ground; there’s imagery and satellite intelligence, or GEOINT, by the bushelful. Given the size and scope of American global surveillance activities, there must be untold tons of signals intelligence, or SIGINT; and with all those drones flying over battlefields and prospective battlefields across the Greater Middle East, there’s undoubtedly a river of full motion video, or FMV, flowing into CENTCOM headquarters and various command posts; and don’t forget the information being shared with the command by allied intelligence services, including those of the “
And while you’re thinking about all this, keep in mind that those 1,500 analysts feed into, and assumedly draw on, an intelligence system of a size surely unmatched even by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Think of it: the US Intelligence Community has—count ‘em—
In other words, if that 1,500 figure bowls you over, keep in mind that it just stands in for a far larger system that puts to shame
Remember as well that, in these years, a
In other words, if that 1,500 figure bowls you over, keep in mind that it just stands in for a far larger system that puts to shame, in size and yottabytes of information collected, the wildest dreams of past science fiction writers. In these years, a mammoth, even labyrinthine, bureaucratic “intelligence” structure has been constructed that is drowning in “information”—and on its own, it seems, the military has been ramping up a smaller but similarly scaled set of intelligence structures.
Surprised, Caught Off Guard, and Left Scrambling
The question remains: If data almost beyond imagining flows into CENTCOM, what are those 1,500 analysts actually doing? How are they passing their time? What exactly do they produce and does it really qualify as “intelligence,” no less prove useful? Of course, we out here have limited access to the intelligence produced by CENTCOM, unless stories like the one about top commanders fudging assessments on the air war against the Islamic State break into the media. So you might assume that there’s no way of measuring the effectiveness of the command’s intelligence operations. But you would be wrong. It is, in fact, possible to produce a rough gauge of its effectiveness. Let’s call it the TomDispatch Surprise Measurement System, or TSMS. Think of it as a practical, news-based guide to the questions: What did they know and when did they know it?
Let me offer a few examples chosen almost at random from recent events in CENTCOM’s domain. Take the seizure at the end of September by a few hundred Taliban fighters of the northern provincial Afghan capital of Kunduz, the first city the Taliban has controlled, however briefly, since it was ejected from that same town in
As late as August thirteenth, at a
Shoffner responded, in part, this way: “So, again, I think there’s been a lot of generalization when it comes to reports on the north. Kunduz is—is not now, and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban, and so—with that, it’s kind of a general perspective in the north, that’s sort of how we see it.”
That General Cambell at least remained of a similar mindset even as Kunduz fell is obvious enough since, as New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg
It’s generally agreed that the American high command was “
Or let’s take another example where those 1,500 analysts must have been hard at work: the failed $500 million Pentagon program to train “moderate” Syrians
At that time, US military leaders and top administration officials
Or let’s take another example where those 1,500 analysts must have been hard at work: the
Here again is how the New York Times
Now, if accurate, this is wild stuff. After all, how anyone, commander or intelligence analyst, could imagine that the al-Nusra Front, classified as an enemy force in Washington and some of whose militants had been
In the wake of that little disaster and again, assumedly, with CENTCOM’s full stock of intelligence and analysis on hand, the military inserted the next unit of seventy-four trained moderates into Syria and was shocked (shocked!) when its members, chastened perhaps by the fate of Division 30, promptly
To turn to even more recent events in CENTCOM’s bailiwick, American officials were reportedly similarly stunned as September ended when Russia reached a surprise agreement with US ally Iraq on an anti-ISIS intelligence-sharing arrangement that would also include Syria and Iran. Washington was once again “
Similarly, the Russian build-up of weaponry, planes, and personnel in Syria initially “surprised” and—yes—caught the Obama administration “
The Fog Machine of American Intelligence
You get the point. Whatever the efforts of that expansive corps of intelligence analysts (and the vast intelligence edifice behind it), when anything happens in the Greater Middle East, you can essentially assume that the official American reaction, military and political, will be “surprise” and that policymakers will be left “scrambling” in a quagmire of ignorance to rescue American policy from the unexpected. In other words, somehow, with what passes for the best, or at least most extensive and expensive intelligence operation on the planet, with all those satellites and drones and surveillance sweeps and sources, with crowds of analysts, hordes of private contractors, and tens of billions of dollars, with, in short, “intelligence” galore, American officials in the area of their wars are evidently going to continue to find themselves eternally caught “off guard.”
Welcome to the fog of everything.
The phrase “the fog of war” stands in for the inability of commanders to truly grasp what’s happening in the chaos that is any battlefield. Perhaps it’s time to introduce a companion phrase: the fog of intelligence. It hardly matters whether those 1,500 CENTCOM analysts (and all those at other commands or at the 17 major intelligence outfits) produce superlative “intelligence” that then descends into the fog of leadership, or whether any bureaucratic conglomeration of “analysts,” drowning in secret information and the protocols that go with it, is going to add up to a giant fog machine.
It’s difficult enough, of course, to peer into the future, to imagine what’s coming, especially in distant, alien lands. Cobble that basic problem together with an overwhelming data stream and groupthink, then fit it all inside the constrained mindsets of Washington and the Pentagon, and you have a formula for producing the fog of intelligence and so for seldom being “on guard” when it comes to much of anything.
My own suspicion: you could get rid of most of the seventeen agencies and outfits in the US Intelligence Community and dump just about all the secret and classified information that is the heart and soul of the national security state. Then you could let a small group of independently minded analysts and critics loose on open-source material, and you would be far more likely to get intelligent, actionable, inventive analyses of our global situation, our wars, and our beleaguered path into the future.
The evidence, after all, is largely in. In these years, for what now must be approaching three-quarters of a trillion dollars, the national security state and the military seem to have created an un-intelligence system. Welcome to the fog of everything.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.