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Intelligence Collection: Is it Driving or Being Driven by World Changes and Conflict?

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By Robin L. Thompson, DM

The many political games and power plays occurring throughout the world on a daily basis are not always as they appear. Members of the intelligence community (IC) must proactively seek out clues and dig deeper to fully comprehend what is really happening behind the scenes. Metaphorically speaking, the IC does not have a wise dog like Toto in The Wizard of Oz to pull back the curtain and reveal that the wizard is really just a regular guy with an ulterior motive. Instead, the IC must rely on its strong and highly integrated and worldwide network in order to collect information and provide accurate intelligence.

Social Media and the Intelligence Community
The world today is grounded in the information age. Social media is being used by terrorists, criminals, world leaders, military personnel, and “virtually” everyone! Social media was heralded by the popular press as the people’s voice for the Arab Spring movement that began in Tunisia in January 2011 and is still ongoing in Syria today.

These Arab Spring conflicts took the U.S. IC by surprise. It shouldn’t have, since the people were posting their intentions on publicly available social media sites as they were planning and protesting. I am sure that some people who are experts on that area saw this conflict coming long before the Tunisian man Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire and it was broadcasted on YouTube. As a whole, the U.S. government and IC were not prepared for the domino effect of falling regimes throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

The Need for More HUMINT
Too many times, the U.S. government doesn’t really look beyond the surface to see what is really going on. The American IC must evolve by using multiple intelligence collection platforms and should incorporate more Human Intelligence (HUMINT) into raw intelligence feeds so analysts can create comprehensive intelligence products for decision makers. For example, the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) intelligence failure in Iraq occurred because decision makers relied on only one HUMINT source, which the CIA dubbed, “Curveball” (Pleitgen 2008). The source appeared legitimate and told stories of chemical and biological weapons being developed in Iraq. He even stated that he worked in one of the facilities. Unfortunately, the CIA never interviewed Curveball directly and relied only upon transcripts from German intelligence sources.

There is a need for more HUMINT sources, but they need to be corroborated with other evidence from key collection platforms, such as telephone or Internet intercepts using intelligence information gathered from communications intelligence (SIGINT) or imagery. No collection platform should be used alone, especially when making major decisions that result in a country going to war.

As intelligence professionals, we owe it to our organization and our nation to take the time to look beneath the surface and peel back the layers of the onion. Once we get to the center, we can see the potential for the growth of positive change or conflict. Maybe then, instead of conflict driving intelligence collection, the IC can proactively predict and prepare for major conflicts and changes that are shaping the future of civilization.

Reference: Pleitgen, Frederik. 2008. Source of Iraq WMD intelligence tells his story. CNN World. (October 10). (Accessed 25 June 2012).

~Dr. Robin Thompson is a former USAF Security Forces officer, civilian Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), and an independent security consultant in the private sector. Currently, she is the Lead Counterintelligence Special Agent for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the Langley Research Center. Dr. Thompson’s specialty is intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and leadership. She is also a faculty member in the Intelligence Studies Program at American Military University.

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