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The Intelligence Conundrum in Terrorism Cases
My former colleague and friend David Ignatius offered some valuable insights into the problems in the intelligence community that highlight one of the most difficult aspects to deal with:How to gather the right information and get it to the right people? And why isn't the counter-intelligence capabilities of non-state armed actors taken seriously?

The first problem has been building for some time and is likely to get worse before it gets better. Volume rather than quality is often a driving force in intelligence collection, because no one ever wants to be the one that did not report an important link. So everything, from mundane to serious, and the vast majority in between, is not only put into the system but often is left to the highest levels to sift through. This renders the entire process inefficient, because no one can sort through the volume of information flowing in and make intelligent decisions.

As Ignatius noted:

"The problem is that the system is clogged with information. Most of it isn't of interest, but people are afraid not to put it in," explains one agency veteran. The Counterterrorism Center is supposed to review more than 120 databases; senior officials there are supposed to process 10,000 to 12,000 pieces of information a day; large stations can receive several thousand cables a day. No wonder the real threats get lost in the noise.

What has the solution? Much of it is cultural and revolves around leadership. When people are afraid of making mistakes and work avoid them, rather than to a job and find solutions, you get a machine that performs with technical efficiency but with a minimum threshold for risk. Too much risk, of course, also leads to problems, but we are not close to that at this point.

Having spent years as a foreign correspondent, I liken what I see to a reporter abroad, with a good or bad editor back home (and I have had both.) The good ones provided guidance on what would be of interest but trusted the people in the field to do their job and cover issues largely based on the correspondent's initiative and evaluation of what was important.

The selection process was rigorous to make sure the person in the field was worthy of such trust. If a reporter went out to the bush and something happened far away and he couldn't get there (as happened with me more than once) it was viewed as an acceptable risk to get original stories from isolated places. If the trust proved ill-founded, the person could be recalled and that was it.

The bad ones tried to micro-manage coverage, rewrite stories to serve their preconceived ideas of what was happening and kept correspondents running to try to match every story in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and everyone else. The result was the correspondent was tied town in the capital because he/she had to worry more about what other people wrote and what the editor wanted than to about actually learning, acquiring and writing good information based on a broad understanding.

The IC needs more good editor types: Those who can pick good people and trust them to run within broad guidelines clearly understood. This will mean that there is more risk and individual accountability. It will also mean that somethings may be missed. But it beats the odds of someone figuring out what of the thousands or millions of unconnected bits floating around should be connected.

On the al Qaeda counter-terrorism issue, I think we are largely still blinded by idea that these non-state actors, because they have few resources and are generally low-tech, are stupid. They are not. They study, they plan and run operations against their enemy - us. And they are good at it. That is why Europeans and Americans are being recruited intensively. They don't fit any profile in terms of looks or language. They probe defenses, plan patiently and strike when they can. it is time to take them as seriously as we take state actors from China, Russia and elsewhere. If we don't we will pay a high price.
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