Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
May 5, 2005
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U.S. Forces In Iraq Face Obstacles In Getting Intelligence They Need
Though U.S. military and intelligence agencies are collecting vast amounts of intelligence in Iraq, commanders there are grappling with serious challenges in rapidly moving images and data to the forces who need it, according to officers in the region and some who have recently returned. That task is widely viewed as essential to mounting an effective counterinsurgency campaign.
There are glimmers of success in end-running the problem, including “tactical fusion centers” and “fires effects coordination centers” the military has set up in the Persian Gulf nation. These facilities work particularly well in bringing together intelligence analysts and warfighters with different specialties, sorting out critical information and pushing it to forces engaging enemy fighters, some sources say.
But American troops and their leaders still report great frustration in their ability to corral reams of sensor-based intelligence — including images gleaned from cameras mounted on aircraft and satellites; telemetry or voice communications picked up by listening devices; and data collected from sensors that detect changes in topography or the environment.
Though Pentagon officials say more Iraqis have emerged to provide intelligence tips since the January elections, the dissemination problem affects more seriously the vast data trove of technical intelligence, military sources say. So-called “human intelligence” tends to circulate better because it is managed at a single location — a “C2X” office at Multinational Force Iraq’s Baghdad headquarters — while sensor-based intelligence exists in diverse formats and is relatively scattered, officials say.
“The intelligence community is so layered and so compartmentalized that the only secrets they keep are from themselves,” says one Marine officer who has served in Iraq, speaking only somewhat in jest. “Intelligence should be like cars in a Hertz rental lot. You can go to the counter, get the keys and get in any car and start it.”
Drawing data from U.S. intelligence inventories is a bit more complicated. If a soldier wants to prepare for an operation to secure a mosque in Najaf, for example, he would have to direct his secure Internet browser to dozens of separate classified Web sites for each intelligence platform that may have gathered data on that mosque, sources explain.
To obtain any available pictures collected by the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft’s sensors, a service member must access the U-2 program’s own secret Web server. For signals data, the soldier would have to redirect his browser to the RC-135’s separate Web site and troll for intelligence that aircraft may have collected.
The same process must be repeated to locate data collected by the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, as well as a host of other reconnaissance and surveillance UAVs and spy satellites, sources say.
“How do I get into the 45 different databases?” asks one former officer with Iraq experience. “They’re all walled off from each other and they’re all different.”
In short, there is no such thing as one-stop-shopping for military intelligence data, despite the urgent needs of U.S. forces battling a poorly understood and increasingly lethal insurgency in Iraq, according to military officials.
There is no “Google,” no single intelligence Web site where service members — ranging from low-ranking privates to top generals — can go with some keywords or map coordinates and quickly pull up the information they need.
That’s not the only problem. Once at a platform-specific Web site, a virtual visitor may find any number of different rules or “protocols”
for doing a search — making the task cumbersome at best and, at worst, fruitless, defense officials say. One military source reports his search for a single image on one Web site took an hour and 40 minutes.
Much is accomplished through time-intensive or less-than-efficient work-arounds, like making phone calls and sending messages. In many cases, superb intelligence has been collected but simply fails to get into the warrior’s hands, these sources lament.
“Ultimately, if you collect [intelligence] but don’t disseminate it to the warfighter, it’s useless,” says one officer recently returned from Iraq. “You’re just soaking up electrons in the atmosphere.”
“I could probably get more usable intelligence from a séance,” quips one officer with recent Iraq experience.
Though the U.S. public is not widely aware of the predicament, the obstacles are well known among military leaders, sources say.
In the heat of the counterinsurgency battle in late 2003, the I Marine Expeditionary Force set up a fusion center to manage disparate inputs and push out usable intelligence to small units, according to some officers. (A detailed description of the center was published in the April issue of Marine Corps Gazette.)
“We [filtered] through all the stuff that is out there, learned what was helpful and, more importantly, what was not — so we could ignore it,” one senior Marine tells ITP. “We also assigned several — usually three — sharp guys at the fusion center who did nothing but watch over specific subordinate units, checking all sources for what might be useful to those elements for which they were responsible and expediting it to the units.”
Army leaders have created similar centers, but face perhaps greater obstacles, according to a number of service officials.
“Part of the problem is the intelligence staffs are under so much pressure to show things to senior officers that they present information but not analysis,” one former officer said. “They don’t have time to do analysis.”
Existing sensor-based intelligence dissemination systems were set up in peacetime to handle queries far removed from the urgency of Iraq’s counterinsurgency operations, notes this veteran.
“Now we have hours and not weeks or months,” says the former officer. “And that needs to be fixed.”
Over time, the intelligence community has evolved into “narrow lanes,” with specialists in satellites and signals intelligence and photo reconnaissance, for example, each developing their own way of processing and disseminating information, says one officer. But there is nowhere in the physical or virtual world where it all comes together.
“One organization may gather data and format it in one way, and then template it for what it thinks is the customer. And another organization may do it very differently, because the customer’s different,” says Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who heads U.S. Strategic Command at its Omaha, NE, headquarters. The intelligence is “diffused, it’s diverse. It exists, [but] it’s a question of how to Google it,” he told Inside the Pentagon in an April 6 interview.
Cartwright — whose command takes the Defense Department lead for worldwide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) — says he is trying to fix the problem. But it is so far-reaching and deeply rooted that the four-star guru for global military intelligence says even he can begin only with small steps.
The general wants to set up a “collaborative environment” among his four new “joint functional component commands” — dedicated to space and global strike, missile defense, information operations, and global ISR — that “will enable users to enter into this environ and draw upon the products and skills of all the [component commands], irrespective of where the user has entered the environment,” says one Strategic Command official, who spoke this week on condition of anonymity.
Many warfighters with a need to access intelligence are young troops on laptops, in a hurry, with little to no training in ISR or strategic issues, another officer says. Intelligence-sharing and collaboration should be available to such forces with just one or two clicks of the computer mouse, he and other officials suggest.
“What you need are repositories of information that users can understand and tailor for their particular needs,” Cartwright told ITP. “And you’re not pumping huge amounts of data to somebody who just wants to know what’s over the hill, vs. someone who needs to understand how to integrate five maneuver elements in a country.”
Computer technology now makes that goal attainable, but perhaps an even greater obstacle is looming, according to Cartwright. Traditionally, there has been little trust and cooperation among what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper terms highly specialized “tribes” that have difficulty speaking the same language.
“It’s not a technical issue any more,” Cartwright says. “It’s really more about culture and the ‘need to share’ rather than the ‘need to know,’” he says, referring to a traditional inclination inside the defense and intelligence communities to compartmentalize information and prevent wide distribution.
Physically removed from Iraq’s battlegrounds, Cartwright said he is starting by pushing decision-making authority down several levels of bureaucracy to his component commands, insisting they work together and deal directly with other combatant commands.
“I’m trying to . . . get them so that they cannot do anything alone. They’ve got to interact with the people,” Cartwright said.
That is a somewhat radical concept in a Defense Department where even small units and organizations tend to evolve into self-sufficient fiefdoms.
“Will that solve the warfighter’s problem? You’ve got to start someplace,” Cartwright says.
—Elaine M. Grossman