Thursday, March 08, 2007

Blue Force Intel

While I’m awaiting publication of an article that I wrote on the escalating violence in Nigeria (due out on, probably tomorrow), I’ll vent for a moment about an intelligence-related problem that I’ve continually run up against—as recently as yesterday.

The problem is collecting intelligence on our own forces—“Blue Force Intel.”

It’s a symptom of the deeper sickness of secrecy within our military. Open source warfare—the kind of thing increasingly practiced by outfits like al-Qa’ida—has far less of an issue with this. But the United States tends to guard information according to the classic method: the security of a secret is inversely proportionate to the square of the number of people who know it. Put otherwise, the US government doesn’t tell the US government what it is doing, and especially not what it is planning to do.

My most memorable experience with this occurred during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As chief of intelligence for a squadron of electronic jamming aircraft (EC-130H Compass Call), I planned offensive and defensive components of our missions. Offensive components included jamming enemy communications infrastructure in the locations that most aided our advancing ground forces. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing, and would be doing in the next day or two. Defensive components included avoiding those areas where our aircraft would be most vulnerable to surface-to-air fire. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing (what areas they had cleared, what areas they had simply bypassed), and what they would be doing in the next day or two. Naturally, it was virtually impossible to get any of this information direct from the horse’s mouth.

Sure, at some central operations center (actually only a few miles from my tent, but on an entirely different base that required driving a half hour through downtown Doha) there were people representing the exact units that I needed information on, but they didn’t know what precisely their own units were doing any more than our own representatives knew what we were planning—it was a simple issue of information processing burden I hierarchy. We had enough time to plan our own missions, or communicate all the fine details of those missions to our representatives, but not both.

So, it turned out that the most effective way to get the information that we needed was to engage in our own, unsanctioned intelligence collection on our own forces. This may seem wasteful, but it involved significantly less information processing burden in a hierarchy the size of the US military than actually asking our army units where they are now and where they plan to be tomorrow. Plus, they wouldn’t tell us anyway. Sure, we were on the same side, but specific operational details of the kind we needed are on a “need to know basis,” and no matter how much we explained that we need to know to protect *you*, we still didn’t have the right kind of “need to know.” So we would debrief our own flight crews on their observations about our own units locations, we would deduce our own military plans from information that we could access about locations for our own satellite collections, UAV flight paths, etc., and we would scour the secure internet looking for ways to access other units mission planning files. It worked out OK.

Which reminds me about my favorite part of the TV show “24”: the utter fantasy of how easily and fluidly they access information and electronic systems that magically tell them what they need to know. Trust me, it doesn’t work like that.

Fast forward to the present. I’m still dealing with the same issues when I work with domestic infrastructure security matters. Consider the following scenario: assume for the moment that there is a possibility that we will attack Iran. Then assume that, after we attack Iran, Iran will retaliate by attacking inside the US. Now assume that you’re tasked with protecting against that retaliatory attack. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if, and when, we are going to attack Iran. Hah! It appears that I don’t have the need to know these things. So, I resort to the same old tricks, and go to work using our own intelligence infrastructure to collect intelligence on ourselves.

Another example of the idiocy of hierarchy…


Rohan G said...

Christ all might Jeff! What does it feal like to be working so closely for the devil.

Jeff Vail said...

Ideological consistency is so boring!

sventastic said...

Far out.
Thanks for the insight into military intelligence (an oxymoron?).

Your post brings up a question I have about open source warfare.

So it is obvious that the US gov't is aggressively monitering email and websites (wouldn't surprise me if this one was being surveiled as I write).

What if they go on the offensive, and wage a disinformation war on rhizome bloggers?

For instance, what if they sent false reports to all Iranians they could get a hold of that we attacked Iran, with the aim of instigating them to do something to create an excuse to intern them, or to activate a sleeper cell or something.

The hierarchy could use open-source warfare to its benefit, while also maintaining the infrastructure of power that it has built for itself all along.

I have little doubt that this infrastructure's days are numbered and will collapse in the next few years, but in the meantime, is still a formidable juggernaught.

rich said...

Excellent post, Jeff.

I think the reason that the hierarchy would have trouble capitalizing on sventastic's suggestion is the same information processing overload that you mention in the post. While they may attempt such things, the sheer volume of information that they must process prevents an effective centralized solution.

2 cents

Dan said...

So it is obvious that the US gov't is aggressively monitering email and websites (wouldn't surprise me if this one was being surveiled as I write).

I think the largest part of these surveillance operations are just to create the fear that will keep people in line -- they're psy-ops. Processing everything potentially threatening to them on the internet is a mammoth task, logistically very difficult with very good communication, and a whole lot harder without.

Then again, the internet is the only area where mass surveillance can really have some use to governments I think, as in they can spend a little time and get a lot of information.

Jeff Vail said...

I've never really been concerned about the intelligence community monitoring this website, for several reasons.

First, I think that I have a very strong 1st Amendment right to say what I say here (though, to counter that, I've commented elsewhere that there is no such thing as a "right," only the power to act).

Second, I honestly believe that the concepts and Ideas that I'm hashing out on this site are good for both America and the world. I'm not saying that I'm a savior, just that "good intent" goes a long way to support any argument based on freedom of expression. Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is much more defensible if there actually is a fire--or at least if the declarant honestly thinks that there is.

Third, as I've written elsewhere, the government is way too incompetent to really be much of a threat to me. I simply can't stress enough how utterly, institutionally incompetent our intelligence services are. They are, quite universally, staffed with hard working, well-meaning people, but their size and organization structure virtually guarantee failure. I could ramble on about this point for hours, but will restraing myself for the moment...

Ryan said...

"So it is obvious that the US gov't is aggressively monitering email and websites (wouldn't surprise me if this one was being surveiled as I write)."

The difficulty of processing so much information is why our community (mine and Jeff's) is in a state of paralysis. We cut manpower, but buy fancy sensors and monitoring equipment. You have so much information, but no structured process to analyze it. So most analysts shoot from the hip at what seems plausible, and rarely do they get called out on their bullshit, especially when their analysis jibes with what their superiors wanted it to say anyway. There's few in the community that are true iconoclasts, since hierarchies don't reward iconoclasts.

Big Gav said...

Great post Jeff.

And while I agree wholeheartedly on the free speech thing (and the fact that you are actually doing the right thing by your country and everyone else), I'm not entirely sure that your intelligence database would be considered appropriate by those who enforce compartmentalisation of information.

Then again, maybe that job got outsourced to Halliburton and there's just one Mexican dude who never finished high school getting charged out at a couple of million bucks a day to pretend to do the work :-)

Jeff Vail said...

In my office, there is one intelligence analyst position, full-time, billed out by SAIC Corporation (one of the major intelligence contractors) at $130/hour. I am in no way being facetious when I say that a migrant farm worker would be considerably more effective.

Anonymous said...

The same dynamic - the need to have all information in the world, but am completely unwilling to share it - is probably more ingrained in law and business than in the military.

nulinegvgv said...


This is only kinda related but I was wondering what you think about what seems to be the intersection of the military revolution of open source warfare (largely unplanned adaptation) and the revolution in military affairs that is information warfare (much more planned adaptation). You know, if you have the time and are interested in sharing such thoughts.


Jeff Vail said...

I think that the military, as well as the rest of the intelligence community, are well aware of the importance and functioning of "open-source warfare." Well, at least some people within that complex are aware. But they either fail to understand how they can (must?) leverage open-source innovation themselves, or they refuse to give up the degree of centralized control necessary to make that happen.

I think that the potential of open-source warfare--specifically the ability to get well inside the OODA-loop of your oponent--is really quite different from information warfare (IW). IW is the military's attempt to use standard command-and-control warfare within the information realm. While the standard principles of warfare don't exactly apply, IW doctrine certainly doesn't attempt to leverage the principles of open-source warfare (decentralization of operations coupled with dense networks of peer-to-peer communication leading to emergent leadership). The Intelligence Community made one very timid step to try to leverage the power of open-source warfare within their own structure by allowing individual analysts to maintain blogs on the community's top secret network (JWICS). Even this small move proved to be too adventurous--leadership (I don't actuall know *who* led the charge) has already shut down the most interesting blogs, smothering the potential for innovation within the analytical community. I guess it's good that I never started my own JWICS blog, it would have been a waste of effort as I'm sure I would have been shut down already.

technician said...

for "open-source warfare" take a look at general Beaufre's work.
If you don't know it yet, he has been through a lot of those things that look new to our young eyes, like deleuzian rhizomatic analyzes, nuclear guerilla intelligence, deterrence and much much more...

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