Senior American leaders, from President Obama on down, and the U.S. intelligence community as a whole were caught flatfooted by the seemingly sudden appearance, rise, and rapid expansion of the Sunni extremist organization known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. How is this possible, given the massive budgets and superior capability of American intelligence gathering organizations in the post-9/11 era?
In the Global War on Terror, the CIA has become an operations-oriented outfit, moving away from its traditional—and historically more successful—role of analysis. The CIA has developed its own cadres of warfighters and paramilitaries. This work in conjunction with US Special Operations Forces has expended increasing amounts of the funds and energy of the CIA. One severe indicator of this shift in priorities from analysis to operations is the will to do whatever it takes to obtain the Holy Grail of actionable intelligence, the shocking results of which have been brought to light following the release of the Senate report on the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program.
From Gatherer to Hunter Culture
The CIA has evolved from a large cohort of bookish Ivy League professors with slides rulers and pocket protectors attacking analytical problems with political, economic, social, and technological tools to a group of torture-minded operatives, assisted by ‘guns for hire’ contractors, interested in stress positions and the ‘rectal hydration’ of detainees. As a doctor, I can inform you that while the mucosal lining of the colon and rectum is able to absorb or reabsorb water, it has no capability to absorb nutrients. This makes former-Vice President Dick Cheney’s heart-felt support for rectal nutritional support for detainees the ultimate oxymoron of 2014. This is not the first time that CIA has drifted too far from its analytical expertise and purview and into warfighting and operations which has led to embarrassment and intelligence failure for America. The Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra still stand out as shining examples from CIA history of what can happen when too many operators get their hands on the controls.
The CIA has evolved from a large cohort of bookish Ivy League professors with slides rulers and pocket protectors attacking analytical problems with political, economic, social, and technological tools to a group of torture-minded operatives, assisted by ‘guns for hire’ contractors, interested in stress positions and the ‘rectal hydration’ of detainees.
The intelligence gatherers and analysts are having their problems as well. In a world where super-fast computers mine big data, we are misled if we believe that big data by itself is of any value. Big data still needs to be turned into intelligence, which then needs to become knowledge before it is then transformed into wisdom. We may have the ability to sift through big data, but the record supports that we are lacking in information, knowledge and wisdom. In the 20th century, the struggle of intelligence gathering revolved mostly about obtaining information. The dearth of it was often the problem. Today, in many ways, this problem has been turned on its head. The massive amounts of electronic and signals intelligence gathered by the U.S. intelligence community means that there is almost such a large volume of information that it becomes difficult to sift through it while it is still of any use. We have gone from trying to find needles in haystacks to finding needles in needle-stacks. Mass data gathering has its drawbacks. Signals are missed, misinterpreted, or mis-collated. The ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio problem, as Roberta Wohlstetter put it, has been a central concern in intelligence from the attack on Pearl Harbor through 9/11 until today. This was recently underscored yet again by the lack of intelligence preceding the 2010 “Arab Spring”, the rise of ISIS, and the attacks in Canada, Australia, and France. The signals were there; they were just missed amid the noise. SIGINT is not the solution to all of our problems.
Given that the intelligence community has been blinded by the ‘organizational creep’ from analysis to operations led by a zeal for paramilitary covert activities and actionable intelligence, it comes as no surprise that they have been surprised and without a coherent response to the rise of ISIS, or more to the point, to the inevitable rise of ISIS. CIA has been more interested in providing GPS coordinates for drone strikes against celebrity militants than it has been in analyzing the world political environment for emerging threats. Analysis has taken a back seat to operations. CIA has moved, as Charles Cogan puts it, from a ‘gathering’ to a ‘hunting’ culture and it has blinded them to new threats such as ISIS.
Spotting the Rise of ISIS
Why was the rise of ISIS inevitable? A cursory knowledge of Islamic history provides an answer. The Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 and died in 632. Upon his death, succession of leadership moved through his direct descendants. This established the Abbasid Caliphate Dynasty. After the third succession, there emerged an opposition to direct inheritance of the leadership in preference to succession based upon a community with chosen leaders instead of the genealogical tradition of the Abbasids. This was the basis of the Umayyad Caliphate. This schism led to the formation of the different Sunni and Shia sects of Islam which continues today. The Sunni, coming out of the Umayyad tradition, are the largest of the two groups. Shia, derived from the Abbasid tradition, are the minority, with the exception of Iran and pockets throughout the Islamic World. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Sunni-minority government of Saddam Hussein dominated Iraq’s Shia majority. A similar situation existed across the border in Syria, with the Assad government formed from a coalition of minority interests.
This balance between Shia and Sunni was disturbed and turned on its head by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein and, similarly, the weakening of the Assad regime in Syria has provided an opening for Islamic groups of all stripes to compete for power there. Always the majority, but suppressed politically and economically, now the Shias are in control of the Iraqi government with direct support from Shia Iran. Syria’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, Iraq’s Shia majority, and Shia Iran, together with a Lebanon dominated by Iran’s creature Hezbollah, represent a massed majority of the region’s Shia population and unity among these states or regions represents a threat to overall Sunni dominance, represented in wealthy Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. .
To put it plainly, the US has altered the balance of power between Sunni and Shia that has been in place since the triumphs of Muawiya I and II around 682. We have disrupted a tenuous though chronic situation of nearly 1400 years duration. Perturbation theory would predict that this disturbed system would attempt to work its way back to where it was before the perturbation, namely the US overthrow of the government in Iraq.
This change in the balance of power was brought about by US military power, not any sort of indigenous shifts in power. With the withdrawal of US power a good idea given the lack of a clear, articulated and sustainable foreign policy in the region based upon a defined national interestthere should be no surprise that Sunnis have mounted a response to the US-supported ascendancy of Shia power in the region. The Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and its regional monarchical allies have the most to lose if the Shia hegemony is not curbed. Therefore, support is flowing to ISIS from places such as Kuwait and the UAE.
Why was the US intelligence community caught with its pants down? That the toppling of Saddam Hussein would have other effects throughout the Middle East was obvious. For many neoconservatives, this disturbance of the status quo was exactly what they wanted—a ‘rupture’ of history. They knew something would happen. However, their technique was akin to taking a chemistry set and pouring things together with the confident belief the outcome would be for the better. For some populations it has been. For others it has gotten worse. In general, it has been a disaster for America. Many intelligence analysts did foresee trouble down the road. However, goaded by an angry America following 9/11, a gung-ho Bush White House on the trail of al Qaeda and bent on toppling Saddam, and an Obama administration that finally caught up with bin Laden and has ordered twice as many drone strikes, the CIA shifted its priorities from forecasting and predicting the occurrence of events such as the Arab Spring, Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and the rise of ISIS to trying to find compounds to raid or drop a bomb on.
America did finally catch up with those who attacked it on 9/11 and the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community had much to do with that. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda has been greatly disrupted and is splintered as an organization. Many of its top leaders are dead or are neutralized. However, as the recent attacks in Canada, Australia, and France show, the world is still a dangerous place where Islamic extremists other than al Qaeda or the Taliban pose a threat. America would be better served by an intelligence community focused on analyzing emerging threats and less on hunting terrorists themselves. Leave warfighting to the military. The CIA should put the meat-eaters on a leaner diet and return to a ‘gatherer’ culture.
[Photo: Flickr CC: Eventos Ahorasi]
Colonel Philip Lisagor, US Army (Retired) served 3 tours in Iraq and was part of Charlie Wilson’s war in the mid-eighties, training Mujahedeen in Peshawar, Pakistan. He lives in Northern Nevada where he trains horses and skis when there is snow. He was educated at the University of Illinois and University of Chicago. He was an Ally Fellow at the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government and recently completed an MFA in writing at Brian Turner’s program at Sierra Nevada College thanks to his GI Bill benefits.