Should Intelligence Officers be Hunters or Gatherers?

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.


Organizational Drift

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.



  1. Francis Brooke 14 January, 2015 at 20:42 Reply

    Col. Lisagor,

    You could not be more correct in your analysis of the CIA and their performance over the last decade. In fact, you give them far too much credit for their extremely limited successes and fail to highlight how often their “kinetic” actions have gone catastrophically wrong – killing and torturing innocents and inflaming populations.

    However, I have spent years in Iraq since 2003 and I cannot agree that “In general, it has been a disaster for America.” On the contrary, I believe that the removal of Saddam’s dictatorship and the midwifeing of Iraqi democracy has greatly increased American security and allowed a beneficial focus on the true threats in the region – Saudi-sponsored radical Islamic in particular.

    While I know that this throwaway line is not the focus of your piece, I (and, no doubt, others) would appreciate more support for your assertion.


    Francis Brooke
    Washington, DC -Baghdad, Iraq

  2. cjones1 15 January, 2015 at 03:02 Reply

    I think the Sunnis turned a blind eye towards support that has funded dangerous militant groups and we know they have played with the oil supply to suit their political objectives. I was suspicious of the rise of oil prices as the surge in Iraq was meeting with success…with a high logistical cost for our troops in the field.
    I was happy with the current oversupply of oil when it affected the Russian, Iranian, and Venezuelan economies, but I am concerned with the harmful effect it is having on the North American energy producers. We must maintain our independence in regards to energy supply in the upcoming turmoil that seems to be unavoidable.

  3. martin 15 January, 2015 at 09:01 Reply

    Yawn, blame America

    Seems that every intel agency failed

    We seem to have
    – missed the fall of the Shah until we heard the thud (although as always there were, after the fact, some glimmers in the data wreckage

    – or the disintegration of the Soviet Union until it broke,

    – and we got popular support for the Kennedy invasion of Cuba by Castro exiles also wrong

    – the shia sunni split is not new

    If we had not invaded Iraq, the author offers …NONE of this would have happened?

    Iraq v Iran was b/c we invaded Iraq, or Kuwait, or saved the Sauds from Saddam

    Maybe we should go back to Winston Churchill’s creation of Iraq as an unstable entity? maintained by domestic 10,000s or 100,000s dead

    I go back to Khomeini and the return to the global caliphate, THAT in turn links to the French defeat in Algeria and the rise of modern Arab nationalism,

    Maybe we should have left mosse dagh in place

    The Ottomans kept a lid on the bottle pretty well
    – –
    WHAT WE MISSED was the disintegration of the Iraqi army we left behind, like the disintegration of the South Vietnamese army we left behind

    AND for those who watched the many many bombings in Iraq before ISIS made its move – THAT was ISIS’s own shock and awe, preparing the battlefield

    Brilliant, tactically, in retro

    When we left Iraq we left behind, we hear, zero HumInt, no overflights, no drones no local operatives, and probably abandoned those who had helped us

    As one reads the internal schisms within the many factions, the sides are not shia v sunni

    Lebanon had 30 years of civil war – all Sunni v Shia? no way

    Iran v Iraq, overlaps with sunni v shia,

    BUT the locals seem to have be flatfooted also and THEY are deemed to know these things up close and were still undone

    The REAL DEAL is secular vs theocratic Islam, THAT explains Syria, and Egypt – Syria is the War of Islamic Purification

    and the locals can’t figure it out either

    Or Nigeria and its own butchers? OUR blind spots?

    I blame our own leadership – The Fish Rots From The Head

    SO how did these folks arise so quickly? they seem to have disappeared also, more status quo

    and the thousands who travel – we have no intel inside our own exile communities — the two Paris shooters were known, a ll the shooters and bombers are always known, we learn, after the fact, always

    The West has disarmed itself, for fears of profiling, ITSELF a magnificent victory for Islam, preparing the battlefield

    ISLAM has won twice, (1) disarming in preparation and (2) splintering the local opposition by butchery and local terrorization

    THAT is our lesson

    THAT is to be taught in military schools and war colleges, how Islam blinded us – Sun Tzu said – knowing your enemy is half of victory, we were down 50% before the first shot

    THAT is where we failed, self-blinded by refusing to see war until the shooting started AND EVEN now we ‘explain away’ the 1300 war of Islam against itself and the infidel as aberration of cartoonophobes

    KNOW THE ENEMY, follow sun tzu

    Shia v Sunni it ain’t

    Blame America it ain’t

    • Tom 15 January, 2015 at 14:27 Reply

      I had to stop reading after just a few paras, because the author was showing his ignorance of basic facts about historical CIA organization and composition. It was never just a collection of wonkish analysts. It has always been an organization with two primary directorates – one for analysis and one for operations. The analysts largely worked from Langley, while the operators largely worked from US Embassies overseas. Completely different missions – one to gather intel, another to interpret it. By fudging this right off the bat to make his own partisan points, the author gets a credibility fail.

      • Jay Reardon 18 January, 2015 at 07:33 Reply

        Gathering and interpreting indeed are 2 separate missions; the third mission is operations But your comment ignores the author’s main thrust which is that the ops portion is now out of balance from the collection and analysis functions. 6 decades of history indicates that bad things and intelligence failures proliferate when this imbalance exists: Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, overthrowing democratically elected governments, Iran-Contra, the blowback from arming the Mujahideen — the list is long. The ops function sucks up more funding and interest because it’s way more “sexy” and seems to be more impactful. Meanwhile, the analytical function/capability atrophies. It’s part and parcel of a larger vicious cycle in which America has entrapped itself.

    • M McGannon 15 January, 2015 at 16:17 Reply

      I think we can all agree that mistakes have been made since 2001 on how we have handled counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency operations and what we do post military operations, but I think it’s too simplistic an argument to say it all falls on the CIA and whether or not their Intelligence Officers should be “Hunters or Gathers”

      That’s not only a narrow view point of the CIA’s history and current mission sets, but the Intelligence Community as a whole.

      Contrary to popular belief or the media attention that CT operations get and unfortunately , the spot light on the enhanced interrogation techniques, that’s only one small piece of what the CIA and the Intel Community does on a daily basis.

      “America would be better served by an intelligence community focused on analyzing emerging threats and less on hunting terrorists themselves. ”

      And that’s exactly what 90% of the Intel Community is doing on a daily basis. There is a whole world to cover, the majority of analysts will never work the Middle East or Support CT ops in their entire career.

    • tdupuy 23 March, 2015 at 02:58 Reply

      I agree. American HUMINT is notoriously weak and requires on the ground intelligence to complement it’s ELINT. It’s frequently difficult to separate on the ground intelligence gathering and hunting functions in country. Some of the gathered intelligence is more perishable and has a limited window for exploitation. Thus the targeting (hunting) function. This was true with the OSS in WWII and the practice was adopted by its replacement, the CIA. I worked with OSS vets in SE Asia where we combined both functions as the circumstances dictated.

  4. mike 20 January, 2015 at 15:30 Reply

    The Global War on Terror shifted our entire National Security apparatus (not just the CIA) from a Strategic, Operational focus to a Transactional focus. This has pulled much of our capacity into the complicated world of drone warfare, terrorist use of the internet, countering violent extremism etc. Couple that with the proliferation of data, particularly in the open source, and you have the recipe for strategic surprise. Recognizing this problem and addressing the long term outcomes of things such as “altering the balance of power” before we take action are critical to where we go from here. We are prosecuting ISIS the way we prosecuted the GWOT, through the prism of a military campaign, absent of analytics, intelligence collection, strategic thought beyond the military end states.

    The NSC is only as good as what the IC and Interagency provide them from their departments and agencies. Conversely, if the NSC only demands tactical, transactional intelligence, you get what you ask for.

    • Jager Oster 26 January, 2015 at 21:58 Reply

      We need only to look at ourselves in America to see the face of trouble elsewhere.)
      Does it seem plausible that ISIS was the very product of donating 1 billion US taxpayer dollars to the Muslim Brotherhood/Arab spring? How often can we find that American money thrown at a foreign problem comes full circle and a beneficial return materializes?
      Many may recall the Bush “Faith based initiative” Taxpayer funded designations for religious causes. 0bama has followed suit which he does by reason that some else has done the same before him.

      Many may not recall the Presidential directive of President Reagan that empowered the CIA to conduct it business in the USA proper. No doub’t born of good intentions but perhaps has brought unintended consequences.

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