DO HUMAN INTELLIGENCE COLLECTION OPERATIONS STIL HAVE VALUE?
By Victoria Loewengart, Partner at TBI, LLC (www.insidertalk.net)
22 Feb 11. It seems that technology is the main means of intelligence collection these days. UAVs and satellites are indispensible for military reconnaissance, and cyber spying and consequently, cyber security, are discussed in the media daily. Human spies in defense arena seem to be the relics of the Cold War era, although economic espionage is on the rise. Do human intelligence collection operations still have value for insuring the security of our nation?
Human Intelligence (HUMINT) as a collection platform was significantly weakened during the Carter and Clinton Administrations. Carter’s Administration gave priority to signals intelligence (SIGINT) and photoreconnaissance, using the rationale that technical means were better suited to collecting geospatial and weapons intelligence during the Cold War era. Clinton’s Administration deemphasized human intelligence collection because of the end of the Cold War and because of political pressure; the CIA’s human intelligence collection allegedly relied on too many people involved in criminal activity. History proved that the actions of the Carter and Clinton Administrations, although well intended and justifiable at the time, were shortsighted.
The events of 9/11 and more recent terrorist attacks clearly showed that the weakness in human intelligence collection and analytical capabilities can have devastating effects on the security of the nation. After 9/11 the value of HUMINT was re-discovered by George W. Bush, who called for improvement of the US human intelligence operations.
Today, following both thwarted and successful terrorist attacks, the value of human intelligence operations is more important than ever. Barack Obama’s administration acknowledged the failures of intelligence operations, and plans to overhaul and improve the intelligence collection and analysis system.
This administration’s desire to improve HUMINT collection and analysis is highly justified. The advantage of human intelligence lies in an understanding of the nature, culture, language, relationships, ideologies, and moods of our adversaries. The best and most reliable intelligence on terrorist plans can only be achieved by infiltrating terrorist organizations and communities where groups like Al Qaeda recruit new members.
HUMINT is a very important collection platform, but is not without its shortcomings. Ironically, the human nature component that makes HUMINT so valuable is also one of HUMINT’s major downfalls. Often, the human motivations such as greed, gaining advantage, fear, or wanting to please are behind the actions of those who sell, disclose, falsify, or misrepresent secret information. Also, one must not discount the human flaws of those who receive, interpret, and analyze human intelligence. The resulting intelligence reports reflect the various levels of experience and training, not to mention pressure from leadership to come up with the “right answer.”
A good example of human intelligence gone wrong is the case of a young Iraqi engineer, Rafid Ahmed Alwan, also known as Curveball. Alwan gave false information about Iraqi WMDs in order to expedite his immigration applications to the West. Despite many warnings of its unreliability, this information was used as “means to an end” to promote the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. And now, 8 years later, and many human lives and billions of dollars lost, we are still living the consequences.
In conclusion, HUMINT always will have tremendous value in ensuring the security of our nation. Hopefully Obama’s overhaul of intelligence operations will include improvements in communication between intelligence agencies, retention of experienced personnel, and better training of intelligence collectors and analysts. Well trained HUMINT collectors and analysts will hav