Intelligence Collection and Systems Thinking


Methods of intelligence collection

Methods of intelligence collection

Not performing enough human intelligence collection is a standard refrain these days. As the saying goes, “we’ve traded spies for satellites.” A golden age of honeypots and tradecraft and dead drops had been left behind at the dawn of the digital age. This is, purportedly, in keeping with the military establishment’s general overreliance on technology, stretching back to Rumsfeldian “transformation,” the ill-fated “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), and earlier. Conventional wisdom has it that this shift in emphasis was proven correct in the 1991 Gulf War, but it could also be argued that this was the war that the US military—especially the “armor guys”—had been itching to fight since the partition of Germany. Rather than the harbinger of a new era, the Gulf War was instead the last gasp of the Cold War.

But what does this have to do with human intelligence?

Contrary to the emphasis placed on the “spy games” aspect of Cold War diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage, the period between 1936 and 1989 saw a vast increase in technical methods of intelligence and relative devaluing of  human collection (analysis, as always, has remained a predominantly human province). Some of these technical methods and their operators became lore unto themselves—Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 (imagery intelligence, or IMINT) and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) come to mind—but most operated in a behind-the-scenes way. And they certainly continue to do to this day, recent disclosures notwithstanding.

The intelligence community has additionally seen a change in the way it structures its collection and analysis missions. During much of the Cold War, capabilities were duplicated throughout different agencies. Thus, in addition to the Defense Mapping Agency that preceded the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had its own IMINT people in the form of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office did its own thing with satellites, and so forth. While all of these organizations persist in one form or another, their functions have been streamlined, such that we have most IMINT running through NGA, much of the SIGINT community operating at the National Security Agency (NSA), et cetera. Gaps do exists, as do split missions, and the joint responsibility of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA for HUMINT is one such example. But in general, we now have standardized methods and practices of intelligence gathering, processing, exploitation, collection, and analysis. The very concept of “all-source intelligence” during the Cold War would have been unthinkable—and still seems a novelty to many analysts in the intelligence community—because it would have meant someone was driving in your lane, and that would be unacceptable. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

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Now De-“Classified”

It wasn’t really “classified.” Just FOUO. But now it isn’t even that, so I’m pleased to present (even though I’m probably late to the game here) excerpts the NSA’s “Unofficial Vocabulary.”

DAY LADY: A mildly pejorative term used by workers on evening or overnight shifts to describe a person of either sex who works only “normal business hours”; often characterized by a compulsive concern for wearing a necktie or avoiding jeans.

DESK RATS: that’s OK, you know who you are.


HAMMERED: describes text with a significant number or garbles, misprints, or omissions that render it unreadable or call into question its validity.


KORLING: acronym for “Korean linguist,” an occupational speciality. It would look less like a Scottish sport or Canadian beer if spelled with a hyphen.


U STREET U: nickname for the Agency training school overflow building located on U Street in the District of Columbia during the 1950s. In itself, this is a diminutive for the slightly disparaging nickname “U Street University.”

The whole document is available right here.


American Stuart and Lee tanks advance on a German position.

I gave the real-time strategy game R.U.S.E. a quick whirl last night. Expect a formal review at some point, but here are some initial impressions:

– From what I’ve played, it already seems somewhat more historically accurate than others in the this genre, at least with regards to the campaign. So far I’ve been operating in a support role in the Battle of Kasserine Pass (the North Africa campaign itself is woefully underused in games), and it seems to have a fairly accurate order of battle, down to the Italian bersaglieri regiments and Free French units you’re operating with.

– The actual “RUSE” system has so far been limited to “spies” and “decryption,” the former of which reveals the identities of units in a given sector, and the latter which reveals movements only. Used in tandem, it is a neat trick to predict enemy attacks and move to ambush. Presumably as the game progresses, more elaborate ruses will become available.

– Selecting and issuing orders to units is less easy than one would expect, and the imprecision with which you move a given unit compares pretty unfavorably with something like Company of Heroes. It’s hard to get, say, an infantry squad exactly where you want it, and the AI does not at all compensate for that.

– The zoom-in/out system is pretty neat. Zoom all the way in and you’re practically at the level of a first-person shooter, with individual units all moving separately. As you zoom out from there, your units gradually change to a stacked-counter view, and at the farthest zoom levels, you see you’re actually moving counters on a map table in some sort of command post. The micro/macro views do help.

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

“The neutral keep out of the light; good boys are at present safe”

You’ll have to excuse the delay – it was a week before we had a bed or an internet in the apartment, and since then Comcast has really, really dropped the ball (cutting my neighbors’ physical lines didn’t help any). Also, still no job, which is less than ideal.

But still! The writing must go on. Writing and reprinting.

And so I have a very special treat for you today: the entirety of Brigadier Charles Dunbar’s “The Military Problems of Counter Insurgency.” Dunbar commanded 66 Commando Royal Marine during the Aden Emergency, and had quite an eye for low-intensity operations. Written in late 1967 or 1968, the document is a far-reaching and detailed analysis of the problems faced by the British in Aden, while also making allusions to contemporary insurgencies in Cyprus and Kenya, intrigue in Saudi Arabia, Anna Karenina, and the idiocy of “that well known Scandinavian, Mr. Rudegeld.”

I took the liberty of retyping it – my aging photocopy was worn, scuffed, and overly stamped. I’ve attempted to reproduce the formatting as exactly as possible, and this includes leaving in misspellings and other errors. You can see, for example, that when he’s talking on page 3 about the Eastern Bloc, interrogation, and Vietnam, that his mind is racing too quickly to accurately transfer all his thoughts onto paper. But you’ll know what he means. And it’s definitely worth knowing.

This document is available at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London. Box Dunbar 2/5. Enjoy!

Notes From the Archive IV

When you have several [intelligence] battalions working this system, it is of course most expensive in terms of man hours. But except against the most highly skilled gang, success is only a question of time. What we are after is not the pistol hidden under the car seat, or explosives in the bicycle pump. It is the man with it who can ‘help the police in their enquiries’. Weapons talk, but nothing like its owner.

– Major-General Sir John Willoughby, “Problems of Counter-Insurgency in the Middle East,” The RUSI Journal 113:650 (1968), 108.

Treason Doesn’t Pay

…or so Vladimir Putin reminds us. As the ten accused Russian spies returned home, Putin said that their outing was a “betrayal,” and vowed that there would be “tough times for the traitors,” whose names the Kremlin is apparently well aware of. And he had a word of caution for those who would do the same:

Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts.

Take note, would-be Benedict Arnolds or Vidkun Quislings! If you commit treason, you might as well be heating up black tar heroin in a spoon.

Via Bostonist.

Red Menace

One might be forgiven for thinking we’ve been trapped in some sort of time-warp-nexus lately. The Germans have bloodied the English yet again, Paul Krugman thinks we’re doomed to repeat the Long Depression, and now? Russian spies on our shores.

Yes, that’s right, 11 agents of the Kremlin were arrested in Yonkers, NY (where my alma mater is located), Boston (where I live), and northern Virginia (where thankfully I’ve never been to). But what exactly were they trying to do? Nothing less insidious than an “effort to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit people able to infiltrate government policy-making circles.”

Great heavens! The Manchurian Candidate all over again. The Times is unclear on the specific motivations of the suspects, but does point out that while nine of the eleven were charged with money laundering, none were accused of stealing secrets (or presumably, influencing government policy). The real crime, though, was apparently “conspiring to act as agents of a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department.”

Ah, if only they’d bothered to let their local US Attorney they were attempting to influence the government! Then this could all have been resolved without such a fuss.

The Times has the original criminal complaints, which outline the high-tech tools of spycraft like LAPTOPS, AD HOC NETWORKS and MAC ADDRESSES. How dare the Russians outwit us again! Time for a crash program to develop a new, all-American SUPERLAPTOP and beat the Russkies at their game. It should be our goal to do this by the end of the decade.

The Mask of the Bear: Soviet Deception in Operation Bagration

German columns advance past immobilized Russian tanks, July 1941.

From the moment the first Wehrmacht tank crossed the Soviet border in 1941 until the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, German victory in World War II seemed inevitable. The fighting on the Eastern Front took place on a scale never seen before or since, a colossal undertaking that consumed three-quarters of all combat forces in Europe, and cost the lives of over twenty-five million Soviet citizens.[1] The war could not have been won without the Soviet front, and even after the Red Army had successfully defended Moscow and Stalingrad, while holding out in besieged Leningrad, victory was far from certain.

The summer offensive of 1943, culminating in the Battle of Kursk—the largest tank battle ever fought by man—finally pushed the Germans onto the defensive. It was not until Operation Bagration, the 1944 summer offensive, that the German ability to conduct offensive operations was curtailed once and for all.

Operation Bagration won the war in the east, and that victory can be attributed to a practice at which the Red Army excelled—deception. The Soviet practice of maskirovka literally translates to ‘camouflage,’ but in the context of military doctrine has a wide variety of definitions covering everything from strategic disinformation to the effective  masking of an individual soldier’s foxhole. The official Soviet definition for maskirovka was:

The means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, various military objectives, their condition, combat readiness and operations, and also the plans of the command … Maskirovka contributes to the achievement of surprise for the actions of forces, the preservation of combat readiness, and the increased survivability of objectives.[2]

The Soviets invented the art of maskirovka, and perfected it over the course of World War II. By the summer of 1944, it was second-nature, and the operational planning reflected this. In absolute secrecy, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) managed to position over 2.3 million men and the necessary supplies, all the while deceiving the Wehrmacht as to the actual objectives of the offensive.

It is no stretch to say that Operation Bagration would have unfolded far more poorly without the extensive deception operations, and as it marked an end to any chance of a German victory, the maskirovka so skillfully executed in the summer of 1944 in fact shortened World War II by a substantial amount.

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Outside the Box

Foreign Policy just ran an article on “The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats.” A collection of five ‘wacky’, ‘zany’ (note: those are not actual quotes), potential terrorist threats, they’re pretty roundly dismissed by Kayvan Farzaneh. Unfortunately, a quick ruling-out of these threat vectors is not something to be taken lightly. It was said that 9/11 was “unimaginable” and that the use of commercial airliners to strike American landmarks was an inconceivable event.

Yet, Tom Clancy described such a scenario in the Jack Ryan novel Debt of Honor – which he wrote in 1994. It must have seemed pretty crazy at the time. After the conclusion of a shooting war between Japan and the United States, a disgruntled JAL pilot – whose brothers were killed during the war – crashes his 747 into the Capitol Building during a full joint session of Congress, decapitating the federal government in one fell swoop.

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