The Magazine

Intelligence Dominance

A better way forward in Iraq.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By RICHARD H. SHULTZ JR. and ROY GODSON
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The colonel was just back from Iraq when we met with him in the fall of 2005. He spoke in the blunt way of a soldier who had served 25 years in elite secret units. He had been in plenty of precarious situations and had the battle scars to show for it. The special operations unit he commanded knew how to surprise and kill unsuspecting enemies and had scored some successes, but the colonel was pessimistic about one thing: "No amount of training can prepare you to hunt down the bad guys after midnight when the intelligence you receive does not pinpoint their hideouts."

Other commanders we spoke with who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had also experienced frustration in their mission--capturing or killing insurgent, terrorist, and militia leaders and key operatives, and taking out the factories where they make improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They echoed the colonel's message: "Actionable intelligence" was often absent from the U.S. war effort. A commander whose area of operations had been Tikrit told us, "Rather than intelligence on precise insurgent targets--'There is a unit of Jihadi fighters using the abandoned Bus Station on Tikriti Road as a base'--we would be told to 'Search for a Jihadi unit in a two-three block area around the Bus Station.'" The difference was between looking for a needle on a platter and a needle in a haystack; between a precise mission and an indefinite one requiring too much time on the ground in hostile territory.

The military men we talked to (all of whom, both active and former operatives, insisted on anonymity) all said the same thing: When we're spending $40 billion a year on intelligence and committing 150,000 men to the Iraqi front, why can't we create the actionable intelligence required to roll up the insurgents? As it worked out, this was exactly the question we'd been trying to answer over the previous year and a half. Our journey had taken us to three continents, where we met, sometimes more than once, with former intelligence, military, police, and domestic/internal security service leaders from democratic governments, and with former leaders of armed groups who were once deadly enemies. In cosmopolitan London, Washington, Tel Aviv, and other world capitals, and in more remote settings in Central America, Mexico, Africa, and Australia, we listened intently as these former practitioners discussed what to our surprise turned out to be a common set of measures--intelligence dominance was the summary term we came up with to describe the model--they had used to overcome bloody threats posed by armed groups. They convinced us that this is the wheel the United States must now reinvent if it is to win in Iraq and on other murky fronts of the war on terror.

Comprehensive Intelligence


Our meeting on March 22, 2004, with two former top-ranking Israeli intelligence officers had been scheduled for months. But it was not "business as usual" that day in Tel Aviv. Earlier in the morning, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the main leader of Hamas, had been killed by missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter hovering over the Gaza Strip, not that far from where we were sitting. The operation was one part of Israel's campaign to kill key active terrorist leaders to weaken the group so that it becomes less effective or negotiates an end to the armed struggle. Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, the wheelchair-bound Hamas chief had ordered most of the suicide bombers who had killed Israelis in cafés, on buses, and in other public places. According to the Israelis, from the start of the second intifada through 2005, Palestinian terrorists killed 1,074 Israelis and wounded 7,520, astounding figures for a small country. The comparable losses for a country the size of the United States would be 50,000 dead and 300,000 wounded.

Right on time, the two men appeared in the lobby of the beachfront hotel where we were staying. After exchanging pleasantries at a quiet spot in the hotel's outdoor café, the soft-spoken ex-senior officer of the Shin Bet, Israel's renowned internal security agency, said adamantly, "To defeat terrorists you must know everything about them. Everything! Who are their leaders and how do they plan and carry out operations? How are they organized and what methods are used for recruitment? What are their weaknesses and vulnerabilities?" Drawing on 25 years of experience, including senior command positions, he insisted that without systematic profiles of the enemy, operations to neutralize such unconventional adversaries are usually futile.