Ten Years After Bin Laden, We Still Need Better Intelligence Sharing
Leaders should still apply the lessons we learned, when contending with China and Russia.
It was a typical Sunday afternoon at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. As the senior intelligence officer for the command, I was at work and we were monitoring the conclusion of an operation in Yemen. As I left the small operations room, I saw Gen. Jim Mattis, the CENTCOM commander, and our operations officer, Vice Adm. Kevin “Kid” Donegan, at the end of the hallway. As I approached General Mattis, he looked at me in a very factual and unemotional way, and said, “We just got bin Laden.”
While we all felt a sense of justice for the nation, we knew the aftermath meant increased risk to Americans globally, our deployed troops, and our partners and allies. Where would al Qaeda strike next? How would they strike? What force protection measures needed to be increased, and where?
As a career Army intelligence officer, with years working in CENTCOM and Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, and nearly a decade after 9/11, I knew immediately our ‘indications and warning’ network would be flooded with data in aftermath of the operation. No high-fives — it was time to focus on the task at hand.
That was then. Today, we constantly discuss how harnessing data and applying artificial intelligence will be integral to great power competition. Fortunately, we have a solid foundation to build upon. The last two decades of counterterrorism operations were built on a high-speed, data-driven ecosystem. Initially and largely built under the leadership and vision of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led JSOC before serving as commanding general of the Afghanistan War, the fusion of intelligence and operations provided a base model for the new era of competition and confrontation.
Leveraging data from captured enemy material, applying machine learning and computer vision against petabytes of publicly available information, embracing open- source intelligence and open architectures should be a routine part of every military operation going forward. Civilian and military leadership need to finally make the shift from the industrial age warfare to the information age. Budgets should reflect this change.
On my first deployment to Iraq in 2003, our computer forensics ability consisted of one individual and a couple computers used to exploit hard drives. We were quickly overwhelmed with too much data and too few tools for analysis of large quantities of data. Only a few short years later we used early versions of data management tools and turned that single soldier into an industrialized process for exploiting captured enemy material, analyzing it and applying insights at a speed that drove operations.
At the national level, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Media Exploitation Center, or NMEC, took the lead for bulk exploitation. Teaming across the intelligence community, NMEC is a hybrid organization staffed by DIA, CIA, the National Security Agency, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security in support of national and combatant command requirements. While NMEC dealt with bulk exploitation, elsewhere the military’s service branches, deployed task forces, and other intelligence agencies built their own organic capability for time sensitive exploitation at their headquarters and in the combat zones.
The counterterrorism fight also brought to the forefront the valuable use of publicly available information, or PAI. PAI is used to produce open-source intelligence, or OSINT, which can often be faster and more useful in low-risk decision making than classified intelligence. No longer was the classified world the only place to find accurate, highly-sensitive actionable information. It was all over the internet. Leveraging PAI from several private sector companies has provided data that is central to the United States’ ability to understand indications and warnings across a multitude of targets, globally. However, for high-risk activities, is it the combination of PAI with pristine classified collection that gives decision makers the confidence and trust necessary to conduct operations.
The counterterrorism fight also leveraged partners and allies and the need to share intelligence. The National Defense Strategy declares one of its key three lines of effort is expanding U.S. relationships with allies and partners. But U.S. intelligence policies often are overprescribed to prevent timely sharing of information between foreign governments. The overuse of “NOFORN” — meaning intelligence not releasable to foreign nationals — has been an obstacle to close working relationships with partners and allies for years. Our challenge is to overcome risk aversion and a sort of Cold War mindset when it comes to sharing intelligence. Instead, we should adopt a “YESFORN” approach with key partners.
As DIA director, I worked to expand our intelligence sharing agreements. By design, operational commanders made it policy that captured material would remain unclassified until such time it was combined with other sensitive data. This enabled broader sharing of information without delaying release through the foreign disclosure processes.
The international coalition networks we built to support the counterterrorism fight were a good start. But to contend with a nation-state adversary in a global competition we’ll need to be able to move information across multiple classification domains using multiple networks reaching multiple partners and allies, while using technologies to discern the credentials of users and apply AI to screen and edit content.
All of this has to be done much more quickly than it is today. Senior leaders must update whatever Cold War policies remain and focus on the need to share — and the risk of not sharing.
Our capabilities rely on our people. Our success in the counterterrorism fight remains underpinned by target expertise and good analysis. Depth of understanding on targets, networks, individuals, and their tactics, techniques and procedures were developed over time. The team working on bin Laden had spent years collecting and analyzing information. Continuity on the target matters even more so against a near-peer adversary. The ability of the intelligence community, private sector companies, academia, think tanks, and our allies and partners all will be necessary to operate as a team of teams, if we are to provide our policymakers and senior military leaders with the decision advantage they need for the future fight.
Robert P. Ashley is CEO of Ashley Global Leadership and Strategy, LLC. Previously, he was the 21st director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Ashley, a retired Army lieutenant general, served as the U.S. Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, and prior was the director of intelligence at U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, and at International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces, Afghanistan