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Ralph Peters is a regular columnist with the New York Post. Register here for access to the Post's Online Edition.



  Intel Errors
by Ralph Peters [author, novelist] 2/27/07

Last week, American troops checking traffic from Iran detained Amar al-Hakim, a cleric and the son of the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - the key Shia political organization we're counting on.

The bust was a mistake - although the soldiers followed their orders to the letter. Young Hakim's bodyguards got to kiss the dirt while the vehicles in the cleric's convoy were searched. The troops didn't know the mullah from a moonshine runner.
Ralph Peters - Contributor
Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications. [go to Peters Index]

SCIRI certainly has some dark connections with Iran. The party's a dubious ally, at best. But jerking the boss' kid around was, in diplo-speak, "unhelpful." Even if Hakim Jr. was smuggling money, or worse.

I'd be shocked if he wasn't. It's the Middle East, folks. We're just betting we can handle the least poisonous local snakes.

As a former Military Intelligence officer, my first reaction to teaching Little Hakim the perp walk was: "Who's responsible for tracking this guy?"

A sound intel effort would monitor all of the male family members of Iraq's key leaders 24/7. How did Hakim Jr. slip off the reservation?

My second reaction was more indulgent. Even with a first-rate intel program, mistakes happen under combat conditions. No amount of training, information flow and technical support will ever achieve perfection.

The good news is that the Army's Military Intelligence branch has been learning fast in Iraq. Official and un-official reforms are underway, driven from below by the divisional, brigade and battalion-level "deuces" who've paid their combat-zone dues.

The Military Intelligence ancien regime badly needed a trip to the guillotine. The ethical corruption of MI branch over the last quarter-century was appalling. In peacetime, we wasted billions; in wartime, we wasted lives.

While a minority of us had argued since the mid-1980s that the human factor would be paramount in our future conflicts and that technology couldn't replace the human mind, the MI establishment just went on buying platinum-plated junk that never delivered a tenth of what the contractors and apostles of hi-tech promised.

Appropriate technologies can help us - but no database or collection system is a substitute for seasoned human judgment. The key task in intelligence is understanding the enemy. Machines do many things, but they still don't register flesh-and-blood relationships, self-sacrifice or fanaticism.

Forgetting that tech is supposed to support people, we wasted talented people supporting worthless technologies.

The cardinal example of this corrosive mentality was the purchase of a multibillion-dollar, Rube Goldberg contraption called the All Source Analysis System (ASAS). Under development for more than two decades, ASAS never worked. But a generation of senior MI leaders made rank pitching the system as the answer to every intelligence need.

ASAS was going to fuse the data from every classified intel source and give the commander instant, perfect answers. Early on - in 1984 - a self-assured technocrat in uniform told me that, within 10 years, human analysts would be irrelevant.

ASAS was disastrously flawed from the start, but impossible to kill once the funding got going. Not only were MI careers at stake, Congress preferred to buy gear built by home-district contractors, rather than "waste" money on soldiers. And those contractors ensured that key MI apparatchiks wouldn't flip burgers after they retired.

When ASAS consistently failed to work, the inevitable response from above was "Make it work!"

It never did, no matter how much money we squandered.

By the time ASAS deployed to Iraq, it was an obese behemoth requiring so much technical support to achieve minimal output that it became a liability, robbing our forces of human capital needed to deal with the real problems of insurgency, such as ethnic rivalries and religious hatred. To quote one disgusted officer, ASAS was, at best, "the world's most-expensive communications van."

ASAS was the monster that ate MI.

Now ASAS has been slain at last, the one good kill our enemies made. And a new generation of officers has earned its spurs. MI's combat veterans understand what intelligence must do, and they realize that satellites can't pierce the human soul. There's a powerful reform effort underway, from Iraq and Afghanistan back to the Army Intelligence Center and School.

Today's Military Intelligence personnel are a damned sight better than my inept, physically slovenly and intellectually lazy generation was.

On a recent visit to the Intel School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., I found that the last ASAS nonsense had been swept away. Captains returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for the Advanced Course - a training staple - had no patience with yesteryear's bureaucratic approach to intel. They know that commanders need results, not just data dumps. The lives of our soldiers depend upon the quality of our intel.

There still isn't nearly enough money for language training (Congress would rather pay contractors, as usual), and there isn't sufficient classroom time to make up fully for the lost years. But it was reassuring to see commanders, students and faculty discarding the old faith in technology's divine powers and coming to grips with the rigors of real intel work.

Under wartime pressures, Military Intelligence is finally coming of age. We'll still get some things wrong. Now and then the wrong guy will be told to assume the position. Our struggle with Islamist terror is more than Andy and Barney keeping the peace in Mayberry. MI's maturation process will take years - and more wars. The profiteers and careerists will fight back. But the reformers have the upper hand at last.

That isn't just good news for our troops, but for our country. CRO

Ralph Peters' latest book is Never Quit The Fight.

This piece first appeared in the New York Post
copyright 2007 - NY Post

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