One of the most curious policies of former presidential candidate Martin O'Malley (D) was his steadfast insistence on greater human intelligence as a means of addressing shortfalls in the Middle East. "[W]e need to do a much better job as a nation of having human intelligence on the ground so that we know who the emerging next generation leaders are that are coming up to replace a dictator when his time on this planet ends," he said at the first Democratic debate in October. "We have failed as a country to invest in the human intelligence that would allow us to make not only better decisions in Libya, but better decisions in Syria today. And it's a huge national security failing."
Technology, in many regards, has changed intelligence collection. Unmanned aircraft serve as a dual signals intelligence (SIGINT) and image intelligence (IMINT) platform, keeping personnel out of harm's way while simultaneously providing a nearly unblinking eye on targets. Satellites orbit high above and safely collect images for analysis. SIGINT, consisting of intercepting communications, breaking codes and studying technical communications, among other tasks, is often, but not always, performed safely outside hot conflict zones.
Some have indicated that the apparent under-reliance on HUMINT has come at a price, resulting in various intelligence failures. High-tech intelligence has enabled operations in regions with no human presence, creating, some might say, a moral hazard of sorts.
As the Soufan Group, an intelligence security firm, noted:
Drones, in particular, have gained increased flight durations and widened the array of optics and weapons. The ability to maintain persistent coverage over a dangerous area lacking sufficient capable partners on the ground has improved significantly in the last decade. This improvement provides a glimpse at the long-desired "full situational awareness" in relatively denied areas. However, as seen with the deaths of hostages and civilians, this promise remains unfulfilled, though efforts to avoid civilian deaths are substantial. Improving the capabilities of counterterrorism airstrikes as the region continues to destabilize will only become more problematic.
Despite no clear presence on the ground following the May 2015 withdrawal of embassy and military staff, the U.S. continues to target and strike suspected militants in Yemen. A recent airstrike in Libya that targeted a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is "an example of how difficult it is to create lasting change with only one counterterrorism tool. The U.S. likely had few, if any, partners or personnel on the ground in Libya from which to collect intelligence," the Soufan Group's brief continued. As technology has improved, the U.S. has been able to rely less on direct human intelligence. Furthermore, tactics such as so-called signature drone strikes — strikes that target certain individuals or groups, usually without knowledge of the target's identity, based upon predetermined signatures of behavior — can be counterproductive. This is not to say that technological reliance is all bad. Various SIGINT tools and collection capabilities have played an important part in tracking valuable assets and adding greater context to case files.
Given the nature of covert action and intelligence gathering, however, it is not always apparent that things are as they seem. Take, as reported by The New York Times, the discovery that special operations forces are in Libya to "identify militant leaders and map out their networks" as a precursor for potentially greater involvement against jihadists.
The CIA, which has a primary role among the intelligence community of providing spies under the National Clandestine Service, has come under criticism in recent years for becoming more of a paramilitary organization. Inherent, of course, in this task and among the covert groups participating within this purview is intelligence gathering of all disciplines, but the agency has not invested as heavily in HUMINT as in previous decades, especially after the conclusion of the Cold War. "[T]he CIA's shift toward tactical paramilitary counterterrorism operations draws energy and resources away from analysis and longer-term strategic concerns, and human intelligence is also hampered by a dearth of employees with vital language skills," wrote Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks, citing other shortfalls of the CIA and recommending that it relinquish paramilitary programs to the Defense Department.
One of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission Report was that the CIA director should emphasize "transforming the clandestine service by building its human intelligence capabilities" as well as "ensuring a seamless relationship between human source collection and signals collection at the operational level."
CIA Director John Brennan noted during recent congressional testimony that the Arab Spring had a traumatic impact on governments in the region. "A lot of these governments do not have the political institutions nor the ability to address the many, many challenges — political, economic and social — in the region," he said, responding as to why there is more violence and instability in the Middle East in the last 50 years.
To Brennan's point, O'Malley was sure to not just single out covert human intelligence failures during his campaign. "[W]hat I'm talking about is not only the covert CIA intelligence, I'm also talking about diplomatic intelligence. I mean, we've seen time and time again, especially in this very troubled region of nation-state failures, and then we have no idea who the next generation of leaders are that are coming forward," he said during a December Democratic debate. Intelligence officials have hinted at a greater need to understand societal trends in conflict regions, which undoubtedly involves, in practitioner-speak, a "multi-INT" approach.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.