Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Intelligence for an Age of Terror

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Intelligence for an Age of Terror

Article excerpt

Intelligence for an Age of Terror

By Gregory F. Treverton

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009

261 pp. $30.00

ISBN: 978-0-521-51845-1


Gregory Treverton first went to work in the intelligence area in the mid-1970s as a staffer for the Senate committee led by Idaho Senator Frank Church, investigating intelligence blunders that surfaced in the wake of the Watergate investigation. Now a RAND researcher with many publications in the intelligence field to his credit, Dr. Treverton offers this book as a prescription for intelligence work in the 21st century--focused on, but not exclusive to, the counterterrorism battle. With it, he makes an invaluable contribution to the discussion of the role of intelligence in the age of terror, and he asks urgent questions about what needs to be changed to respond to a fundamentally different threat from that of the Cold War--the conflict for which most U.S. intelligence organs were designed.

Treverton argues that the key to making the transition to 21st-century intelligence is in understanding the distinction between intelligence "puzzles" and "mysteries." A "puzzle" is what U.S. intelligence agencies were accustomed to facing during the Cold War--"How many warheads does a Soviet missile carry?" This is a question that has a definitive answer that is known by relatively few people; hence, finding the answer becomes the focus of human and technological intelligence collection efforts. A "mystery," by contrast, is about people and their intentions. Understanding possible terrorist intentions and targets is a much harder problem, and, as Treverton points out, "Cold War espionage practices will not work against terrorist targets because ... Al Qaeda operatives do not go to embassy cocktail parties" (p. 9).

Another consequence of focusing on "mysteries" is the increased potential for "information overload." The inability of the United States to foil the September 11 attacks was due not to too little information about the terrorists, but rather too much information compartmented in such a way as to frustrate attempts to connect the dots. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Federal Aviation Administration all had clues to parts of the 9/11 mystery but were unable to put the pieces together largely because of institutional restraints. And although the 2004 Terrorism Prevention and Intelligence Reform Act has made strides in breaking free from these institutional restraints, some still remain.

More problematic is the difficulty of separating the wheat from the chaff of intelligence data, which increasingly relies upon information in the public domain: "During the Cold War, the problem was too little (good) information; now, it is too much (unreliable) information. Then, intelligence's secrets were deemed reliable; now, the plethora on the Web is a stew of fact, fancy, and disinformation" (p. …

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