CATF Reports May 5, 2016, 3:21pm


A recent New York Times article decried the failure of African as well as allied Western nations to share intelligence on Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group wreaking havoc in Nigeria’s predominately Muslim north. In the case of Boko Haram, one reason cited for the reluctance to share tactical intelligence is concern over preventing the Nigerian military’s indiscriminate killing of civilians - looming as the next African human rights crisis. The overriding reality is that allied initiatives to aid Nigerians in combating Boko Haram are beset with the very problems that have afflicted intelligence sharing in other national and regional contexts.

Even rudimentary intelligence sharing is one of the most cyclical national security dilemmas because it is a goal never satisfactorily reached and is always revisited in the aftermath of any terrorist attack later deemed preventable - e.g., the recent Paris and Brussels tragedies. In the latest foray to advocate for adoption of program models, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton echoed the call for a making intelligence sharing an international priority. 

Clearly not limited to Nigeria but endemic to many counter terrorism campaigns, security services just do not habitually share intelligence. First and foremost, there is no incentive short of a 9/11-style crisis calling for modification of the status quo. Nations implored to share national intelligence with their foreign peers typically fail to consolidate information sharing across the information “silos” of their own military, national security, and law enforcement domains. This is the foundation problem when proposals for greater counter terrorism intelligence sharing shifts from the national level concern to a regional or international environment. Prior to 9/11, this was a critical shortcoming that enabled al Qaeda operatives to plan and execute their deadly mission just below U.S. intelligence “radar”.

The inability to resolve the sharing dilemma - in Nigeria and elsewhere - is emblematic of a deeper misunderstanding of the intelligence function. To analyze the problem requires translating labels that comprise steps in the intelligence production process. The key individual problems that impede intelligence sharing include:

The “Close Hold” Problem. Intelligence is usually collected around an identified problem it is expected to illuminate and help solve. As such, those who collect and analyze it prefer to continue the process of employing the information - especially if it is tactical intelligence - to apply it to the solution. In this scenario, why share (translate: give away) the very information you are about to use yourself?

The Reciprocity Problem. Initial failure of most intelligence sharing initiatives can be traced to jump starting exchanges without something approximating an “information marketplace”, where one agency or nation states a need and another shares, expecting future reciprocation. In this scenario, effective intelligence sharing never really starts. Agencies place great value on information they collect around problems they come to feel are best understood by them. Just giving it to another agency that may not have asked specifically for it or may not know what to do with it, strikes intelligence producers as wasteful and, depending on the sensitivity of the intelligence, prone to misuse.

The Water Hose Problem. The US government’s post-9/11 initiative to create an Information Sharing Environment (ISE) focused heavily on protocols governing classification, security, and transmittal to govern the sharing process - but not on the quality of information nor development of mechanisms to impose quality control. In other words, the ISE was geared to generating an enormous gush of raw and analyzed data. Realizing that a steady unregulated flow of new information could prevent its prudent use, agencies in a position to send forward large quantities of intelligence data became reluctant to “spray” it in the direction of receiving partner agencies. When the above Reciprocity principle kicked in, expected flows slowed to low level trickles.

Advocates of intelligence sharing protocols tend to rely on mechanisms like the ISE to implement structural reforms over time. However, the key to meaningful intelligence sharing is more substantive than structural. It starts with acknowledgement that key elements of national security intelligence remain more of an art than a science, and is governed by the personnel who collect and analyze the data and the entrenched character of their agency cultures.

Within this highly unique environment, one innovation works better than others: the pooling of intelligence personnel from different agencies and specialized assignments into multi-disciplinary centers. Creations like the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and the CIA’s Counterterrorism and Counter Proliferation Centers tend to succeed because they are first and foremost tactical operations, collecting and employing information that can lead directly to a definitive action - whether criminal case or military strike. The actual reform process begins with a collection of diverse personnel from scattered agencies. Soon they find themselves molded - usually by higher morale and their own resolve - into functioning teams that develop highly specific intelligence because they collectively realize what to look for and where to find it.        

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