Thursday, August 23, 2007

Strategy and its enemy 

By now you all know that an internal investigation at the CIA has decided that the Agency under George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence during the rise and full expression of al Qaeda, failed to develop and execute a strategy for dealing with Islamist terrorism. Stratfor attributes this failing more to the institution than to any individual, and fingers, in particular, the CIA's fetish for process:

The most important criticism, of course, is the lack of a CIA strategy for combating terrorism. Over the years, the CIA had become driven by process. Obviously process is an important aid in achieving goals -- but in some organizations, and it would appear in the CIA, process stops being a tool and becomes an end in itself. What that means, in practical terms, is that getting the wrong answer became tolerable at the CIA, so long as the process was followed. Getting the right answer was unacceptable if it did not follow the process. One obvious problem is that gut insights do not map well to processes, but it is frequently those insights that get you where you need to go in intelligence.

The problem being raised here is the tension between process and strategy. Process is designed to serve as a template for recurring events -- so the same thing is done the same way each time. You can't generate a strategy via a process. Strategy, the broad approach to a problem, doesn't turn into a process because -- at least in intelligence -- every case is so different. Using the same process to mount an intelligence operation against the Soviet Union and to deal with al Qaeda makes little sense.

The CIA under George Tenet didn't search for a strategy for defeating al Qaeda. It didn't take apart al Qaeda, identify its weak point and systematically attack it. Rather it tried to create a process for dealing with terrorism. In trying to build a replicable, definable process, it failed to understand its enemy and therefore never created a strategy.

Strategy is to process as Clausewitz is to a PowerPoint. It is not clear whether the U.S. intelligence community or the military has learned this lesson. Understanding the nature of strategy is difficult, disorderly and can't be reduced to three bullet points. Process is easier, orderly and can be briefed in 15-minute sessions. Tenet rejected the charges in the inspector general's report. He had built sophisticated processes. But as the report said, he never built a strategy.

That sounds right to me, in part because it precisely reflects my experience in business. The Sarbanes-Oxley law and other contemporary influences have essentially required American business to elevate the importance of process in virtually everything it does. While the smart people who promote the rule of process say that it ought not interfere with creativity or the taking of risk, the ugly truth is that very few employees are capable of slavish devotion to process, on the one hand, and inspired creativity within the process, on the other. The result is that our large companies are losing the benefit of ineffable intuition and sheer gut judgment at any level below the very top. While I therefore passionately believe that the obsession with process is more costly for businesses than most people yet admit or even understand, I can see how it would be devestating to the development and exploitation of counterterrorism assets.


By Blogger SR, at Thu Aug 23, 01:30:00 AM:

In medicine it is "evidence based medicine." Who could argue with that? Except things have devolved to a reporting fetish where benchmarks arrived at by committee consensus on a lot of circumstantial evidence, are seen as indicators of quality if easily measured parameters are reported despite what the ultimate benefit is or is not to patients.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 23, 05:47:00 AM:

Process is great if you're a terrorist. If you truly learn the process, you know all the ways to defeat it with maddening efficiency. And the beauracracy that the process is intertwined with means that there are zillions of little cracks to exploit, since the goons know where they job starts and ends. Witness, Gorelik's "wall" ...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 23, 06:32:00 AM:

The observations about process vs. strategy are good as far as they go, but they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Intelligence Community in general and the CIA in particular do. Strategy, at the level being discussed, in the purview of the Executive, not the Intelligence Community. The signal failure of the 90s was that the Clinton administration forced the Intelligence Community into the role formulating strategy — a role that they were never intended to fulfill and for which they were ill-suited — and, even worse, did so without ever providing a coherent statement of national goals, interests, or requirements; without in fact providing any meaningful support but to the contrary, a large measure of official obstruction.

It is therefore not surprising that the CIA did a rather poor job, but the strategic failure of was caused by the malfeasance of Bill Clinton, not the shortcomings of the CIA.

Curt Johnson  

By Blogger juandos, at Thu Aug 23, 06:59:00 AM:

Hmmm, I wonder if the seeds of incompetence in the intelligence community can be laid in part at the feet of people like Deomcrat Senators Frank Church and Gary Hart?

Oh, let's not forget about Democrat Senator Robert Torricelli...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 23, 07:49:00 AM:

Yup, 9/11 was all Bill Clinton's fault. You just keep telling yourself that. Ladies and Gentlemen, the original "derangement syndrome" in action!  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Aug 23, 08:03:00 AM:

I think there were very few people in the world who understood the threat of radical Islam during the period 1978-2001. Carter and Reagan grossly misunderstood the threat of Shiite radicalism, Bush 41 misunderstood the perfidious influence of the Saudis, Clinton knew about al Qaeda but he did not imagine that it had the capacity to hit the American homeland, and Bush 43 thought the main threat to our security came from China. Finally, the Republican Congress during the Clinton years was so bent on bringing him down -- it was, in fact, the original derangement syndrome -- that Republican spinners basically questioned the motives behind the "pinprick" cruise missile strikes on the theory that he was trying to "wag the dog".

When I look at the record, the only Clinton judgment that seems to have been stupid even at the time it was made was his affirmative decision not to retaliate for the USS Cole in the fall of 2000. By then he was a lame duck and at no political risk. The strong suspicion is that he was worried that retaliation for the Cole would derail his big plans to settle the Israeli-Palestinian mess. I think that the truth is the opposite: the Arabs -- including the hardliners pushing Arafat -- perceived our unwillingness to respond to the Cole as weakness, and then made them, if anything, more likely to reject a deal with Israel. Never mind the fact that Clinton should have worried that if even he were making the connection between support for the jihad and support for Arafat, then the infiltration of radicalism in the Arab street might be deep and dangerous.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 23, 08:11:00 AM:

TH ... how about doing nothing in respect of the first WTC attack a month into term #1?


By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Thu Aug 23, 02:41:00 PM:

I blame a lot of it on thing like the six sigma ISO 9000 nonsense.

There was a big push to make everything quantifiable. If you can't measure it, it doesn't exist and all that rot.

That stuff necessarily puts a lot of stock in process. You can get an ISO cert producing truly wretched and dangerous products as long as you document your process for producing them well.

When I was at IBM we went through a period of this and some godawful bad stuff was shipped that had all sorts of wonderful charts (prior to release) showing how it was going to be 6X better defectwise than the prior products, blah, blah, blah.

The reality in the field after release was the exact opposite.

When you're focusing too much on process, its real easy to fool yourself about the real world quality of your product.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 23, 04:43:00 PM:

Phriz --

You can blame Nixon for not responding to Arafat's order to murder US diplomats in the Sudan. Reagan for running away in Beirut and dealing with the Iranians and the Libyans. Bush 1 for failing to remove Saddam. Carter for impotence as a response to Iran's act of War.

But wrt AQ, Clinton saw it created on his watch, and failed to do anything about it, even to make a decision to kill Osama. Scheuer makes it clear that Clinton flat out lied to Mike Wallace (no surprise, he's lied before on TV interviews "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinksi").

Bill Clinton was reluctant to alienate his peace-love-civil-rights-for-terrorists allies and take military action against our enemies. At best he could fire off a few impotent missile strikes and conduct a Serbian Air War.

Clinton like Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush etc. was a risk-averse to terrorism President. Preferring to kick the can down the road.

For that he deserves criticism.

Because he failed the fundamental test of leadership: making an unpopular decision for the good of the nation.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Thu Aug 23, 05:15:00 PM:

"I think there were very few people in the world who understood the threat of radical Islam during the period 1978-2001."

True. And most of the people who did understand were international business executives who regularly moved through the global marketplace.

In the silly movie "Syriana," the George Clooney CIA agent never sat down with the Matt Damon energy analyst. Yet the Matt Damon character had a lot of inside information. That is often the way it happens in real life.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri Aug 24, 06:51:00 PM:

"Yup, 9/11 was all Bill Clinton's fault. You just keep telling yourself that. Ladies and Gentlemen, the original "derangement syndrome" in action!"

Um, no one said that. Like, at all. George Tenet was a Clinton appointee. The OP referred *specifically* to Tenet's time at the helm. And Curt is correct, it is not the CIA's place to decide policy. It is an instrument of government, just like the military, and thereby receives its marching orders (actual or proverbial) from the Executive. i.e., Bill Clinton.

I would like to point out, like I often do, that most of the shortcomings of the intel community can be laid at the feet of... Congress. At one point in our history we had an active, competent, successful intelligence community that accomplished great things. A lot of the old OSS and CIS ops that did these great things were bold to the point of recklessness and more than a few played dirty; but they worked, and they worked against some of the best and most ruthless secret services in history. i.e. the Gestapo, Stasi, and KGB.

When the stakes of the game are life and death, you shouldn't let your lawyer write your playbook.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 24, 10:09:00 PM:

Don't even get me started on SOX. I used to work for a Fortune 50 company; I watched SOX, together with internal "best practices" introduced by external consultants, demolish the IT shop. Said shop is now several times as large as it was 5 years ago, produces less effective output than it did back then, and is staffed mostly with expensive contract programmers with high turnover rates. The concepts of institutional knowledge and getting things done have been completely abandoned for excess documentation (that nobody ever reads, but some federal agency *might* want someday) and process over results. I get pulled back into that world from tiime to time, and I cannot stand the inefficiency, waste, and lack of responsiveness to users and customers alike.  

By Blogger Pierre, at Fri Aug 24, 11:59:00 PM:

This comment has been removed by the author.  

By Blogger Pierre, at Fri Aug 24, 11:59:00 PM:

Perhaps it is unfashionable to mention this but it seems to me that the CIA was rife with political appointees whose world view was leftist.

Perhaps they failed because they simply didn't think that succeeding was that important?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 25, 12:40:00 AM:

So, it is around 1980. I go from the 82nd to 7th SF Group. All the Vietnam NCO's tell me if you ride/work with CIA, bring a .45 so you can dust them on the spot.

They are pukes. Good schools, but pukes never the less.  

By Blogger amr, at Sat Aug 25, 12:47:00 AM:

Before I retired, I and a relatively small group of startup engineers placed newly constructed power plants on line. This is not an easy effort and it takes a lot of “what if’ing” to get it done. But every time a mistake occurred or the management structure changed, more procedures were introduced. Over time completing the procedures and reporting on the status of procedures became the measure of progress, but the schedules demanded by senior management actually became shorter. To a large degree, in such an environment, achieving both is nigh on to impossible especially if the budget doesn’t increase to place more people on the project to cover the paper. I enjoy retirement so-o-o much more moving dirt with my tractor on the farm.  

By Blogger Spinoneone, at Sat Aug 25, 08:52:00 AM:

Dawnfire82 is right. The blame should be on Congress and on the various Presidents and their advisers who didn't want to take a chance that some OP would "go wrong" or "be discovered" with uncomfortable consequences. No cojones won't win wars, or even bar fights. The CIA hasn't had any since the Executive Order that banned "black" jobs.

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