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02 July 2007

Regional versus functional issue accounts

One of the longest standing debates in the organization of intelligence as an activity (and the inevitable growth into a bureaucracy) was first addressed by Sherman Kent in his 1949 Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy. Even then, the division between regional geographically specialized organization versus functional, issue focused groups created tension between analysts – frequently reflected in finished intelligence production.

Sherman Kent diagnosed the problem as having its origins in “the customs of American education”, calling out the tendency towards regional specialization in the studies of historians, geographers, and political scientists; and the functional specializations in education of economists, sociologists, psychologists, and other “theorists” without applied studies targets. In his words, “which of the two groups should have command of a project is by no means so plain, nor is there a clear answers to the larger question as to whether the whole organization should be laid down along regional or functional lines.” To have the house divided along both lines is “an invitation, and one readily accepted, for major civil war” within the analytical community.

Little has changed since then. Of course, in part this is why we have coordination processes – to ensure that different regional and issue desks even within a single agency are represented in the debate, and to do so across all relevant contributing agencies. The processes of coordination are so closely tied to those of analysis and production that even in agencies and offices which do not have a formal requirement for coordination will usually introduce a “lite” version internally amongst themselves. (Such positions are one of the most powerful places one can be in the community in terms of impact in the introduction of new viewpoints and judgments, actually, even though these are usually among the most peripheral of organizations, focused on niche and specialty problems with a definitely limited organizational lifespan.)

Coordination does not always address all issues, nor does it often settle in the minds of those who have brought their issues to the table and felt their viewpoint “lost” in the process (even though it almost always reflects at least as a dissent if there is any body of evidence in support, and often even in the face of good evidence to the contrary.) Thus, the “civil war” between analytical houses may often spill out long after an issue has been put to bed for the historians to address in the fullness of time.

We are seeing this age old process play out in the recent media reporting regarding the division between NESA and the counterterrorism specialists on the question of Ba’athist Iraq’s ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Definitive evidence to answer the question most certainly exists, somewhere in the vast array of recovered documents, interrogation reports, and the physical evidence from the ground (in the form of the dead foreign fedayeen from the first fights of 2003 – as opposed to those foreign fighters that entered later as part of the evolving AQIZ structures). But it will take the judicious eye of an impartial scholar to judge the matter from a more comfortable distance of the future – say perhaps around the twenty five year declassification mark - and indeed, it is our personal opinion that the failings of both sides of the debate to appreciate the true nature and severity of the problem will be exposed.

But until then, it seems that the unseemly politicization of the debate in the public media – given impetus by figures such as Paul Pillar and George Tenet himself – will continue to attempt to re-write the first draft of that history (no doubt seeking to influence future hands as well as current reputations.) We fear it may unduly influence the intelligence studies academia – if it has not already – and would admonish our professional peers and new students alike to keep in mind the recurring nature of these debates as they look to examine past performance (in both successes and failures) in the popular case studies. Rarely in this world are we given issues to which a binary answer exists, and it is the grossest form of oversimplification to assume otherwise. Debates such as this also reinforce why it is more important than ever to seek alternative analysis through Red Cell and other methods, and to objectively consider those possibilities for which the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – for evidence may be forthcoming, both for and against any given set of theories as the realities on the ground rapidly change, if one has but the eyes and the openness of mind to look.

As for our opinions on the great divide between the two kinds of houses, we find ourselves veterans of uniquely transnational issues, having been subject to every manner of surge and task force and working group and crisis cell, in the most unusual of niches. We prefer to see small, aggressive, ad-hoc structures comprised of both analysts and operators from a wide range of issues and regional desks with interests and equities in the same target which overlaps their accounts. Only then, by throwing everything against the wall in a structure short lived enough to avoid its own bureaucracy, and disconnected enough to be (at least partially) immune from the day to day politics within a given agency or office, have we found the kind of answers we sought regarding the great questions of process.

We strongly believe such radically unstable and short lived environments are most effective because they are the very manifestation of Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. It is certainly no way to create a sinecure, nor even to build a long term career path – but it is the best way we have found to generate new and innovative approaches and answers to hard target problems, and to the problems others have not yet begun to identify let alone address.

h/t and further at Haft of the Spear

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