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27 November 2007

Examining intelligence activity in counterinsurgency units

Via the incomparable Small Wars Journal, we note a currently serving officer’s contribution to the literature in the form of articulated longing for the solutions that can help end his ongoing frustrations with the intelligence system as it is now structured. Among Captain Tim Hsia’s valid and well articulated points include a call for better portal management, a discussion of potential applications for market data mechanisms, and some interesting critique of the narrative format of Intellipedia and A-Space from the perspective of direct support to ongoing counterinsurgency operations.

We empathize with his frustrations, although we do not know that another “central” portal system or new repository is necessarily the answer to the ever expanding complexity of classified holdings and networks. The captain’s pain, we think, would better be served by a situated software application – a portal or other tool that could create, for his unit and those like his serving throughout the far reaches of the Long War, the functional appearance of centralization, at least insofar as this means the kind of “one stop shopping” for products in support of ongoing operations that seems to be needed. Frankly, we believe that the creation and maintenance of such a portal is a clear role for a reachback function – if such an element can identify and stay current with the constantly shifting needs of those on the ground.

Part of the pain also comes from cultural barriers to information sharing – and not the classic interagency turf battles that we are used to discussing in intelligence studies. Intelligence support in operational environments is typically least focused on formal production and publishing, spending its energies on communicating with its primary supported consumers (as well it should). This however creates a vast sea of products which are rarely formally disseminated beyond a specific unit, or perhaps its replacements. Certainly, a number of this would be no means be up to the classic community publication standard – but in many cases, they were not created to endure for more than the next 12 hour battle update cycle. Much of this support is also a highly verbal process, in which judgments and analysis is conveyed through discussion and debate, rather than in formalized bullet point.

Under the kind of time constraints a typical forward deployed intelligence function must operate, this lack of emphasis on publication is entirely understandable. What is most remarkable, perhaps, is rather the number of shops which do manage to maintain distribution of a high volume of products to other elements in the community, in addition to their pressing and immediate needs locally. Given the importance of intelligence obtained through non-traditional (and non-community) assets and methods within counterinsurgency operations, one cannot emphasize sufficiently the unique value the investment of that time and effort can bring to the community, in ways that are difficult to predict in advance.

One of the ways in which the reachback elements within the IC could better encourage and support the distribution of such products is to provide a better platform for lightweight publishing and databasing – one that will support the forward shop’s immediate needs, but also offer options for wider sharing of extant production, in whatever form it might take. The demand for a geospatial component – perhaps even if only through meta-tagging and geospatial search and display – is also clear. While a number of existing portals might be adapted to support this functionality, the typical sharepoint style (regardless of underlying software implementation) definitely lacks the situated elements that forward units most seem to rely upon. Likewise, the suggestion of the market tracking model is interesting as a potential model of organization – and outside of predictive trading style applications, the first time we have seen it floated. It is well worth exploring - paging Bloomberg?

We are grateful for the time taken by Captain Hsia to help advance the literature of intelligence, and particularly to help focus attention and debate on the counterinsurgency account. We also commend his choice of venue for publication – the Small Wars Journal is certainly emerging as one of the pre-eminent venues for these discussions. We definitely look forward to further contributions from both the author and publication in the future.

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