For a long time, we’ve been playing checkers while Putin has been playing chess, combining tactics with strategy and looking several moves ahead,” said the General. “In Ukraine, though, he’s done something wildly different, to which we have no real response. He has simply knocked the pieces off the board.”
The speaker, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which supports our combat operations everywhere. Commissioned as an Army intelligence officer in 1981, he served in that branch ever since, in many posts and deployments. A chest full of ribbons attests to his qualifications. He has sharply original points of view and he has not hesitated to shake up the organizations he commands. He is of medium height with short hair, has strong, lean features, and an intense expression. The modernistic DIA building where we met is on the Anacostia-Bolling air base, out beyond the Pentagon.
The first question we ask a new defector is, “What do you know about any plan to attack the U.S.?” It’s our greatest worry. But still, America has often been taken by surprise when an enemy attacks. Though one of our many intelligence agencies may discover a significant clue, it might put aside for further study and never combined with other significant clues to connect the dots. Before the attack on the World Trade Center we knew that Bin Laden was plotting to hurt us. America noticed that a number of swarthy Levantines enlisted in flight schools to study how to pilot giant passenger jet planes, but without learning how to take off. Oddly enough, these sinister folk were not just hobbyists. The resources of the intelligence community were never deployed to figure that out, alas.
Another prodigious example is Pearl Harbor. In 1941, a whole Japanese fleet had disappeared up north—absolute radio silence, no trace. From breaking the Japanese codes we gathered that Japan was planning to attack the U.S. in the Pacific. But where? Guam? The Philippines? Several warnings went out to our commands, but the admiral in charge of the really fat target of Pearl Harbor was so convinced he was out of reach that eventually he refused to discuss that peril. We knew that the Japanese were given to declaring war at the very moment of a surprise attack, striking at dawn, their bombers diving out of the sun. We were reading their final message to their embassy in Washington, strongly indicating war. We could actually observe the embassy papers being burned. Finally, their ambassador demanded a meeting with Secretary of State Hull at exactly noon on December 7. Alas, the one great question was never asked: Where is it dawn in the Pacific when it’s noon in Washington? We found out the hard way.
Quite obviously, the correct approach to all this must be to create a single center to collect all information on serious threats so they can be studied and matched up with other clues to reveal the big picture.
Due to General Flynn’s efforts, such a center now exists, offering “all-source analysis” within the Defense Intelligence Analysis Program. It is being expanded across all the seventeen organizations in the intelligence community. Time will tell if this will work. After all, agencies with differing approaches are reluctant to share what they know. The F.B.I. likes to make a pinch and call a press conference, while the C.I.A. likes to patiently track the bad guys and see where it all leads.
And of course the campaign can’t be limited to just staff in the states. Half of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 17,000 people are stationed at 262 locations in 140 countries abroad, whether serving as military attachés (official spies) or attached to major commands. There is also a quiet clandestine service, not made up of flashy James Bonds, but of Sherlock Holmeses. (This activity has worried the Senate Armed Services Committee, which asks if it shouldn’t be in the C.I.A.)
As a result of all this infrastructure, we knew what was coming in the Ukraine. Not, however, what to do about it. Manifestly, Putin has calculated that we can’t do anything, at least in the short term.
The long term is another story. General Flynn points out that if the west gets disturbed enough, we can create an energy Marshall Plan, permitting Europe to avail itself of our excess resources in case of need. This will make Europe much less dependent on the Russians’ energy exports, a semi-monopoly that gives them a grip on Europe’s throat. A more plentiful energy supply should also lower prices.
One view of the Ukraine situation, incidentally, is that George Kennan was right in warning us not to get too involved there: that country is of the utmost sensitivity to Russia, its very heart and breadbasket, and part of its traditional system of buffers against European invaders from the west. After all, we would never rest if Russia established a heavy presence just across the border in Mexico. Henry Kissinger says that Ukraine should be somewhere between Russia and the west politically, but able to trade in either direction as it likes.
As for Afghanistan, General Flynn, who served as intelligence chief there, maintains that we focused on the wrong things. The highest levels do not need more details on road bombs. In the words of General Stanley McChrystal, “Our senior leaders−the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, the President of the United States−are not getting the right information to make decisions with.” What they need is a full-color, three-dimensional portrait that shows each local population’s attitudes, what they want and need most, and how we can drive a wedge between the people and the Taliban. As one combat officer said at the time, “We’re no more than fingernail deep in our understanding of the environment.”
So, what to do? General Flynn’s prescription is to get away from our traditional system of having officers at high levels studying functional concerns like governance, narcotics, insurgent networks. Instead, they should cover specific districts in the round.
“Consider, for instance, the sports page of a metropolitan newspaper. When the editor assigns reporters to cover football, one covers the Jets and another covers the Giants. The editor does not tell the first to write about all NFL linebackers and the second to write about the league’s punters. Determining whether teams have a shot at the Super Bowl requires analysis of them as a whole, not in vertical slices.”
General Flynn’s solution is the creation of Information Centers in important areas. These collect intelligence by sending qualified officers out to the units in their districts to talk to the people on the ground, both military and civilian, particularly local leaders. In reverse, to get that information back to those who need it, the Centers have “information brokers” who disseminate it to its “customers,” military and civilian, domestic and foreign.
Flynn finds that fully understanding each local situation and making use of that knowledge is a key to success. An example is First Battalion, Fifth Marines. Having arrived in Nawa in Helmand province, they were fired upon when they got away from their base. The local farmers wouldn’t look at them, let alone speak with them for fear of Taliban retaliation. In the following months, officers accompanied local government officials to talk to citizens about their concerns. It turned out that many of the elders were angry that the Taliban had undermined their authority. This new understanding deprived the Taliban of a monopoly on local control. After six months Nawa had changed completely. The marketplace is bustling, and farmers chase away road bombers. Similarly, the First Squadron, Ninety-First Cavalry Regiment turned their local situation around by joining up with the existing power structures to undercut the insurgents. Likewise the Third Squadron, Seventy-First Cavalry in Logar Province.
One U.S. commander in Afghanistan said, “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” Indeed, Soviet Lieutenant General Ruslan Aushev, who fought for years in Afghanistan, publicly cited the Soviet failure to pay attention to the local environment as a central reason for the Russian failure there. The more people they killed, the more numerous and determined became the opposition. In the end they quit, the only time a Red Army campaign has been beaten in the field. They learned their lesson, and General Flynn thinks we must too.
I hope he has time to carry out his many important plans. He’s retiring from his high post and returning to civilian life later this year, after a most remarkable career. Fortunately, he is confident that many of his reforms will be permanent.