Monday, September 6, 2010

Does All of Our Intelligence Data Pass The "So What" Test?

Data relevance is critical to achieving success in the Intelligence Community (IC). Simply put, everything that we do must pass the “so what?” test, and we need to move away from creating intelligence data for intelligence’ sake. This means that every intelligence product and briefing should have a clear goal and tangible outcomes.

The unfortunate reality is that many of the IC’s efforts do not come close to passing this test. All too often, our intelligence lacks relevance or does not tangibly support a mission. The main issue is a lack of insight into goals based on achieving measurable outcomes.

The following is an example of viable intelligence that would clearly pass the “so what?” test based on tangible outcomes. Imagine that we have identified and then targeted a Taliban kidnapping ringleader, and our intel products/briefings make the argument that we have this terrorist's pattern of life and furthermore, by removing him, we will halt kidnappings in this region for a three-month period. This provides our Commander with a clear “so what?” This intelligence matters. Our Commander and staff, primarily his Operations Officer, are able to analyze the means available to them and formulate an appropriate plan to intervene. By collecting and providing the data needed to remove this leader, the key outcome is the fact that kidnappings decrease in this region. The goal of this mission was to decrease kidnappings and make this region safer, so the outcome was achieved.

From a terrain perspective, many analysts provide data about the slope, vegetation, hydrography, cover and concealment, and location of roads that could play a major role in determining the ideal location of the enemy’s SCUD launchers and associated support vehicles. The “so what?” factor is that by correctly analyzing, interpreting, combining with other intelligence disciplines, and then disseminating this data, we can predict likely SCUD locations. Similar analysis can offer Primary, Alternate, and Supplementary positions for our own Field Artillery units or ideal Drop Zones and Helicopter Landing Zones.

These examples of providing actionable intelligence seem very intuitive, and one would expect these types of efforts to be commonplace. Unfortunately, they are not all that common. One of the driving issues behind this challenge is the myriad of available data.

In 2009, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) alone generated 24 years worth of video if watched continuously. In 2010, UAVs are expected to generate 30 times that amount of data—and military commanders are acknowledging the issue. According to Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, “We are going to find ourselves in the not-too-distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data.” (1)

The other challenge is focusing only on relevant data. For example, many believe that the IC is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy in Afghanistan because the majority of our collection efforts and analytical prowess are focused on insurgent groups. As such, our vast intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to persuade. (2)

The “so what?” factor in Afghanistan is determining who the local powerbrokers are that need to be influenced, as well as how we can best engage with locals—whether they are villagers, aid workers, or Afghan soldiers—to gain the credible insights we need to help advance the mission. (2)

Now that he has been appointed the new Director of National Intelligence, one of the key challenges that retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. hopes to tackle is to unite the traditionally separate missions of intelligence collection and analysis and to shrink and flatten the intelligence bureaucracy. (3) Clapper has also created the position of Deputy Director for Intelligence Integration to unify the collection and analysis tasks, which is a significant step toward addressing this issue. (4)

It certainly seems that IC leaders are taking this issue very seriously, and a top-down effort could bring about true change. However, all levels of the IC must continually ask themselves “so what?” If they are unable to answer this question, their efforts may be wasting the time and resources of our troops and policymakers—and these are resources that we cannot afford to waste.

-Lt. Col. (Ret.) Marv Gordner, 2010


(1) “Too Much Information: Taming the UAV Data Explosion,” Defense Industry Daily, May 16, 2010
(2) Greg Dunlap, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 9, 2009
(3) Ellen Nakashima, “New Intelligence Chief Clapper Brings Sense of Humor to Serious Job,” The Washington Post, August 21, 2010
(4) Pam Benson, “Director of National Intelligence Names Deputy to Boost Collaboration,” CNN, August 20, 2010


The preceeding article was written for this site by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Marv Gordner, a former intelligence officer in the US Army. Mr. Gordner has twenty-one years of extensive leadership and management experience in the Department of Defense and intelligence collection field. His assignments included the 101st Airborne Division and Special Operations Forces including, 5th Special Forces, 3d Special Forces, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He now serves as the Program Manager, Intelligence Solutions Division, for MorganFranklin.


Bryan C said...

I would thought the military would try to do data/info fusion instead. Red tapes might be the first step, but data fusion of all sources of data/info would be the final goal, ie what ISA did back in 1980s and 1990s, whatever the Activity is been called now.....

And, the military might look at taking out enemy local ringleader in a short term goal, not a long term. For CIA and KGB, usually they would consider what longer term goal would be when taking out the local ringleader, only if their own agent is ready to be put in and take over the position when the ringleader is taken out. This in long term would have generate more actionable intel when your own people/agent is in the know and provide better payoff in long term.

Also, there's backtracking ability that military has to look into. When enemy leader is taken out, usually intel people just search for documents. But with cellphones, you can use the SIM card to backtrack what people the dead guy has been calling. That's what police do with drug dealers, backtracking on the dealer's cellphone and build up a contact map and ID who's who in the org, where are they located, and give you a much bigger map.

Anonymous said...

All in all it seems the Problems are the same in many different areas.
The 'So What?' test should also more often be employed in the Scientific Community (non intel related) where I find myself often bombarded by large amounts of information with marginal use.
Guess the 'publish or perish' is driven even further in the intelligence community with the 'publish' (read the masses of data) not being completely under the control of the IC.