Gathering intelligence about the plans, intentions, and capabilities of one’s enemies has always been difficult. The United States has always committed to do exactly that. The financial investment has been tremendous.
The U.S. ability to utilize breathtaking tools to steal and manipulate electronic communications and data, as well as operating in the cyber world has proven effective. Spy satellites have unbelievable methods to penetrate enemies’ defenses, and to be able to see the unseeable.
The intelligence community now trains skilled professionals to “connect the dots” from these divergent data sources. These are remarkable capabilities of modern technology and human analysis that is being implemented by the U.S. to keep its citizens safe, but there is a massive gap.
Throughout time there has always been one indispensible tool of espionage – the human spy (also known as HUMINT, or human intelligence). History has proven time and again that human intelligence is the focal point of great intelligence. It is dangerous and risky, yet fundamental to a successful integrated intelligence effort.
In Iraq, the lack of substantial human intelligence resulted in the mistake of assessing that Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT) had presented a compelling case. Human intelligence was almost non-existent. The result, a wrong conclusion based on partial information.
It is crucial to note that spy networks take years to validate and develop. It is not something you can easily turn on and off. As the United States now enters the next phase of the war against ISIS, it’s time to rebuild our HUMINT capabilities, to be our eyes and ears in the Middle East and Africa.
Any objective analysis of today’s HUMINT capabilities will indicate that the U.S. is almost blind against the Islamic State.
President Bill Clinton’s decision to reduce reliance on HUMINT in the 1990’s because of the inherent risk has left analysts forced to analyze situations with limited information. The 1990’s action left us weakened but not blind.
More recently, severe errors were made. Egypt and Libya were two countries that provided the U.S. with extensive HUMINT capabilities. Egypt and Libya have now been marginalized as sources. The U.S. support for overthrowing Mubarak in Egypt has limited cooperation since then, and has resulted in Egypt growing closer to Russia. Correspondingly, HUMINT assistance was eliminated in Libya. When the U.S. overthrew Gaddafi they also destroyed Libya’s HUMINT network that had been of substantial help.
Other U.S. “allies” in the region are currently being called into question. Can the U.S. rely on obtaining substantial intelligence from states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are known for supporting the Islamic State? Are there any other options for the U.S.?
Turkey constantly disagrees with U.S. policy vis-a-vis the Kurds. Their inability to back the 2003 war in Iraq signals their limited reliability and cooperation in defeating ISIS today.
Support from Iraq proves improbable that the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, a proxy for Iran, will not afford the U.S. much help.
Syria is now a failed state.
The bottom line is, after being involved in a decades-long war against radical jihadists, America has lost almost all of its HUMINT capabilities in the region. The only real and reliable allies in the region today are Israel and Jordan.
After losing capabilities in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, recognizing the limitations and reliability of Saudi Arabia and Qatar due to their ties to ISIS, and the complex and arduous relationships that the U.S. has with Turkey and Iraq, the outlook is grave.
Those who know and understand the ominous threat of ISIS are the countries in that region. Today they are not aligned to provide the HIMINT that America needs to keep the country safe.
The next president will make decisions on how to confront, contain, and ultimately defeat ISIS with one hand behind their back. They will not have the one profound asset, human intelligence, which will help the President of the United States eradicate ISIS and other jihadist groups from the world.
Our next President will be forced to make tactical and strategic decisions with limited insights into the threat.
The decisions in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton and the actions by the Obama Administration will handicap future Presidents because of the destruction of almost all HUMINT in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
It will be important for the next President and the American people to know of the limited resources and information that will be available as decisions are made. The loss of HUMINT will practically guarantee that more “mistakes” will be made.