The Pakistani military has been detaining locals who may have helped the CIA monitor activities around Osama bin Laden’s compound. The move isn’t likely to improve relations with Washington, but it’s understandable in light of how the raid that killed bin Laden unfolded. Pakistan’s military leaders are under huge political pressure, and standing up to America may be the smartest thing they can do right now if they want to save their careers. This latest crisis in the relationship will probably pass without permanent damage, but in the meantime it should be reinforcing an important lesson among U.S. policymakers: acquiring human intelligence in the global counter-terror campaign is a very risky business.
When the effort to take down Al Qaeda began in earnest ten years ago, everybody in Washington understood that the intelligence community would need to bolster its human assets on the ground in places like Pakistan. Most such assets are necessarily foreign nationals who can blend in more easily with local culture and possess a nuanced understanding of prevailing customs. It simply isn’t feasible or desirable to deploy large numbers of Americans in target populations, and even if it were their grasp of what is occurring around them would never match the insights of natives. However, foreign nationals working for the CIA in their home cultures operate at considerable danger to themselves and their families, so recruiting and retaining them is devilishly difficult. Even when competent spies can be found, their loyalty will always be in doubt.
Given all this, there is no alternative to maintaining diverse and extensive technical intelligence capabilities that can at least partially compensate for gaps in human collections. I’ve written many times in the past about the drawbacks in trying to substitute technology for human beings in collection missions — the high cost, the slow revisit rates, the remoteness of sensors — but there are times when you either use a technical system to acquire necessary indications or you’ve got nothing. That’s why the venerable U-2 spy plane has been flying hundreds of missions in Southwest Asia and the Horn of Africa, even though you’d think by now we would have bought off every warlord in the region. Unlike the warlords, a U-2 or its unmanned Global Hawk counterpart won’t disappear when you most need it, won’t defect to the other side, won’t be working its own agenda on the side, and won’t distort collections with unacknowledged biases.
The United States currently owns a vast array of technical collection systems, and many of them are installed on “platforms” better known for other reasons. For instance, the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine is designed mainly for sea control, but most mission days when deployed are allocated to collecting various forms of acoustic and electronic intelligence. It turns out a submarine often can get closer to key emitters in Iran, North Korea and other countries of interest than satellites, aircraft and even human agents can. Similarly, the same equipment that gives the F-35 fighter unprecedented “situational awareness” will also make it a useful system from which to collect various types of tactical intelligence. And the latest missile warning satellite to reach orbit — the Space Based Infrared System satellite launched last month — has extraordinary capacity to detect and characterize any major heat source on the planet’s surface.
Obviously, merging collections from these multipurpose platforms with the dedicated assets of organizations like the National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office is a complicated affair. But when all the inputs provided by technical intelligence collections are combined, it is amazing what can be learned even in the absence of human agents on the ground. You didn’t think all those successful Predator strikes against terrorists in South Waziristan were made possible by human intelligence alone, did you? If you’re going to track down and neutralize an elusive target like Aiman al-Zawahiri, you need all the help you can get, and sometimes it’s that random flyover at sundown that provides the final piece of the puzzle. Fortunately, the Pakistanis haven’t yet figured out how to detain a Global Hawk flying at 65,000 feet.
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