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The NIE Key Judgments in Plain English

What should strike those of you who have not worked in the IC is how unexciting the whole thing is. Granted, there are most assuredly several sentences and perhaps a few paragraphs that are missing due to classification issues, but you are still looking at about 80% or better of the entire Key Judgment’s section (“executive summary” in any other document). Not “special” or “secret” enough for you? That’s because for the most part secret information is almost always a supplement to what you could collect from freely (or cheaply) more available sources. Occasionally (perhaps more often than that) you get a gem that could not be obtained from OSINT, but it is less frequent than you might think.

The second thing you’ll notice is the liberal use of caveats. As I’ve mentioned previously this is a nice way to make sure you are never wrong. Why make a hard call when the odds are someone is going to call you on your “mistake?” Are the odds really that bad? Yes, given the paucity of information that most in the IC are working with. Forget having perfect information, you are almost always working with a fraction of what you would like to have. Given the treatment of analysts in the recent past, who wants to subject themselves to a virtual kick in the groin? To be fair this is more a trait of the old-school who edit such works. Most people at the working level are perfectly content to stake out a position. Live and learn.

Based on my own experiences putting together NIC documents let me try to translate the meat of the KJs into plain English:

In a nutshell, we have kicked AQ (actual and affiliate – I will use AQ for brevity sake) @ss, but of all the terrorism-related threats we face, AQ is the worst. They are not saying AQ is the devil incarnate, more like “of all the things you can die from, being burned alive is right up there.” They also point out that while we can bear down on terrorists like a battleship, their ability to maneuver like cigarette boats is going to continue to make life hard (read John Robb for background).

Note that despite strong efforts at spinning the early leak, the IC has no firm metrics with which to gauge the spread or extent of Jihadist growth. Without a baseline from which to measure change, they are only a skosh away from plain old guessing. Obvious conclusions follow.

That the “global jihadist movement is decentralized and lacks a coherent global strategy” is nothing new to followers of terrorism issues. Name 12 terrorist groups and they’ll have 11 different agendas between them. And you wonder why some IC critics call its work pedestrian.

That Iraq is the new Afghanistan is similarly, staggeringly prosaic. Nice, safe assessment that keeps those who have grown used to this sort of output happy.

. . . you know what, the more I look at this the more I can see that I’m just going to keep repeating myself. Let me try to sum up the whole thing in the following sentences:

Terrorism in general isn’t going away any time soon. They will use the tools and techniques that work to try and kill as many of us as they can. The strongest groups are bruised but not broken, which is both a blessing (lowers threat) and curse (they learn from their mistakes and will be that much harder nuts to crack later). We can reduce the threat by working to eliminate or reduce their breeding grounds and address their grievances in a reasonable manner, which means (as Chairman Hoekstra pointed out last week) using more “soft power” in order make terrorism the least attractive option for young Muslim men. This is the information age and they’re operating at Internet speed. If we don’t get with the program we’ll be in a world of hurt sooner rather than later.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.