Tuesday, May 3, 2011

That's the Way It Works

While discussing the news of the death of Osama bin Laden with one of my co-workers today, she made the point that all of the Bush era interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, had not led our forces directly to bin Laden.  Her point seemed to be that all of the "torture" that occurred didn't stack up to "real" intelligence, that apparently all came after January 2009.

I tried, and failed to convince her that intelligence work, especially against a target as dedicated to security as al Qaeda, takes years, and you have to take information from wherever you can get it.

When I was in intelligence, we were always looking for the Big Break:  the enemy orders wrapped around a couple of cigars, or the break in code that let us decrypt everything. 

But for the most part, we were looking for needles in haystacks.  Find a needle, see if it fits with the needles you already have, and then start looking again.  If it doesn't fit with any of your needles, start another pile and hope you find more.  Repeat for as long as you have information to sift through.

With the improvement in collection systems, this process has gone from looking for needles in haystacks to looking for diamonds on the beach.  Even with massive use of computers for initial analysis, it still takes a skilled, experienced human to look at something that appears to  be shiny and declare it a diamond. 

Sometimes you get lucky and it takes minutes to put together a picture.  Sometimes it takes years.  Sometimes it never happens, but you do what you can so that the next guy to work on it will have a chance to finish it.  But eventually the picture will take shape.  The trick is getting it into enough focus quickly enough that something can be done with it.

Apparently bin Laden was found because of a little information gained during interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo.  This information, gathered years ago, was used to find other information, which led to leads, which led to new targets and new information, which ultimately led to two rounds of 5.56 causing massive head trauma to Osama bin Laden and a contribution of much needed protein to the deep sea region of the Indian Ocean.

Congratulations to the collectors, reporters, analysts, leaders and of course, the pilots and trigger pullers who brought this about.  With the exception of President Obama and his direct staff, most of these people will never see the light of day or receive what they deserve for their hard work.  Without their hard work, usually done with no knowledge of when it would bear fruit, we would live in a much more dangerous world.

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