from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Cooked Islamic State Intelligence and Red Teams

September 24, 2015

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The New York Times has an article that sheds further light upon what is apparently a disagreement within U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) about how successful the U.S.-led war, which is intended to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the self-declared Islamic State, is progressing. Building upon earlier reporting by the Times and The Daily Beast, today’s article explicitly names the senior Iraq intelligence analyst at CENTCOM, Gregory Hooker, and reiterates the opposition of Hooker’s team to the Obama administration’s generally optimistic portrayal of progress in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).

What Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force-OIR, first proclaimed in May remains the Obama administration’s position today: “We believe across Iraq and Syria that Daesh is losing,” adding, “The coalition strategy, I believe, is clear and our campaign is on track.” However, as noted on the one-year anniversary of OIR, despite killing a lot of suspected militants, destroying their equipment and facilities, and reducing the terrain they control, there has been little actual progress in achieving the always unrealistic strategic objective of destroying the Islamic State. Moreover, compared to other U.S.-led air wars in recent history, OIR is actually featuring a very limited number of bombs being dropped per day.

The Times story also contains two quotes directly pertinent to my forthcoming book, Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy (Basic Books, 2015) First:

“Some analysts suggested that leaders in Tampa feared that reporting bad news might anger the White House. Others described an institutional bias that makes it hard for the military to criticize its own operations.”

Both phenomena are pressures that all intelligence analysts encounter. There is the inherent challenge in “voicing up” dissenting or challenging opinions that contradict those opinions that are openly promoted by bosses. This pressure is especially prevalent among military analysts, where uniformed officers believe that their proper role is to execute policies that their civilian bosses authorize. Where the strategic guidance is clear, such as that outlined in President Obama’s September 10, 2014, Islamic State strategy speech, military analysts often told me that their professional responsibility is to monitor and assure that the strategy and associated lines of effort are being faithfully implemented. Mavericks exist, but in small numbers and with little impact.

The second pressure, the difficulty of self-criticism, is the expected outcome of the hierarchical structures and insular cultures that exist within command staffs. Command staffs are highly susceptible to groupthink, a phenomenon that often prevails within institutions characterized by rigid hierarchy and shared values, and comprised of people who work in dangerous and high-stress environments. By design, individuals conceive of themselves as part of a team that should be working in a unified manner toward achieving a common objective. In such an environment, criticism can put the team effort and strategic mission at risk.

The second quote in the Times comes from retired Army Colonel Kevin Benson, who has taught at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) —recently rebranded Cognitive Dominance Education Program—since 2007. In my book, I feature the efforts of UFMCS to educate and train red teamers for the Army, other armed services, and select civilian agencies. I was fortunate to attend the UFMCS short-course as a student, and witness how Benson—a friend and colleague—teaches critical thinking to instruct military officers (often majors and lieutenant colonels) and a few civilians. In the Times article, Benson is quoted as saying, “You can get pulled into watching the laser dot on a target and watching it blow up. After that, it can be hard to hear that you’re not making progress, because you saw it.”

In my book, I document the many challenges faced by the U.S. military in developing and promoting red teams within the Army and Marine Corps. As Benson told me, “Red teams as an integral part of the design and decision-making process give commanders and staffs the opportunity to think the unthinkable—ask ‘what if’, and challenge assumptions and facts.” Reportedly, this sort of “what if?” questioning and assumption challenging is not happening with regards to assessing progress in OIR. If CENTCOM intelligence analysts cannot do this, either due to pressure from their bosses or the inherent difficulty of self-criticism, the White House might empower an autonomous and impartial red team to evaluate the war against the Islamic State. That is, assuming Obama administration officials want to hear the potentially bad news from an independent set of outside analysts.

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