Fixing Pentagon Intelligence

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), that vast agglomeration of seventeen different hush-hush agencies, is an espionage behemoth without peer anywhere on earth in terms of budget and capabilities. Fully eight of those spy agencies, plus the lion’s share of the IC’s budget, belong to the Department of Defense (DoD), making the Pentagon’s intelligence arm something special. It includes the intelligence agencies of all the armed services, but the jewel in the crown is the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s “big ears,” with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which produces amazing imagery, following close behind.

None can question the technical capabilities of DoD intelligence, but do the Pentagon’s spies actually know what they are talking about? This is an important, and too infrequently asked, question. Yet it was more or less asked this week, in a public forum, by a top military intelligence leader. The venue was an annual Washington, DC, intelligence conference that hosts IC higher-ups while defense contractors attempt a feeding frenzy, and the speaker was Rear Admiral Paul Becker, who serves as the Director of Intelligence (J2) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A career Navy intelligence officer, Becker’s job is keeping the Pentagon’s military bosses in the know on hot-button issues: it’s a firehose-drinking position, made bureaucratically complicated because JCS intelligence support comes from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is an all-source shop that has never been a top-tier IC agency, and which happens to have some serious leadership churn at present.

Admiral Becker’s comments on the state of DoD intelligence, which were rather direct, merit attention. Not surprisingly for a Navy guy, he focused on China. He correctly noted that we have no trouble collecting the “dots” of (alleged) 9/11 infamy, but can the Pentagon’s big battalions of intel folks actually derive the necessary knowledge from all those tasty SIGINT, HUMINT, and IMINT morsels? Becker observed — accurately — that DoD intelligence possesses a  “data glut but an information deficit” about China, adding that “We need to understand their strategy better.” In addition, he rued the absence of top-notch intelligence analysts of the sort the IC used to possess, asking pointedly: “Where are those people for China? We need them.”

There’s a lot going on in the admiral’s comments, which hit on important points as the United States plans for possible war in East Asia — rather, one hopes, deterring one. In the first place, it’s odd that an intelligence leader would think that understanding an opponent’s strategy, much less his grand strategy, is the job of the spooks. That actually is the job of all senior officers, and such matters are taught at War Colleges — or are supposed to be. That said, Becker’s frustration is understandable, since the Naval War College, allegedly the leading light of DoD education, was just found by the Navy’s own Inspector General to be overpriced and underperforming, and some of his views should be taken in this context.

More important is his allegation that DoD intelligence types have a problem differentiating forests from trees, and here Becker is entirely accurate. A lot of dots do not a coherent picture necessarily make, particularly when intelligence analysts lack necessary knowledge — language, culture, history, time in the target country — about the problem at hand. On this charge DoD intelligence, and the whole IC, have little coherent defense, since decades of favoring diversity of experience over specialized knowledge among intelligence officers leads to exactly the situation — smart people who know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little — that Admiral Becker lamented this week.

The most interesting, and unintentionally revealing, part of the J2’s comments came when he highlighted intelligence legends of the past, whose like cannot be found in DoD spy circles today, Becker maintained. I am generally skeptical of hoary “golden ages” in any organization, since memory plays tricks, yet here the admiral had a point. He cited Vernon Walters, a legendary Cold War semi-spy. An Army general, Walters was a polyglot who spoke several foreign languages well enough to serve as translator for presidents; Walters also served as a CIA top manager and the White House’s secret emissary to the Vatican. Yet his career was so totally unrepresentative of both DoD and the IC that he presents a fascinating one-off during the Cold War. One suspects that a gifted odd duck like Walters would not last long in today’s Army; he certainly would stand minimal chance of becoming a three-star general.

Becker likewise mentioned Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a Navy intelligence officer who rose to head NSA and serve as CIA’s deputy director. A very gifted officer, Inman was perhaps NSA’s best-ever director, and he enjoyed a second-to-none reputation for smarts. Again, however, Inman represents such an outlier, bureaucratically speaking, that you wonder what Becker was getting at here. Not to mention that Inman has a reputation for prickliness, as evidenced by the weird flame-out of his nomination as Secretary of Defense by President Clinton. (It should also be noted that long-retired Admiral Inman was a staunch, and rare, public critic of warrantless wiretapping by NSA after 9/11.)

Yet the most intriguing example of past greats cited by Admiral Becker was the joined case of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort. This pair are rightly considered legends in Navy intelligence circles for their remarkable achievement that enabled American victory at the June 1942 Battle of Midway, the turning-point of the Pacific War. After Pearl Harbor, these officers, who were close friends, played a critical secret role in giving Admiral Chester Nimitz vital information about Japanese intentions. With half his fleet sunk at Pearl Harbor, and suffering from a critical shortage of aircraft carriers, Nimitz faced a dire situation in the spring of 1942. Fortunately for him, Rochefort’s code-breaking unit in Hawaii was able to provide Nimitz amazing insights into Japanese plans, thanks to their access to the enemy’s  high-grade naval communications, with Layton at the admiral’s side interpreting the top secret information for him. Rochefort’s team accurately predicted when and where the Japanese fleet would strike, and the outnumbered Pacific Fleet beat them to the punch at Midway. Theirs was one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of intelligence, and Nimitz correctly considered Rochefort and Layton to have been his “priceless advantage” lurking secretly behind the victory at Midway.

That said, it is more than a little disingenuous for Admiral Becker to suggest that there’s any mystery as to why Laytons and Rocheforts seem not to exist in the 21st century U.S. Navy. An examination of how those officers became the legends they remain reveals painful truths about DoD intelligence today. In the first place, Layton and Rochefort were surface warfare officers (SWOs), i.e. ship-drivers, as were all Navy line officers in the 1920’s who didn’t drive submarines or fly airplanes. They were never in the intelligence career “ghetto” because it simply did not exist; in the mid-1920’s, when both junior officers went “behind the green door” and entered the top secret world of code-breaking, they were accredited SWOs as there was no career path yet for spooks in the Navy (back then intelligence and code-breaking were functionally united in the Navy, only to be separated bureaucratically after World War II, as they inexplicably remain today).

Rochefort was recruited for the Navy’s hush-hush code-breaking program in Washington, DC based on his responses on a crossword puzzle that he sent to a P.O. Box (this clever yet simple method worked well at quietly identifying sailors who might excel at cracking codes). He and Layton underwent three years of intense, top secret training in how to decipher Japanese codes. It was evident to Navy leadership, which could read a map, that war with Japan was more a matter of when than if — the same is true today with China — so a small, elite cadre of officers was developed who could understand Japan and its navy. After completing their code-breaking course, Rochefort and Layton were sent to Japan for three years to learn the language, culture and mindset of the future enemy.

As a result of this rigorous program, by the time war with Japan actually came, the U.S. Navy possessed officers who deeply understood the enemy linguistically, operationally, and culturally, with gifted men like Layton and Rochefort leading the intelligence effort that proved decisive in American victory in the Pacific War. There is no mystery how this happened: it was the outcome of wise planning. And this sort of forward-looking thinking in intelligence circles does not happen anymore, and is the root cause of the dysfunction that Admiral Becker rightly decried this week.

In today’s Navy, intelligence and information warfare officers have too little contact with line officers, who generally view them as spooky and not always helpful. Moreover, rigid career paths mean that officers on the make will seek a diversity of assignments, avoiding specialization like the plague on a career that it is. Any intelligence officer who suggested that s/he should study Chinese naval and intelligence matters intensely for three years then go to China for three more years to learn Mandarin and Chinese ways, would be laughed out of the room, between cost and security concerns, amid whispers of “career suicide.” This simply is not how the U.S. Navy — or any of our armed services — actually works.

Of course, such dysfunction is a choice. I have no doubt that the Navy today possesses officers of the high caliber of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort, but how they are groomed, career-wise, means that such talents are not finding their niche. This bespeaks a powerful bureaucratic inertia and a fundamental lack of seriousness about the threats we face. If America wants to avoid a war with China, or win it should it come, the Pentagon needs to get serious about grooming officers who truly understand the enemy and his mindset. This cannot be done quickly and requires real talent-spotting and nurturing; small is beautiful here — it’s a question of quality, not quantity (which is exactly why the Pentagon, which remains stuck in a mass-production mindset, does not adopt such common-sense career paths).

Admiral Becker has raised important questions about just how effective DoD’s vast intelligence empire actually is at understanding China. He and those like him — the leaders of our IC — have the ability to implement measures that, given time, will get the Pentagon the gifted and properly educated officers that we need to win future wars. We possess the talent; what we lack is the seriousness of purpose to break bureaucratic china to make things actually happen. There’s not much time to waste.

P.S. Admiral Becker also did not address the painful fact that, due to bureaucratic warfare of a kind only too well known in the Pentagon still, Joe Rochefort received no career reward for his epic success that led to Nimitz’s victory at Midway. Actually he was punished for it. You can read my write-up of that scandal here.


29 comments on “Fixing Pentagon Intelligence”
  1. Colin says:

    Can you give a little insight into why you think war with China is a matter of when than if? I realize this may require more than just a reply, but I’m a little surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t be.

    1. 20committee says:

      China is clearly seeking a sphere of influence in East Asia, especially at sea, that will be flatly unacceptable to close US allies, Japan especially, and wants to overturn the post-1945 order in the Asia-Pacific sphere in Beijing’s favor. If this happens peacefully, I will be suitably happy and amazed.

      1. Alexandre Charron-Trudel says:

        “China is clearly seeking a sphere of influence in East Asia, especially at sea, that will be flatly unacceptable to close US allies, Japan especially, and wants to overturn the post-1945 order in the Asia-Pacific sphere in Beijing’s favor.”

        What’s even more interesting about this is that, put simply, it’s pure hypocrisy; the CCP, as well as education within the PRC in general, touts the evils of Japanese colonization of what was called the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” and the devastation to China that resulted. Now the PRC modernizes China, and capitalizes on this glorious opportunity–by attempting virtually the same thing. The mental leaps of logic that are needed to validate this while upholding the narrative promoted within the PRC are, to put it bluntly, unfathomable to me.

        The best quote regarding this emerged from a commenter over on the diplomat who noted that “the PRC wants peaceful co-existence, however the 9-dashed line illustrates on what terms.”

      2. 20committee says:

        You’ve hit that nail right on the head there …

    2. mattw0699 says:

      I agree with the assessment that war with China is likely when and not if. Why?

      The overall world order to starting to crumble. China and Russia are pushing outward to create spheres of influence. The US is in a financial mess. Historically, this kind of process has not ended well. Depending on how one counts, the historical probability of war goes from 75% on up to near 100% when a rising power gets into a conflict with an established hegemon.

      Poll: Majority of Chinese Predict War with Japan by 2020 –

      If China goes to war with Japan, doesn´t that imply it will be going to war with the US too?

      If you are surprised then perhaps you aren´t paying close enough attention. I track emerging risks over at twitter (1913intel.) War is definitely on the radar.

      1. Colin says:

        Indeed, I have not been paying close enough attention. Thank you for the information. It is quite interesting.

  2. mattw0699 says:

    The article “General Failure” gives us a little background on how a bad process pushes large organizations toward mediocrity and worse:

    1. 20committee says:

      That’s a rare Ricks piece that I can endorse pretty much across the board.

  3. Charles Rostkowski says:

    In 1958 I was chosen out of boot camp to enter the USAF Security Service (part of NSA) and sent to the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif to learn Korean. It was a selection that happened to many enlisted men who had dropped out of college and entered the service. After a year at ALs and three more months of radio training, I went to Korea for a year to work in radio intelligence. None of the officers in our unit had the language or intelligence traininng that we enlistees had. What always struct me as odd is that after that year overseas, all of us were sent back to the states to finish our enlistment in SAC as keypunchers for those giant computers or clerk typists. There was no hint that given our training and experience we might be sought out to continue our careers as intelligence experts in our respective linguistic fields. The offer was never made, at least not to anyone I knew during the three years I was immersed in the field. So the USAF spent a significant amount to train and give us experience in the area of understanding the air fforce of our various enemies (Koreans, Chinese, Russians and eastern Europeans) the then dropped us like hot rocks. Mind you, I would not have chosed to continue in the Air Force but, as I said, the offer was never made. So XX Committee what you’ve said here has been going on for a long time; I experienced it first hand.

    1. 20committee says:

      Indeed, thanks for sharing; pretty standard experience after 1945, alas.

  4. A good memory can beat Google says:

    A related problem is the mismanagement of linguists (By Max Rosenthal):

    More than two years of training followed, both in Arabic and the specific intelligence duties I’d need to perform in-country. In March 2009, I stepped off a Blackhawk at Forward Operating Base Delta, a large base near al-Kut in southeastern Iraq. I figured I’d be translating captured Arabic communications to alert combat troops of danger.

    So, imagine my surprise when my new team sergeant picked me up at the airfield and mentioned he was a Korean linguist. It turned out that our five-man team had as many Korean speakers as Arabic ones — you know, for all the Korean spoken in the Iraqi desert. It was my first sign that the deployment wouldn’t be the one I trained for.

    Perhaps linguists should have higher rank.

    Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters by Jesús Baigorri-Jalón,includes the story of how Vernon Walters became an interpreter of a language he did not command, driven by the sole motivation of pressure from above

    Click to access BAIGORRI_BEIRUT_FINAL.pdf

    1. 20committee says:

      Good stuff, thanks; in WWII, USN linguists were officers….something to that, IMO.

  5. xtmar says:

    Two thoughts, the first of which is half joking:
    1. If you have enough dots, you don’t even need to connect them, the answer should jump out at you like a pointillist painting.
    2. US policy in general (not just IC, but in most aspects of political and bureaucratic planning) seems to take the approach that masses of short term resources can overcome or sufficiently mitigate any problems caused by a lack of long term planning. In other words, because we are a rich and large economy, any problem that arises can be dealt with by simply throwing lots of resources at it, and hoping that it fixes the problem. While the results of this are rather more mixed, it gives the appearance of success often enough that there seems to be no major incentive to change, even in areas where the advantages of even minimal long term planning would be enormous.

    1. 20committee says:

      We need dots….but dots alone are inadequate.

  6. Nobody says:

    The Pentagon’s China problem is symptomatic of a larger problem w/in the Federal gov’t: we have – at a minimum – three contradictory China policies, rather than a single “China Policy.” DoD understands the China threat to a great extent (especially USPACOM, as one might expect), and is trying to act accordingly. State is slowly coming around, but still too mired in a “State-y” reluctance to acceptance the re-emergence of Great Power conflict to act with anything short of duplicitous foot shuffling and hand waving, and Commerce (et. al.) remains of the belief that economic engagement and co-dependence will solve all ills, and has thus helped to create a cataclysmic CI nightmare when it comes to China. If the general public knew how thoroughly the Communist Party of China has penetrated the various institutions of both public and private life in the U.S., they’d be aghast (if they could be pried from their Instagram accounts, anyway…).

    DoD intel (in each of the agencies that you’ve discussed – including DIA) is full of some very bright, capable analysts who have a quite solid grasp on China’s strategic and leadership intentions (insofar as ANYBODY knows them). Many, however, are frustrated by both the slow-to-resolve focus on the tactical, and on MENA as the locus of US concern in the world (despite the “pivot/rebalance”). Similarly, DoD’s inability/unwillingness (almost satirical in its consistency) to place analysts in areas of stated, specific cultural, regional, or political interest (rather than placing them “at the needs of the Agency”) results in analysts who are incessantly bumped from billet to billet, because of shortfalls in areas of immediate tactical necessity (Libya Crisis Group, Syria Crisis Group, etc.).

    All of this is compounded by the ugly truth that the IC – like every other Federal bureaucracy – has been thoroughly affected by Chinese influence and info operations (learned from the Soviets; the MSS was built, one must remember, by the KGB); particularly over the past Decade (a period that the Chinese call the “Period of Strategic Opportunity”). There is remarkably little consistency in the degree to which Senior Analysts across the IC can agree on the nature, severity, and reach of the China threat; as such, it is difficult to make real progress in pushing toward the establishment of more effective I&W, let alone the development of a baseline view of China’s strategic intentions.

    1. 20committee says:

      I fully agree that the extent of PRC influence ops in the West, USA very much included, is very worrisome. Thanks for sharing.

  7. PBAR says:

    The other problem is that even if you had a such an experienced cadre of people these days, would the general/flag officers listen to them? In my experience as a Korea foreign area officer, they wouldn’t, as they think by virtue of being a general/flag (or O-6) that they are geniuses and don’t need the advice of their underlings.

    1. 20committee says:

      That is always a challenge in the US military but in the intel world I think somewhat less so; intel GOFOs are (sometimes) a bit more open-minded on such matters. It can only get better than it is at present.

  8. mcgannonma says:

    I spent 17 years in Intel in the Air Force and as a contractor and was never limited on training/education opportunities to build my area expertise, but perhaps my experience was unique. I was for the most part a professional student though and never turned down a training opportunity, joint, online or otherwise.

    Maybe the Navy should consider starting the training process even before these officers are commissioned when they are at the Naval Academy, Norwich, The Citadel , VMI and/or other ROTC programs. Identify those who wish to enter the Intelligence field right from the beginning and start the required security background checks right away so we know they’ll be able to get a security clearance . They should then be required to have a major that fits into the Intel career field with required language and area studies. Once they are commissioned and go through their initial intel school, then they should be planning to attend graduate school either at the Naval Post Graduate School or similar program of study. It’s critical to get this education early on while they are Ensigns and Lt JG, so by the time they are Lt and Lt CMDR they really are experts in their fields.

    1. 20committee says:

      This can be fixed more easily than that. Force intel officers to specialize in a sub-dscipline (HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, CI) early and require them to learn and retain relevant skills, and promote them up to O-5 at least based on their success in their sub-discipline, with emphasis on regional specialization as relevant.

  9. Denis Aplaon says:


  10. carl says:

    There may not be many or any American naval officers who are allowed to concentrate wholly on studying Chinese, Red China and the PLAAN but perhaps there are people outside the military who do exactly that on their own and at their own expense. From reading this blog and others I get the idea there are academics in the civilian world who do exactly that. I can’t name specific people except B.R Myers but it is an impression I’ve formed over the years. I am interested in what you think of that belief. Also if these people are out there, they publish in open sources (like this one) and therefore a better appreciation of the world can be got through those sources than the official gov types can get through their extremely expensive sources. I am interested in what you think of that belief also.

    1. 20committee says:

      There certainly are civilian experts out there who know what they are talking about (even if they are the exception) and DoD does try to capture that. Unfortunately — and here is where the lack of expertise is uniform is fatal – serving officers seldom know enough to differentiate between actual experts and snake-oil salesman seeking to cash in on what’s trendy in natsec. Usually, the latter groups prevails, and the military pays big bucks for stupid ideas. This is where a little uniformed expertise would go a long way.

      In other words, had more officers known more about AFPAK (really known: languages, culture, history), it would have taken months — rather than the years it did — to expose the Three Cups of Bullshit scam for the DoD cash sink it was.

  11. former Redleg says:

    One interesting program is the Army’s Branch detail program where somewhere between 30-60% (depending on year group) of Cadet chosen for MI are sent to to a Combat Arms Branch (or Chem for females, though this may change) for their entire LT time and then sent to MICCC and become regular MI officers. This happened to me, i was sent to FA OBC and then served in a regular Artillery unit for 4 years before going to intel (Admittedly my deployment had nothing to do with Arty since i was an adviser but that what a lot of Arty units were doing) and i think it helped me try to merge Maneuver and Intel. That does not address the specialization issue but is a good way of keeping service intel grounded in the needs of the service and fights the tendency on the part of a lot of intel officers to see intel as the end in and of itself, which is one of the things that makes maneuver ignore intel. Also detailed officers tend to speak maneuver and understand maneuver better then pure MI officers and that gives them credibility. If i had my way MI would be like SF or CA and only take officers and NCO who have spent time in another branch.

    1. 20committee says:

      Your last sentence is golden, my view to a “T”.

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