Sunday, July 02, 2006

The wrong end of the telescope

Blogs covered the news that the Forest Gate raid was down to the unsuppported word of a man with an IQ of 69 quite copiously. But there is more to the problem than just bad sources, Sir Ian Blair and the ACPO grandstanding for their new political role, or whatever. Simply, they have lost the plot regarding how intelligence works. Compare and contrast this report from the LA Times on how the Jordanian secret service tracked down al-Zarqawi.
In April, when Zarqawi showed up in a highly publicized online propaganda video boasting of his group's prowess, Jordanian analysts scrutinized the surrounding scenery as well as his blustery talk.

The tape confirmed suspicions that Zarqawi was in the Yousifiya area, a volatile insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad, which became the focus of U.S. and Jordanian intelligence efforts, Burjaq said. Throughout the spring, U.S. military officials, too, were publicly identifying the area south of Baghdad as a likely Zarqawi stronghold.

"At a certain stage, more intelligence [resources] were being devoted to Yousifiya," Burjaq said, noting that Jordan's familiarity with the region and intelligence networks played a key role in monitoring Zarqawi's movements there.

"It's not an easy area to get in and out of."

The two Jordanian officials declined to confirm whether they had turned any of Zarqawi's followers against him.

But Dahabi noted, "Some of the people I arrest, I recruit. Some of those who were in my jails helped me to carry out operations."

"Sources," Burjaq said. "To us, this is the tool."

Once it became clear that the Yousifiya information was accurate, the Jordanians became more confident of their sources. Then when information was received about Zarqawi being in the Baqubah area, northeast of Baghdad, they were confident of that as well.

"We started to locate him and the Americans started to locate him," Burjaq said.

Several sources, including a U.S. counter-terrorism official, credited both U.S. and Jordanian intelligence with developing information that led to the targeted hit on Zarqawi and subsequent raids at other locations.

"At a certain point, some of the sources connected," Dahabi said.
What the two Jordanian spooks are describing is a classic method of investigation. Note that they didn't begin by looking for people who might be able to say, just like that, where he was. Rather, they identified the area to look in and began collecting background information, specifically, information that they could check. Checking reduces the number of leads to follow up, and it also provides more information about which sources are trustworthy. And in the process of checking, more background information is available, which further refines where to look. Eventually one reaches the point at which the number of possibilities is small enough to round up the usual suspects.

In the UK, this ought to be familiar, as it's precisely the approach General Sir Frank Kitson codified in the 1960s. The crucial advantage is that it minimises the possible wrongness at each point. If you post huge rewards, seek tip-offs on where "a chemical vest" might be, then act on everything you receive, not only will you not be able to cope with the data-dump, but your activities running after the false positives are likely to have consequences. Hence Kitson's insistence on the importance of background information - it can be of lower quality than operational information without causing fiascos - and checkable information, which even if falsified leaves you with a net gain of information (i.e. that Curt Weldon's sources cannot be relied on, or that the enemy is unlikely to be found in area Y, or Mr. Z can be eliminated from the inquiry).

Now compare, for example, this. You might also want to read this Ken Silverstein report on the intelligence effort before the war with Iraq.
“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren't wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don't have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn't go with us.

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