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Gregory Treverton is one of the more prolific authors in the field of
intelligence and terrorism, and is one of relatively few writers in the
field to have held a high-ranking position in the executive branch of the
U.S. government. His experiences as the vice chair of the National
Intelligence Council and as a National Security Council staff member, among
other posts held throughout his career, add a great deal of weight to his
The opening chapter describes the intelligence environment, with an interesting discussion of puzzles (questions with answers, such as "How many missiles does the Soviet Union have?") and mysteries (questions to which no one knows the answer, such as "Will North Korea fulfill its nuclear agreement with the United States?"). During the Cold War, the United States became very good at solving puzzles and somewhat less skilled at solving mysteries. If you think of puzzles as facts and mysteries as intentions, you can see how one could design systems to discover near-infinite amounts of facts while still being unable to discern a target's intentions from those facts.
Treverton argues that there are several reasons for the disconnect between information gathering and policy formation. The first disconnect is that information derived from national technical means (the euphamism for spy satellites) often isn't verified by observors on the ground. That failure was the reason for the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In 1992, the embassy building had been a war office, and no one checked to see if the building was still being used for the same purpose prior to the bombing run in 1999.
Another, more serious, disconnect is the inability of the various members of the military and intelligence communities to discuss any part of their projects with individuals who don't have the proper compartmented clearances. A "top secret" clearance doesn't mean anything by itself until someone has been "briefed into" a project. Treverton describes the result:
Those, for instance, who design spy satellites and those who design precision-guided weapons work in separate compartments, isolated by walls of ignorance and classficiation. Given the current arrangements, it is virtually impossible to conceive of the task from sensor to weapon on target. Thus, it is only a happy accident if [a] weapon's capacity to hit targets matches intelligence's ability to find them....Weapons designers are tempted to assume that the intelligence their designs require will be there; thus, weapons frequently need costly fixes when that turns out not to be the case.
Finally, Treverton points out that the abundance of information available via the Internet and other online sources poses a formidable challenge to analysts. Not only must the intelligence community worry about keeping information in, they must keep untold amounts of duplicate or irrelevant information out.
Treverton's program to solve the ills of the United States' intelligence community fly in the face of current policy: reorganize the intelligence community to facilitate sharing, cut back on technical systems, increase human intelligence, and double or triple the budget for analysis. It's audacious, but his suggested solution deserves serious consideration.
While Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information is, overall, a solid book, it has one major flaw that bears pointing out: the text repeats itself, though not word for word, on some occasions. Rather than summarize what was said before or refer back to a previous passage, the author goes over old ground without adding anything new. As a result, the book reaches the magical 250-page mark but doesn't provide 250 pages of original material. I don't mean to say that entire chapters are wasted, but it's almost as though Treverton wrote the chapters separately and the essays weren't edited into a coherent whole.
Despite that criticism, Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information is well worth the study of anyone with an interest in how the intelligence process works and who would like to see what a well-informed, vastly experienced, and thoughtful analyst thinks could be done to make things better.