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Answering My Critics Part III: The New Oracle at Delphi

(To read the entire “Intelligence is Evidence” series, click here.)

"Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?"”
                        - Rage Against the Machine

Predicting the future is hard work. Ask anyone in my completely non-monetary football prediction pool. Or political pundits. Or anyone.

For this reason, most of the Army dumps on military intelligence folks. It’s pretty clear why too. Intelligence tries to predict the enemy’s movement. The intel guys are wrong. They try again. They’re wrong again. They say something vague and useless and the commander ignores them. Predicting the future is fairly difficult; that’s why we don’t do it very often.

Yes, classically, intelligence embraced this role. Intel folks tried to predict the enemy’s movement. Or it answered questions like “Where will the Soviets will place their war heads?”, “Will China get involved in Korea?”, “What will happen if North Vietnam takes over South Vietnam?” (It should be noted, most of this “predicting” didn’t happen in actual combat.)

The answers to those questions are the goal. Intelligence aspires towards the future. But intelligence doesn’t just guess at the future. We don’t have crystal balls, and fortune tellers aren’t very accurate. Even at the height of the Cold War, the evidence for predictions came from...analysis of the past.

To riff off the 1984/Rage Against the Machine quote from above, you use the past to predict the future, you use the present to understand the past. A lot of analysts understand it only as a one-way street. It isn’t. So while some commenters noted that the difference between intelligence and evidence is that intelligence predicts the future, they are only getting it half-right. And when those same commenters say that evidence punishes for the past, well they are shortchanging evidence.

Look at the fight against Al Qaeda er..the Global War on Terror. The George W. Bush administration rolled out a color coded chart, the terror alert level. It never dropped below the third level; still terrorism never happened. All those predictions were wrong. In fact, the chart only rose after prominent arrests of individuals for conducting criminal acts. In other words, past actions.

In a way, the chart wasn’t about the future at all, it only changed based on past events.

The idea that “intelligence predicts” and “evidence punishes” disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or they appear to be exactly the same. The U.S. Army’s military intelligence branch--after years of fighting the same fictional Russian battles over and over--quickly realized it couldn’t gaze through the fog of the future during real wars. When it came to fighting insurgencies, intelligence staffs primarily made law enforcement cases against insurgent fighters. Take the case of any insurgent arrested by the military, like an IED bomb maker. True, the U.S. Army took him off the streets because they wanted to stop the IEDs he was building, but he was locked up for the IEDs he had already built. Evidence and intelligence are one.

Flip the idea around and look at law enforcement in America. We don’t arrest drug dealers to punish them; we arrest them to prevent future criminal activity. Law enforcement isn’t always about punishing, or prevention, but both. We punish gang leaders, and prevent them from committing future crimes. We arrest serial killers because of the murders they committed, but also to stop them from killing again.

This culminated in Osama bin Laden’s death. Did we kill him to stop a second 9/11 or as punishment for the first? Was the intelligence aspect predictive or punishing? Or both?

Instead of lumping intelligence and evidence into separate boxes, we should view them as dabbling in both. Intelligence helps explain events after the fact, and can offer vague predictions of the future. Intelligence can also assist in making cases against criminals, rogue states and human rights violators. Intelligence is evidence, evidence about the world beyond our shores, nothing less and nothing more.

One comment

I think your question of motivation for Osama bin Laden’s death is interesting. It was definitely one, but was it both? It was definitely punishment because we hunted him as a war criminal. But was it to prevent another attack. Recent evidence shows he had become nothing more than a charismatic leader and not a strategist. Maybe to stop recruitment which allows attacks, but not to stop specific plans.