Ethnographic Notes from the Field
Jon A. Wiant
INTRODUCTION – The Problem of Culture and the Community:
The discussions of problems within the US Intelligence community raised in the 9/11 Commission Report, the WMD Commission Report as well as Congressional studies and frequent editorial comments all stress the problems of culture within the Intelligence Community. A few comments
selected from recent commentary illustrate the point: Information sharing is blocked by culture. The culture of the Directorate of Operations impedes cooperation with law enforcement organization.
FOR DISCUSSION – NOT FOR CITATION
There is a general conflict between civilian and military cultures within the Intelligence Community. The Director of the Intelligence Community lacks the authority to direct the community. Sociology and organizational theory dominate the discussion of Intelligence Community reform but the tools of anthropology – especially those from political and cultural anthropology – may help us see more clearly the problems that impede effective integration of Community.
Among the tools we might take from our anthropologist tool kit are linguistic analysis, organization and concepts of primordial identity, study of status, authority and hierarchy, boundary maintenance and exclusivity of belonging, group responsiveness to external changes, the role of shamans and soothsayers, etc.
I. THE ANALYSIS OF LANGUAGE—Language is the sine qua non of identity. Linguistic analysts deal with a hypothesis that language develops within a context of enterprise – we might think of this as the professionalization of language. Mastery of the professional language is a defining attribute of being a member of a professional culture. Words make take on special meanings within this culture. Problems occur across cultures when the same word has taken on substantially different meanings within each culture.
A couple of examples illustrate the issue:
Secure. There is the oft-told Washington story about how the term “secure” varies across our military services. Tell the Army to secure a building and Rangers will rappel down from a helicopter to the building’s roof, clear the six floors and come out the front and report “the building is secured.” At the other end of the spectrum, the air force, given the task to secure the building, reports back that Air Force “has obtained a 2-year lease with an option to buy. The building is secured.” Navy turns out the lights and locks the front door and reports “The building is secured.”
Give me cover. A Canadian soldier recently returned from NATO operations in Afghanistan related to me the operational difficulty in this expression. While “give me cover” meant watch over me to the Canadians, to their NATO colleagues it meant “give me covering fire”. The terminological confusion had profound consequences on the battlefield.
While these examples are somewhat frivolous they do point to the confusion over common words and concepts that occurs across “tribal” boundaries. Later in this paper we will look at the profoundly different meanings attached to “sources” of information that exist in the intelligence community and in law enforcement organizations. Some of the fundamental problems in sharing information among and between intelligence organization and law enforcement agencies are rooted in the semantics. There are numerous other words common to intelligence vocabulary whose meanings vary among intelligence organizations. Among the problematic words are reporting, recruitment, covert, clandestine, spy or spying, requirements, sensitive, cover, controlled, source, asset, classified, and a good number of others, each of which deserves a lexicographical essay. Let us turn, however, to the most basic issue, what is intelligence?
Deconstruction of the term intelligence.
Is it an adjective or a noun, a product or a process? This is a key question when considering how you think about teaching analysis. What makes an activity an “intelligence activity” and what makes an organization an “intelligence organization”? The simplest definition of intelligence may be the most useful in understanding the concept of intelligence. For a start, I have preferred the elegantly simple notion that “intelligence is useful information, with the issue of utility being defined by who needs information and for what purpose.” The nominative use of the term becomes adjectival when describing a process to acquire useful information.
A Lowenthal Definition: Former Associate Director of Central Intelligence Mark Lowenthal’s Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, an increasingly popular text for intelligence studies around the country, offers an expansive definition of intelligence that seeks to accommodate both product and process: Intelligence is the process by which specific types of information important to national security are requested, collected, analyzed, and provided to policy makers; the products of that process, the safeguarding of these processes and this information by counterintelligence activities, and the carrying out of operations as requested by lawful authorities. (From Intelligence: From Secrets to
Policy 3d. ed.)
There are, however, some problems with the definition:
a. Where does the battlefield commander figure in Lowenthal’s definition—is intelligence just tied to national security or should our study of intelligence be broader than the national level. Some would argue that the concept of national intelligence is itself a 20thCentury phenomena.
b. Is “intelligence” just secret work—do we focus just on those forms of collection that are clandestine or covert? Is reconnaissance and surveillance something different than intelligence collection by this definition? Is it spying? Why do we call an EP3 a “spy plane”? Are people who do open source collection really “spies”? How has this labeling confounded the popular perception of our work?
c. Did George Washington or other Revolutionary War figures engage in espionage? This is a trick question but the answer has powerful implications for our study of intelligence.3
d. Are covert action and related special operations really “intelligence? If Tom Clancy makes them so, must we also. Why are they considered part of intelligence?
e. What is the place of counterintelligence in the discipline of intelligence? If we accept counterintelligence in our realm of study, do we also include security?
So we are left with the question whether the teaching of intelligence must necessarily cover all of these things. A quick review of on-line syllabae suggests no common agreement on the scope or sweep of the inquiry. Many courses retreat to an organizational review of the 16 agencies that make up the formal Intelligence community and a few will sprinkle in some references to law enforcement agencies, though most restrict this to the FBI. None, for instance, have suggested that international operations of the Fish and Wildlife Service might be included in the purview.4
Is intelligence a study of all of these things? So what shall we study?
In sketching out an intelligence curriculum, I am proposing that study be developed around intelligence functions rather than simply around discrete intelligence organizations. For instance, the comparison of various intelligence collection activities provides us insights into how specific collection missions shape the organizational cultures of the different agencies. Similarly, while most of our 16 community organizations and many of the federal or state law enforcement agencies perform analytical functions the nature of these functions varies substantially with the mission for which they are responsible. Collection and analysis structures and functions are the primary focus of this paper but we might also subsequently include counterintelligence, covert action and related special operations or activities.
That said, let us turn to some basic anthropological concepts to explore some of the ways in which the “tribal” structures or cultures can be examined.
AN ETHOGRAPHIC MAPPING OF THE COMMUNITY -- HOW DO WE DRAW BOUNDARIES? Some common ways that we separate ourselves from each other in a “tribal fashion”
Collector vs. analysts (NB: A Sherman Kent admonition to keep them separate.) Historically, the CIA’s original headquarters building rigorously separated the operators from the analysts and one rarely passed across the borders without proper papers; in this physical and conceptual separation two distinct cultures grew within the Agency percolating not only through work but also in social engagement. In 1995 then DCI John Deutsch celebrated the sinking of “the Golden Spike” with the creation of a common IT system; the metaphor appropriately captured the sense of finally achieving organization integration – this in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of CIA’s creation. Common communications and some co-location of officers, however, did not overcome the deep tribal divisions that were manifest in operational style, distribution of status, promotions etc.
National vs. tactical: (NB: Among the more discriminating within the military community the distinction might be among strategic, operational and tactical.) These distinctions have significant budgetary implications as well as operational and analytical consequences.
Hierarchical Organization -- Civilian vs. military: Among the key organizational definers is the salience of hierarchy. While all organizations or tribes have some form of hierarchy, the steepness of it or the rigidity attached to its operations is significant in understanding how the organization (or tribe) “works”. Military hierarchies have clearly defined role structures that make explicit superior/subordinate relationships that are reinforced by rank, code, and custom. Military intelligence organizations therefore have such hierarchies as one of their definitional attributes and the customs of military hierarchy create a “chain of command” that may be more directive than in comparable civilian organizations. Granted our intelligence literature is rife with examples of conflict between leadership and rank and file analysts on estimative judgments, the culture of civilian organizations suggest that they would not accept a command decision on a predetermined analytical finding. A directive such as one issued by a head of a military intelligence organization during the Vietnam War that analysts were not allowed to to present assessments at variance with those of the theater commander would likely provoke more spirited resistance in a civilian organization. The WMD Commission and the SSCI inquiries regarding the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD is illustrative of the differences in organizational cultures and the implication of hierarchies.
The debate surrounding the appointment of General Michael Hayden as Director of CIA took on this tinge even when considering a military officer noted both for his independence and his transformational leadership style.
Status Allocation: Hierarchies are organizations of function and status with the two deeply interrelated. What gives high status in an intelligence organization and how that status is rewarded are fundamental to understanding the organization. For instance, during the Cold War recruitment of hard target sources was a status definer within the clandestine service and those who had recruited the most scalps, to use the vernacular of the time, were those who enjoyed competitive advantage with promotion boards. Organizational leadership generally reflected those who had been operationally successful and eyebrows were raised with someone was promoted into a senior operational position with a corridor reputation for less than stellar field work. While a clandestine service has many skill sets, generally higher status is afforded those officers whose work is seen as most mission central. Reports officers, for instance, are an integral part of the clandestine service but few would entertain the possibility that they would become chief of an operational division.5
There are similar status distinctions within analytical activities. Within organizations with national responsibilities, the general tendency over the years is to place higher status on current intelligence function rather than long range research and country or regional analysts generally enjoy higher organizational status than those engaged in functional analysis. This is a general reflection of the appetites of policy makers for current or short term assessment rather than longer term research. This pattern is present even among the most elevated analytical activities such as the National Intelligence Council or the senior regional intelligence officers in Defense Intelligence Agencies. While functional analytical centers have proliferated in the last quarter century, only terrorism centers have managed to carve out relatively high status positions. Front burner policy issues often generate higher status functions but as the war on drugs demonstrates these can be fleeting. Perhaps the new found interest in globalization will alter analytical status but one suspects that China analysts will continue to enjoy higher status than those working on intellectual property rights, even those involving China. All functional issues occur within a geographical location and in the long debate over geography vs. function in the organization of analysis geography most often triumphs. 6
This status discussion has sidestepped a thorny issue of the relationship between high status expertise and organizational leadership. The appointment of Ambassador Negroponte to be Director of National Intelligence or the selection of General Maples to head Defense Intelligence Agency resurrected an age-old debate on whether an intelligence organization should be headed by an intelligence professional. At the highest leadership levels, this is a red herring issue since leaders are selected for a range of talents but central to the appointment is the confidence they enjoy with their principals, in this case the President or the Secretary of Defense.
The question becomes pricklier as you move down the hierarchy. Is it “culturally right” to place an analyst in charge of an operational activity? Can a SIGINT officer head a HUMINT organization? Why are all law enforcement intelligence organizations headed by criminal investigators vs. intelligence professionals? At the extreme, such appointments can have a tumultuous effect on an organization as DCI William Casey’s decision to appoint a businessman to be his Deputy Director of Operations demonstrated. Some positions take on a status inviolability that is deeply acculturated within an organization.
How the increasing pressure for interagency assignments will affect status is still open to debate. The success of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act of freeing senior officer promotions from service parochialism has had an exemplary effect on the intelligence community. The DNI recently sought to implement a program that would positively reward officers for taking assignments with other agencies but whether this will actually translate into higher promotion possibilities is a matter of conjecture. Developing a class of officers who are “bureaucratically multi-cultural” and fluent in simultaneous translation between organizations is indisputably a good thing but few in the past have had their status increased as a result of such out of agency assignments. 7
Foreign intelligence vs. domestic intelligence )but more commonly domestic security): The legacy of the intelligence reform hearings of the 1970s was a sharp divide between foreign intelligence and domestic intelligence or security issues buttressed by law, Executive Order and Attorney General Guidelines. Long before we considered how you collect information on terrorists living within our polity, we wrestled with the implications of the American diaspora on significant developments abroad. How, for instance, could the foreign intelligence community, assess the implications of the activities of a potential foreign leader living in American exile. What threats did he pose to the current regime, what activities was he engaged in that might lead to regime change, what were the likely policies he might implement if his challenge to the regime was successful? These are valid foreign intelligence requirements but the only provision for satisfying them required the DCI or DNI to request formally that the FBI collect against them. The FBI’s investigative culture was ill-suited for this form of political collection and neither DCIs nor FBI Directors were enthusiastic in engaging these kind of requirements. While focused cooperation on terrorists today bridges some of this cultural divide the broader political collection needs are not well addressed either in agent training or tasking.
National security intelligence vs. law enforcement intelligence: (NB: Note by government directive, law enforcement intelligence cannot be considered national security intelligence. This means that law enforcement “intelligence information” cannot be classified under national security classification system, the fundamental basis for classification in the foreign and military intelligence communities. Consider the implications of this boundary issue.
Overt vs. Secret: (NB: Note difference between “clandestine” and “covert”.) While all organizations have “significant non-public information” that needs to be protected, we have no common system that either defines information that meets this criteria nor specifies the manner in which it must be protected. While national security organizations benefit from a common national security information protection system even the standards for such classification and protection vary within the Community. Each organization has introduced its own special categories for information control and access and these practices vary both administratively and culturally. Mishandling of controlled information may result in a “hand-slap” in one organization where in another it may be the cause for court martial or separation. As will be seen later, the culture of security varies most sharply between collectors and consumers.
Rituals of initiation: Institutional or “tribal” boundaries are maintained by the requirements of entry rituals, e.g. examinations, special screenings, polygraph, etc. The badges of the Community symbolically reaffirm the importance of the initiation ritual. The long-running efforts to develop a common Intelligence Community badge system continue to hit shoals defined by unique boundary maintenance requirements such as life-style polygraph vs. CI polygraph or no polygraph. Similarly, organizations question whether other organizations conduct sufficiently expansive background investigations on their potential recruits or maintain an effective re-investigation program. 8
III. HUNTERS AND GATHERERS – THE WORLD OF COLLECTORS NB: The World of collectors -- mission shapes culture and the problems of methodism or how we define ourselves by our mode of collection.
AN ETHONOGRAPHIC MATRIX OF COLLECTORS: Table 1 represents an effort to categorize a number of organizations by their collection functions looking at their relationship to their collection targets and the degree of secrecy attached to their collection activities. Not all of the organizations included are formally members of the Intelligence Community. All, however, produce information of intelligence value to the conduct of national security affairs.
NB: Information is the consummatory value, ergo all collection cultures place an extraordinary premium on protection of sources and methods. The DCI or DNI is specifically charged under law with this responsibility. The more sensitive the collection sources/methods the more likely the organization involved takes on the attributes of a secret society or rigorously clan like organization. There is limited mobility between such clans and they all tend to develop unique professional language that requires some simultaneous translation at the boundaries.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC MATRIX OF INTELLIGENCE COLLECTORS
MODE OF COLLECTION b
ACCESS TO TARGET a OVERT SECRET
DIRECT Foreign Service National Clandestine
Defense Attaches Service e
Other attaches c Covert reconnaissance f
Law enforcement d
INDIRECT Opens Source National Security Agency
Collection/FBIS National Reconnaissance
a Does the target require the collector to be physically present in the target area for access to the target? HUMINT and some forms of clandestine technical collection normally require direct access to a target. Some forms of aerial reconnaissance may also require access to the targetÕs airspace. Other forms of collection may be directed at the target but be conducted outside the targeted area or indirectly.
b The issue here is whether the government in some fashion acknowledges the collection. Overt collection may well provide sensitive information but no effort is made to hide the affiliation of the collector. Secret means that the mode of collection is clandestine or covert with the target being unaware the information is being collected or by what source it is being collected. Included here would be any collection considered incompatible with diplomatic relations.
c Many federal agencies (Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, etc.) have attaches with reporting responsibilities. While not considered intelligence collectors per se they often produce information of intelligence value.
d The exception here may be any federal undercover, unilateral investigation conducted abroad. Such activity would have many of the qualities of a clandestine HUMINT operation and could be placed in the SECRET block.
e This includes national clandestine HUMINT capabilities but does not necessarily include either tactical HUMINT operations or clandestine support to military operations though both may take the definitional forms of this category.
f This would include any collection activity that violates another countryÕs sovereign territorial space. While some argue satellite collection should fall in this category, I have treated deep space as separate from airborne or maritime collection.
Let us turn now to a discussion of how the sensitivity of the collection method shapes the organizational culture. There are several cultural observations that might be made.
The value of intelligence depends upon its breeding -- unless you know the pedigree of the source you cannot evaluate the information. Herein is the cultural dilemma. Since revelation of too much source data courts the possibility of compromise of the source, collectors are understandably reticent to share source details. Analysts or other consumers, on the other hand, expect to know the source pedigree and its reliability before making analytical judgments based on the reporting. To an analyst it makes all the difference in the world whether the source had direct access to the information, whether the source has reported reliably in the past, etc. Similarly, when dealing with a product of technical collection the analyst expects to have some appreciation of the circumstances in which the information was collected. (See below for the comment on shamans.)
Protection of sources and methods is a defining attribute of most collection organizations and it imbues every activity of the organization. Access to details of a clandestine source, for instance, is rigorously controlled even within the organization. Additional controls may be imposed on the utilization of the information severely limiting any distribution of analysis derived from the source. This may, in turn, may sharply reduce sharing of this information without recourse to the collector’s approval.
Protection of Sources – The Dilemma with Law Enforcement: Earlier I raised the issue of semantics varying across intelligence and law enforcement boundaries. Nowhere is this more sharply defined than in the terms used for “sources”. The production of intelligence information is a consumatory value for a collection organization, the raison d’etre for the business. Loss of a source, therefore, jeopardizes the function of the organization.
Within law enforcement organizations, however, the source is instrumental to a larger goal such as a successful criminal investigation and prosecution. Sources are means rather than ends and are often revealed as a matter of the prosecution of the crime for which the source provided information. While there are exceptions, particularly in counterintelligence investigations, where sources may be handled as they are within intelligence collection organizations, these examples do not rebut the general characterization of law enforcement sources.
The interesting cultural properties of these two concepts of source handling is that in the case of intelligence collectors, the terminology for source reflects the importance attached to its preservation. “Asset” is among the most common terms but all others are equally positive in their semantic connotation. Contrast this with law enforcement where the argot is often “snitch”, “CI”, “fink” etc. Note that none of these convey the positive sense of asset. Rather, they reflect the temporal character of the relationship. Unlike on the intelligence side where there are few things you would not do to protect a source the law enforcement terminology suggests no such obligations. Therefore the idea of sharing sources with law enforcement is problematic since the very act of sharing put the security of you source in the hands of someone for whom this protection is not a cardinal value.
Quality control. Integrity of the information and the problems of fabrication. Most collection organizations incorporate quality control measures to ensure that the information being reported meets certain standards of both need (responsiveness to requirements) and accuracy. For HUMINT collectors, fabricated information remains a critical collection pathology. Consumer demands whether from analysts or policy makers can place heavy pressure on collectors for results. The Iraqi WMD controversy demonstrates the most obvious of problems of dealing with sources of information who may be fabricators. The HUMINT Community seeks to identify known fabricators and issue warning notices on contact with them. Cultural dispositions to protect sources, however, may allow a fabricator who burned one agency to be hired by another under a different identity or circumstance.
Esoteric Explanation – The New Shamans. Increasingly the product of various forms of technical collection are inaccessible to those without the technical grounding in the collection method. How does one make sense of certain forms of satellite collection, radar imagery, multi-spectral imagery, infrared collection, missile telemetry, exotic communication intercepts, and other forms of technical wizardry at the cutting edge of the contemporary world of intelligence? For the general analyst or other consumer, we must rely on a cadre of technical experts to explain the meaning of the collection presented to us. In a sense we give an implicit trust to their esoteric knowledge since we are not in a position to question the interpretation of inaccessible technical data. Is that bright splotch of light against a dark background the radar image of a smugglers boat? Is that chemical analysis of a smoke flume evidence of a biological weapons laboratory? Are the smudge marks on an image an indication of a recent fire or are they the product of a clever deception that wishes us to see a fire? We are dependent on this new class of folk who can render to us accessible stores from data that remains well beyond our ken.
AN EXPLANATORY NOTE: This paper grew out of discussion with colleagues about alternative ways in which we might introduce students to the study of the US Intelligence Community especially at a time when the clarion calls for change and reform came from nearly every corner. The suggestion of taking an “anthropological” view of the IC has roots both in pedagogy and in history. During World War II many anthropologists were mobilized into the ranks of American and British intelligence and some found themselves deployed to field operational assignments working behind the lines with various ethnic groups. They were seasoned observers of cultural systems. Along with their intelligence reporting they conducted a form of field research that led to pioneering post-war ethnographic studies and the foundations of contemporary anthropology.
The author spent 36 years in the intelligence business in a career that spanned overseas assignments as a case officer, domestic work in counterintelligence and foreign affairs analysis. His last 17 years were spent in senior intelligence management positions at Department of State, the White House, Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency. This paper draws on his own “ethnographic” commentary developed over the course of living with a number of the tribes of the Intelligence Community.
The author is Professor of Intelligence History at the National Defense Intelligence College. He is also Senior Representative, Pearson Analytic Solutions, a leading corporation in education that has a partnership with the NDIC in providing instructional services. Mr. Wiant retired from US Department of State in September 2004. He was a member of the Department of State’s Senior Executive Service since 1987 and joined the faculty of the Joint Military Intelligence College in September 2001 as Department of State Chair and Visiting Professor. He teaches in areas of national security and intelligence as well as intelligence history and special operations. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of PAS, National Defense Intelligence College or the US Government.
I tease my students with this question in my introduction to historiography. While most school children know Washington ran spies; even the neglect of history has not obscured the tale of Nathan Hale. Whether he conducted espionage is more problematic if for no other reason than the fact that the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language dates the first use of the term “espionage” in English to the 1790s so whatever the Culper group was doing they could not describe it to themselves as “espionage”
Some might consider this on the outer margins of the argument. Nevertheless, Fish and Wildlife Service has lead investigative responsibilities for our obligations under the Convention in the Trade on Endangered species. Several years ago I had to deal with the consequences of an investigation of rhino horn and elephant tusk smuggling in Sub-Saharan Africa that implicated some of the leadership in UNITA, the Angolan resistance movement. The Fish and Wildlife Service investigative reports were loaded with information of intelligence significance for those following UNITA activities. One might find similar value in foreign airport security reporting of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Have not addressed how various affirmative action initiatives have altered status. Nevertheless, programs to remediate previous racial and gender discrimination in promotions and assignments inevitably have an affect on status perceptions. These, however, may be of more short term consequences as over the long term the cultural consequences of change are assimilated within the organization. Suffice it to say that CIA is no longer an Ivy-League, WASP organization and few regret that change.
In 1978, I established State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s first Global Issues Staff to look at a number of transnational issues including terrorism and international narcotics and some environmental issues. The virtue of the staff was to bring expertise together on issues with which country or regional analysts lack familiarity. Though GIS thrived I admit to a certain agnosticism about the value of the functional work. We may well have developed exceptional expertise on the political economy of the Gold Triangle drug problem but resolution of the policy issues remained firmly in the ken of the Burma and Thai political analysts.
I did a number of interagency exchanges including the White House, Defense, and CIA. All of these, however, occurred after I had made senior rank. While rank was not a factor, it is interesting that during my assignments away from State Department, I was never considered for a senior performance award though I regularly received them while on assignment to State.
One of the virtues of a long intelligence career is to develop a full appreciation of the varied scope of background investigations both as a subject of them and as a reference for other subjects being investigated. Regarding the latter, I average about one investigative inquiry a week. This has resulted in the exposure to a broad range of back ground investigative styles. While the investigators credentials may mask the ultimate affiliation of the subject, the investigative styles of the inquiry vary widely and substantively depending on the agency. One agency might be quite comfortable with telephone interviews, another will require face-to-face discussions in some considerable detail. Of course, those agencies with the most comprehensive background investigations tend to suspect employees who have passed through a less restrictive screen. Granting Secret clearance based on favorable national agency checks has not been universally embraced.