A New Era for Intelligence Gathering

Col. Bill Cowan
Intelligence work has changed from pinpointing the enemy on the front lines to picking a single face out of a crowd. FOX News military analyst Col. Cowan briefs FOX Fans:

The working relationship in Iraq these days between the operators and the military intelligence community may well be unparalleled in our nation’s military history.  To be sure, intelligence has always played a role in the development of military operations.  As often as not, however, the operational planners didn’t ask the intelligence folks for much more than the strategic or tactical deployment of enemy forces before crafting a plan to engage them.  The island-hopping campaigns of World War II focused on which islands the Japanese held, the march across Europe centered on where the Germans could be engaged and defeated, and our operations in Vietnam as often as not were blind movements into a triple canopy jungle where the enemy was thought to be hiding. 

"Those of us who have worked both the intelligence and operator sides in the past can’t help but be envious of what we’re missing."  

The taking of the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979 brought about a central shift in Pentagon thinking about the need for special units to fight terrorists.  Recognizing that fighting terrorism didn’t involve engaging the enemy along some front lines, the Pentagon formed three special units – Delta Force, the Intelligence Support Activity, and Task Force 160 – to respond to acts of terror.  The premise of the units was that they would develop and/or have access to the best intelligence available, that they would have a strike force of unequalled capability, and that they would have the necessary support to get to a target, conduct the mission, and successfully withdraw.  Against the backdrop of the concept was the need for the units to seamlessly coalesce, and although it took more than a few years for the concept to gel, the missions, roles, and relationships laid the framework for much of the exceptional work we now see being performed in Iraq.

Today throughout Iraq, at CENTCOM’s headquarters, and in Washington, D.C., we’ve got military intelligence professionals working as they’ve never worked before, sifting through small pieces of information to understand and define a quite complex and comprehensive mosaic.  The mosaic isn’t one of where the enemy’s front lines are.  Instead it’s the mosaic of trying to identify and isolate some thousands of bad guys among some millions of Iraqis.  Often that work is now being done side-by-side with the CIA, something many would argue should have been routine for years.  Each new raid and each new capture is the result of endless hours of work, best characterized by “connecting the dots,” and followed by getting the word to the operators and unleashing them to take action.   To be sure, each raid doesn’t result in success.  But it will validate the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of various sources, methods and even the analysis itself.

Those of us who have worked both the intelligence and operator sides in the past can’t help but be envious of what we’re missing.   There is nothing more satisfying to an intelligence professional than to come up with the key clue or piece of information that leads to another target.  And there’s nothing more satisfying to an operator than to know when he goes out on a mission that he’s got "good stuff" and that the likelihood of success is high.

Today in Iraq, we’ve got a new generation of young men and women learning about war – not just conventional war such as that which we won against Saddam’s military forces, but more importantly the war against insurgents and terrorists who hide among the population, strike surreptitiously, and disappear back into a faceless crowd.  The work our young intelligence professionals are doing in seeking out information on specific targets, collating and analyzing what they get, and turning it into actionable intelligence that the operators can use, deserves endless praise.  Their efforts and their experiences will pay our nation endless benefits as we continue to fight terrorism over the years to come. 

A retired Marine Corps officer, Bill Cowan spent three and a half years on combat assignments in Vietnam. In the 1980s, he was specially selected to serve as one of the first members and as the only Marine in the Pentagon's most classified counterterrorist unit, the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), a unit that to date remains under the tightest security. While there, Cowan served as a senior military operations officer and field operative on covert missions to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. He is a co-founder of the WVC3 Group, a company providing homeland security services, support and technologies to government and commercial clients.