What does “intel failure” actually mean?

North Korea’s nuclear test about a week ago and its handful of missile tests in the days since have provoked a lot of discussion about what the DPRK’s intentions might be.  An underlying question raised by the apparent surprise around the world is:  was this an intelligence failure?

Joshua Pollack doesn’t think so, at least not in terms of the intelligence services neglecting to collect and analyze the right information:

There is an option C) as well: the intel collectors saw all the signs, but the higher-ups failed to draw the proper conclusions.

There was a scattering of leaks in the days ahead of the test, possibly from South Korean intelligence. And afterward, we learned that the IC was watching the preparations intently:

The official said that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the test facility had witnessed significant activity in the days before the explosion. The United States had positioned an array of high-tech equipment to monitor the test, including Pentagon aircraft equipped to collect atmospheric samples of any nuclear plume.

Pollack’s observation raises the question of what intel failure actually means.  While it’s usually intended to mean a failure to collect or properly analyze diplomatically and militarily sensitive information, that definition neglects the role of intel’s ultimate customers. The point of intel is to enable decisions; intel without a decision is as pointless as decisions without intel.  To understand success or failure in intel, we must expand the scope beyond producers to consumers.

Information and analysis provided by the IC to its customers enters a decision-making process fraught with competing agendas and priorities.  Pollack’s Option C raises the possibility–and we’ll likely never know for sure–that the administration muffed the decision.  If true, one consequence could have been a failure to act early to build global support for opposition to the tests; fortuntately, that support appears to have emerged.  Assuming the IC were on top of events in North Korea, one might assume that the administration executed a very savvy campaign or got very lucky.

Regardless of whether balls were dropped in the lead-up to March 25, there is an opportunity here to understand how decisions were or were not made, and to make them differently next time.  Alas, there is also opportunity for the more powerful decision-makers to shift blame to the IC when convenient, and it has been very convenient in the past.

2 responses to “What does “intel failure” actually mean?

  1. Pingback: Scenarios for increased DPRK surveillance « PublicOrgTheory

  2. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 7Jun2009 « PublicOrgTheory

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