The Best Defense

The surge's 'secret weapon': Lessons of interagency high-value targeting teams


There's a good new study out of interagency high value target teams and the role they played in Iraq in 2007. Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational Innovation, by Christopher Lamb and Evan Munsing, argues that the interagency targeting teams are neither well understood nor much liked inside the national security establishment. It also is one of the most interesting monographs I've read in some time.

The study's core conclusion is that, in Iraq in 2007, "the interagency teams used to target enemy clandestine networks were a major, even indispensable, catalyst for success" (6) Even so, the authors note, the bureaucracies in Washington were not much interested in supporting them. "Cajoling parent organizations for support was a major preoccupation of senior leaders in Iraq." (58)

The most compelling part of the study is the discussion of interviews with former members of the high-value targeting teams about what worked and why. Some highlights:

--The single greatest variable of success was "access to the most senior decision makers...because it allowed the interagency teams to bypass multiple layers of mid level approval and obtain cooperation that otherwise would not have been forthcoming " (40)

--Middle management at the home headquarters and agencies of team members proved to be an impediment to information sharing, which was not the case with top management. The way to get around this, the study says, was to recruit personnel with enough seniority and experience to enjoy direct access to top level officials.    

--Smaller teams generally worked better than large ones. "Team members we interviewed ...agreed that smaller teams, usually 8 to 15 people, were more effective and allowed greater cohesion and trust."

--The safer the area in which a team was based, the more pronounced bureaucratic differences became, with the Green Zone being the obvious example of a bad environment in which the sense of a common purpose was undermined.

--Teams that tried to operate "virtually" were far less effective than those that were physically co-located, eating and living together.

--One area that required constant attention resulted from the different view points of SOF and intelligence analysts. "There was a constant tension between the desire of the intelligence organizations to develop sources and targets and the desire of ... operators to take out targets even at the expense of compromising sources." (45)

--The SOF general overseeing the joint targeting teams found that in order to get cooperation from CIA, FBI and other officials, SOF culture had to change to become more transparent. "SOF Task Force personnel were directed to set the example by being first to give more information. They were told to ‘share until it hurts.' As one commander explained it, ‘If you are sharing information to the degree where you think, "Holy cow, I am going to go to jail," then you are in the right area of sharing.' The point was to build trust, and information-sharing was the icebreaker." (46)

--The leadership of the teams was hand-picked by the SOF general. He knew that the team leaders had only limited authority over their team members and so could not order, but only ask, their members to do things, so he chose officers he thought were hyper active Type As who could pull back to Type B as needed.

It took several years for the teams to become effective, but "By 2007, the interagency high-value target teams were a high-volume, awe-inspiring machine that had to be carefully directed." (50) As it happened, there was a new top American commander who came, Gen. Petraeus, who embraced the teams and used them effectively.

Unfortunately, they conclude, once the crisis passed, the bureaucracies back in Washington who were contributing to the teams began to lose interest in supporting them. They also began to re-assert their own priorities. "By 2008, other departments and agencies, particularly one unidentified intelligence agency, began pulling back people and cooperation, believing information-sharing and collaboration had gone too far." (54)    

It reminds me of something I once read about the British defense against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, that the real trick was not radar but the organization that was able to combine radar, radio and aircraft to get the right planes to the right places at the right times, and keep doing it for months.

The U.S. Army/Flickr

The Best Defense

If Obama had not acted on Libya…

If President Obama had not intervened in Libya a week ago, we would indeed probably now be looking at Benghazi as his Srebrenica -- except that his Cairo speech would have given him an additional load of responsibility, of seeming to bear false promises. It likely would have been an abiding blot on his presidency. For that reason alone, I think he had to intervene.

All the military grumbling I am hearing now about the need for strategic clarity reminds me of early in World War II, when Generals Marshall and Eisenhower could not see the need to land in North Africa, but FDR did, both to keep the Russians in the war and to convey to Americans that we were fighting the Germans. As it turned out, this was also the right move for tactical reasons, because the U.S. military needed to learn a lot, and it did in Africa and Sicily. Had it instead tried to go directly into France in 1943, when Nazi airpower was still strong, D-Day might well have been a disaster.  

These notes I get from military officers demanding clarity of goals and stated strategic purposes puzzle me. The nature of war is ambiguity and uncertainty. I worry that such demands are really a fancy form of shirking. It makes me wonder if before getting married, these complaining colonels draw up pre-nuptials that state:

1. How long the marriage is going to last, with a clear exit strategy of how it ends -- divorce, death, or other.

2. Detailed discussions of roles and responsibilities, including how much notice must be given to the spouse if an extramarital affair is to be undertaken.

3.  Description of the marriage's integration into the larger community.

4. Statement of how much time and emotion is to be devoted to the enterprise. 

As my hero Triumph says, I kid, I kid. But there is a serious point to be made: There is a basic contradiction here between these officers' insistence on clarity and the ambiguous and uncertain nature of warfare.

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