America’s intelligence community stands at a critical crossroads. So says Jack Grierson, the Kennedy School’s CIA officer in residence, who recently retired after 30 years with the agency.
Speaking at a brown-bag lunch on April 6 sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Grierson framed the debate surrounding how best to improve the collection and analysis of critical foreign intelligence as America fights an increasingly dangerous international war on terror.
“There are strict limits to what human source intelligence can do in an arena of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” he told an overflow audience in the Kalb Seminar Room. “The traditional model of a few, select assets, penetrating a hierarchical structure, is increasingly irrelevant. What is really needed against al Qaeda and like organizations is based much more on a police informant model where you have hundreds of what I’ll call ‘snitches’ – people who can report on the diverse and chaotic reality that characterizes these targets.”
Grierson discussed how such pervasive grassroots intelligence sources could result in more detailed and reliable information when confronted with a nonhierarchical organization, like al Qaeda, which has multiple cells and a diffuse power structure. Such improved intelligence, he said, cannot come from additional case officers, but instead must be the result of close cooperation with indigenous intelligence and police services “on the ground,” who are native to the region or ethnic group, speak its languages, and understand the culture – and who can exercise some control over the environment.
Furthermore, Grierson contended, the United States must play a more proactive role in interrupting terrorist plans and advancing its strategy “from intelligence to intervention” in the war on terror. “We cannot sit back and watch this stuff happen,” he said. Such a strategy also obligates the United States to “move from prevention to pre-emption,” Grierson explained, in the effort to remove the terrorist structures that allow horrific events to happen.
Emphasizing that the United States cannot fight this battle alone, he said that “we are going to have to rely more and more on our alliances,” explaining that those alliances become indispensable in the international campaign to disrupt terrorist plans and destroy terrorist organizations. “You’ve got to rely on others to help sort this stuff out,” he said. “America is too big a target to do this alone.”
America has become a large target in much of the Arab world, Grierson admitted, and may remain so for quite some time. “America, which used to be the shining city on the hill for the Arab countries, is no longer, meaning that, at just the time we really need the cooperation of allied services, we are seeing a reduction of it,” he concluded.