The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), that vast agglomeration of seventeen different hush-hush agencies, is an espionage behemoth without peer anywhere on earth in terms of budget and capabilities. Fully eight of those spy agencies, plus the lion’s share of the IC’s budget, belong to the Department of Defense (DoD), making the Pentagon’s intelligence arm something special. It includes the intelligence agencies of all the armed services, but the jewel in the crown is the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s “big ears,” with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which produces amazing imagery, following close behind.
None can question the technical capabilities of DoD intelligence, but do the Pentagon’s spies actually know what they are talking about? This is an important, and too infrequently asked, question. Yet it was more or less asked this week, in a public forum, by a top military intelligence leader. The venue was an annual Washington, DC, intelligence conference that hosts IC higher-ups while defense contractors attempt a feeding frenzy, and the speaker was Rear Admiral Paul Becker, who serves as the Director of Intelligence (J2) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A career Navy intelligence officer, Becker’s job is keeping the Pentagon’s military bosses in the know on hot-button issues: it’s a firehose-drinking position, made bureaucratically complicated because JCS intelligence support comes from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is an all-source shop that has never been a top-tier IC agency, and which happens to have some serious leadership churn at present.
Admiral Becker’s comments on the state of DoD intelligence, which were rather direct, merit attention. Not surprisingly for a Navy guy, he focused on China. He correctly noted that we have no trouble collecting the “dots” of (alleged) 9/11 infamy, but can the Pentagon’s big battalions of intel folks actually derive the necessary knowledge from all those tasty SIGINT, HUMINT, and IMINT morsels? Becker observed — accurately — that DoD intelligence possesses a “data glut but an information deficit” about China, adding that “We need to understand their strategy better.” In addition, he rued the absence of top-notch intelligence analysts of the sort the IC used to possess, asking pointedly: “Where are those people for China? We need them.”
There’s a lot going on in the admiral’s comments, which hit on important points as the United States plans for possible war in East Asia — rather, one hopes, deterring one. In the first place, it’s odd that an intelligence leader would think that understanding an opponent’s strategy, much less his grand strategy, is the job of the spooks. That actually is the job of all senior officers, and such matters are taught at War Colleges — or are supposed to be. That said, Becker’s frustration is understandable, since the Naval War College, allegedly the leading light of DoD education, was just found by the Navy’s own Inspector General to be overpriced and underperforming, and some of his views should be taken in this context.
More important is his allegation that DoD intelligence types have a problem differentiating forests from trees, and here Becker is entirely accurate. A lot of dots do not a coherent picture necessarily make, particularly when intelligence analysts lack necessary knowledge — language, culture, history, time in the target country — about the problem at hand. On this charge DoD intelligence, and the whole IC, have little coherent defense, since decades of favoring diversity of experience over specialized knowledge among intelligence officers leads to exactly the situation — smart people who know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little — that Admiral Becker lamented this week.
The most interesting, and unintentionally revealing, part of the J2’s comments came when he highlighted intelligence legends of the past, whose like cannot be found in DoD spy circles today, Becker maintained. I am generally skeptical of hoary “golden ages” in any organization, since memory plays tricks, yet here the admiral had a point. He cited Vernon Walters, a legendary Cold War semi-spy. An Army general, Walters was a polyglot who spoke several foreign languages well enough to serve as translator for presidents; Walters also served as a CIA top manager and the White House’s secret emissary to the Vatican. Yet his career was so totally unrepresentative of both DoD and the IC that he presents a fascinating one-off during the Cold War. One suspects that a gifted odd duck like Walters would not last long in today’s Army; he certainly would stand minimal chance of becoming a three-star general.
Becker likewise mentioned Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a Navy intelligence officer who rose to head NSA and serve as CIA’s deputy director. A very gifted officer, Inman was perhaps NSA’s best-ever director, and he enjoyed a second-to-none reputation for smarts. Again, however, Inman represents such an outlier, bureaucratically speaking, that you wonder what Becker was getting at here. Not to mention that Inman has a reputation for prickliness, as evidenced by the weird flame-out of his nomination as Secretary of Defense by President Clinton. (It should also be noted that long-retired Admiral Inman was a staunch, and rare, public critic of warrantless wiretapping by NSA after 9/11.)
Yet the most intriguing example of past greats cited by Admiral Becker was the joined case of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort. This pair are rightly considered legends in Navy intelligence circles for their remarkable achievement that enabled American victory at the June 1942 Battle of Midway, the turning-point of the Pacific War. After Pearl Harbor, these officers, who were close friends, played a critical secret role in giving Admiral Chester Nimitz vital information about Japanese intentions. With half his fleet sunk at Pearl Harbor, and suffering from a critical shortage of aircraft carriers, Nimitz faced a dire situation in the spring of 1942. Fortunately for him, Rochefort’s code-breaking unit in Hawaii was able to provide Nimitz amazing insights into Japanese plans, thanks to their access to the enemy’s high-grade naval communications, with Layton at the admiral’s side interpreting the top secret information for him. Rochefort’s team accurately predicted when and where the Japanese fleet would strike, and the outnumbered Pacific Fleet beat them to the punch at Midway. Theirs was one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of intelligence, and Nimitz correctly considered Rochefort and Layton to have been his “priceless advantage” lurking secretly behind the victory at Midway.
That said, it is more than a little disingenuous for Admiral Becker to suggest that there’s any mystery as to why Laytons and Rocheforts seem not to exist in the 21st century U.S. Navy. An examination of how those officers became the legends they remain reveals painful truths about DoD intelligence today. In the first place, Layton and Rochefort were surface warfare officers (SWOs), i.e. ship-drivers, as were all Navy line officers in the 1920’s who didn’t drive submarines or fly airplanes. They were never in the intelligence career “ghetto” because it simply did not exist; in the mid-1920’s, when both junior officers went “behind the green door” and entered the top secret world of code-breaking, they were accredited SWOs as there was no career path yet for spooks in the Navy (back then intelligence and code-breaking were functionally united in the Navy, only to be separated bureaucratically after World War II, as they inexplicably remain today).
Rochefort was recruited for the Navy’s hush-hush code-breaking program in Washington, DC based on his responses on a crossword puzzle that he sent to a P.O. Box (this clever yet simple method worked well at quietly identifying sailors who might excel at cracking codes). He and Layton underwent three years of intense, top secret training in how to decipher Japanese codes. It was evident to Navy leadership, which could read a map, that war with Japan was more a matter of when than if — the same is true today with China — so a small, elite cadre of officers was developed who could understand Japan and its navy. After completing their code-breaking course, Rochefort and Layton were sent to Japan for three years to learn the language, culture and mindset of the future enemy.
As a result of this rigorous program, by the time war with Japan actually came, the U.S. Navy possessed officers who deeply understood the enemy linguistically, operationally, and culturally, with gifted men like Layton and Rochefort leading the intelligence effort that proved decisive in American victory in the Pacific War. There is no mystery how this happened: it was the outcome of wise planning. And this sort of forward-looking thinking in intelligence circles does not happen anymore, and is the root cause of the dysfunction that Admiral Becker rightly decried this week.
In today’s Navy, intelligence and information warfare officers have too little contact with line officers, who generally view them as spooky and not always helpful. Moreover, rigid career paths mean that officers on the make will seek a diversity of assignments, avoiding specialization like the plague on a career that it is. Any intelligence officer who suggested that s/he should study Chinese naval and intelligence matters intensely for three years then go to China for three more years to learn Mandarin and Chinese ways, would be laughed out of the room, between cost and security concerns, amid whispers of “career suicide.” This simply is not how the U.S. Navy — or any of our armed services — actually works.
Of course, such dysfunction is a choice. I have no doubt that the Navy today possesses officers of the high caliber of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort, but how they are groomed, career-wise, means that such talents are not finding their niche. This bespeaks a powerful bureaucratic inertia and a fundamental lack of seriousness about the threats we face. If America wants to avoid a war with China, or win it should it come, the Pentagon needs to get serious about grooming officers who truly understand the enemy and his mindset. This cannot be done quickly and requires real talent-spotting and nurturing; small is beautiful here — it’s a question of quality, not quantity (which is exactly why the Pentagon, which remains stuck in a mass-production mindset, does not adopt such common-sense career paths).
Admiral Becker has raised important questions about just how effective DoD’s vast intelligence empire actually is at understanding China. He and those like him — the leaders of our IC — have the ability to implement measures that, given time, will get the Pentagon the gifted and properly educated officers that we need to win future wars. We possess the talent; what we lack is the seriousness of purpose to break bureaucratic china to make things actually happen. There’s not much time to waste.
P.S. Admiral Becker also did not address the painful fact that, due to bureaucratic warfare of a kind only too well known in the Pentagon still, Joe Rochefort received no career reward for his epic success that led to Nimitz’s victory at Midway. Actually he was punished for it. You can read my write-up of that scandal here.