- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

My candidate for 2004’s most important issue: “actionable intelligence.”

“Actionable intelligence” is spy jargon for “knowing” of a threat and then “acting,” based on the risk. Of course, the timeliness and accuracy of information matters greatly, and the cost of action must be weighed against that of inaction.

Obtaining actionable intelligence is key to thwarting terrorist attacks, but “knowing and acting” is crucial in any crisis. This past week’s tragic Indian Ocean earthquake provides a nonpolitical example of the terrible price of not knowing and not acting. A “tsunami alert system” linking quake and sea sensors (knowing) to government agencies and local warning systems (acting) would have saved thousands of lives.

Credit April 2004’s September 11 commission hearings with raising the sticky subject of actionable intelligence in relation to terrorism. The United Nations reform report, issued in December, also struggled with the complex issues of pre-emptive (“against an imminent or proximate threat”) and preventive (“against a nonimminent or nonproximate” threat) self-defense. The U.N.’s “good evidence” in support of preventive attack is the September 11 commission’s “actionable intelligence.”

Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Cohen repeatedly referred to “actionable intelligence” in examining the August 1998 U.S. cruise missile strike on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Mr. Clinton launched that attack after terrorists destroyed U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Mr. Cohen testified U.S. intelligence analysts concluded chemicals associated with producing VX nerve agent were found around the factory. Sudan was a terrorist haven: Osama bin Laden had lived there. The possible presence of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) jolted the Clinton administration.

With the frankness of a man bearing Washington media scars, Mr. Cohen said he feared facing a September 11-type committee if the United States or U.S. assets were ever attacked with nerve gas. He did not want to be accused of failing to destroy a plant producing WMD for terrorists. The U.S. Embassy bombings, Sudan’s reputation as terror facilitator and the indications of nerve agent production in a plant that might have connections to terrorists became, for Mr. Cohen, enough reason to act militarily. Though later information indicates the plant was not making nerve gas, Mr. Cohen said he would make the same decision given what he knew at the time.

If the 1998 Sudan strike sounds like a microversion of the Bush administration war on Iraq (Saddam had used WMD in the past, had terror training connections, etc.) — well, it is.

Mr. Cohen’s testimony succinctly illustrates the difficulties leaders confront. Information is never complete, bad sources may taint it, accuracy diminishes over time. To act or not to act — dither like Hamlet, and opportunity fades. Take the wrong action, and the political, moral and physical consequences can be devastating.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the commission quality of action matters as well as quality of intelligence. The Bush administration concluded cruise missiles are weak responses to terrorist attacks. Don’t lob missiles if you aren’t prepared to follow up. Against a committed enemy, if decisive U.S. action fails to follow initial action, the United States will look weaker.

Leaders, presented with uncertain information, must weigh risk. A friend of mine, Mitchell Zais, now president of Newberry College in South Carolina, served a tour in the late 1990s as commander of U.S. forces in Kuwait. Mr. Zais recalls he heard “about every other day that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen were planning strikes against U.S. interests in Kuwait at an unknown time, at an unknown place and by unknown means. The problem is not so much a lack of intelligence. The problem is to select the best course of action in response to that nebulous intelligence.”

Personal maturity, experience and a staff capable of providing high-quality “course of action” analysis help leaders make the “best decision” given iffy information. However, mistakes are inevitable. That’s why great leaders also have the quality of perseverance, and the ability to work through mistakes, remain focused on long-term strategic goals and retain the nerve to act when a new, uncertain opportunity arises.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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