- - Monday, January 9, 2017

The American intelligence community has found itself in the spotlight in recent days. Whether or not the nation learns with any degree of certainty about how intelligence professionals came to their conclusions about Vladimir Putin, one thing is clear: We should view the current state of American intelligence with some skepticism. It was alarming, to say the least, when current intelligence agencies — 17, to be precise — unanimously reported the same thing about Russian meddling with little or no detail. We then learned over the weekend that according to Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, the 17 reporting intelligence agencies on which President Obama has relied and commented at length, was actually only three agencies.

Nevertheless, it’s the uniformity that is suspect. The only way such uniformity of judgment can occur is: First, if the respective agencies are copying and pasting findings or, second, reports are at the lowest common denominator of information, redacting highly classified information, the sensitivity of which is the diverse methods of attainment.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is an electronic spy agency. How can the U.S. Coast Guard come up with the same findings, let alone have access (clearance and need to know, per top-secret cryptography) to the same information?

Some intelligence agencies, like the NSA, that work electronically, can operate even from a laptop, both domestically and abroad. Other agencies might employ other processes that work within high secrecy. They might implant human agents to secure direct information or to manage indigenous agents. The same human contact works undercover to note the movement and organization of political cadre or through direct interrogation. Such human intelligence can never work indirectly like electronic intelligence; it is hands-on and potentially dangerous to the operator. Whether that is the CIA or military intelligence interrogators or area studies, even electronic agencies would not have first-generation access to this information nor would they have a need to know, thereby excluding them from access to that “raw” information. Therefore, lumping them in with other agencies that operate in profoundly different ways raises questions about any uniformity of response.

Keeping agencies, their procedures and their findings separate are actually a necessary function of intelligence and produces the most effective diversity of approaches. That separation supports the credibility of each reporting entity by reporting, independently, first-generation information. When 17 agencies are releasing low-level findings, it raises concern not about consensus, but of unanimity. What is the likelihood of such unanimity when core missions and activities are so different? It makes one wonder about the nature of “cooperation” that has been touted.

During my time in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970, as an interrogator, intelligence analyst and operations coordinator, I was privy to reports (varying from direct radio calls, personal observations in the field, highly classified collections and direct briefings) of special intelligence, people intelligence and electronic intelligence.

To be a sharp point guard at my game, I would scrutinize the sources, seek independent confirmation, and question redundancies. When we planned an Arc Light (B-52) strike, I would become curious when the number of killed in action was reported as a number drastically different from other intelligence reports. This is not to say that the reporting entity was wrong, but may have been incomplete or did not know what to evaluate. But frequently, follow-up reports of “raw intelligence” and “summary information” did not take place, were stale-dated, or just plain wrong. So the reasons for my approach for scrutiny were generally warranted, and necessitated more than rubber-stamping identical reporting.

Agencies and intelligence entities that did not have raw or first-generation intelligence, or were not the originators of the reporting analysis or findings, preferred to repeat what others may have said, since that would be better than appearing to be deficient by leaving a report with blanks. This was assumed by us to be the case if similarities in reporting were curious at best. We, often individually and collectively, would scrutinize the veracity of the reporting, irrespective of the number of agencies involved.

As President Reagan said years later, “Trust, but verify.” During my intelligence time in Vietnam, we had fewer agencies and departments, each conducting its own investigation using different languages, differing approaches and technologies. Each agency would present its separate findings to a higher authority, with none merging until reaching a high level. Reports were different because the assignments were different and the tools utilized produced differing results. Time has passed, but the process and capability employed by these same agencies today have not changed in principle or goals over time.

Which makes it all the more difficult to imagine how 17 intelligence agencies (or even three), came up with the exact same findings in the same amount of time, using different methods having been afforded different amounts of preparation time. The level of uniformity is highly unlikely, if not virtually impossible.

During Friday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a suggestion was floated that benefit could be realized by taking now-separate wedges of a pie and joining them into a larger single pie. But this approach — everyone is right or everyone is wrong — only increases the potential of mass failure.

Separate and deeply classified findings are the only way to confirm an intelligence finding. All too often, this was not the case in Vietnam, and appears to not be the case now.

• Nate Brogin is an entrepreneur and founder of a number of businesses in California.

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