General who criticized wartime intelligence gathering now leads DIA

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Defense Intelligence Agency got a new leader Tuesday during a ceremony at the agency’s Washington headquarters: a veteran intelligence officer with a bit of a history of making waves.

The change of directorship ceremony recognized the 37-year career of outgoing director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess and installed his replacement, Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, who arrives at DIA from previous posting as an assistant director of national intelligence.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an audience packed full of military leaders and other dignitaries that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and DIA are part of an intelligence community that’s unrecognizable from its former self.

“When I was in the Army, it was pretty much a stovepiped operation. If I gave any information to another service, I was subject to court martial,” he said. “There was very little of the joint operation and joint sharing that goes on today. Military intelligence is now far more integrated, far more effective and more vital than ever to our ability to defend this country.”

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn assumes the directorship of the Defense Intelligence Agency during a ceremony Tuesday in Washington, D.C. (DoD photo/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
But Flynn offered a slightly different narrative when in 2010, he went public with a now-famous paper titled Fixing Intel. It offered a somewhat dire assessment of the overall intelligence gathering activities of the military in Afghanistan, calling them irrelevant to the counterinsurgency campaign, and in some cases, stovepiped.

Intelligence had the wrong focus

Senior decision makers were forced to rely on media accounts to get an accurate portrayal of the Afghan battle space because analysts weren’t providing it. Intelligence analysts, he wrote, were obsessed with producing information that had the short-term aim of killing individual insurgents and weren’t providing the nation’s leadership with the facts about life on the ground in Afghanistan that they needed in order to wage an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

Flynn, who was then serving as the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, took the highly unusual step of having a Washington think tank publish his report, in which he told subordinate officers that they should interpret its contents as directives for change.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who served as Flynn’s most recent boss, said the 2010 report was one reason he hired him for the post of assistant DNI for partnership engagement.

“Then he could fix all the intelligence issues he’d been complaining about,” Clapper said to chuckles from the audience Tuesday. “You take the guy that complains about the guy in the chow hall and make him the mess officer, and I think that’s what he’s going to kind of continue to do here at DIA.”

Flynn wrote in his 2010 report that lower-level battalion commanders frequently were gathering the intelligence needed for military units to oust the Taliban from local communities, but that neither the facts they gathered nor their success stories garnered attention from the analysts responsible for assembling information for decision makers.

In one case, a Marine unit operating in the Nawa district of the country’s Helmand province rousted the Taliban from the community relatively quickly by gaining the trust of its population, but that its strategies were never made known to higher-level commanders until his research team personally visited the unit.

“Ultimately, one of us had to fly to Nawa to get the full story in person. As an investigative effort, this is acceptable. As a coherent and effective intelligence system, it is a failure,” he wrote.

Flynn is an innovative leader

David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for 19 months beginning in 2003, said if anyone is up to the fixes Clapper suggested, it’s Flynn.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess (DoD photo)
“He’s a tremendously innovative leader. The fact that he was as public and direct in his assessment of intelligence shortfalls in Afghanistan and called a spade a spade speaks volumes for his integrity,” Barno said in a telephone interview. “That’s not always common in the military, especially at very senior levels.”

Barno, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, said it was unheard of for a serving senior officer to air his concerns publicly in the way that Flynn did, but that it’s also notable that virtually no one disagreed with his conclusions.

He said intelligence gatherers and analysts in Afghanistan did indeed act on the directives he issued in the report, and the effects have rippled out to the broader intelligence community.

“It was a bold assertion at the time, but it’s caused some significant changes in the intelligence community,” he said. “There’s a broader recognition now that understanding the civilian population you’re operating in and the economic dimensions and basic social structure of the country you’re going to be fighting in is in many cases at least as important as understanding who the enemy is and understanding how he fights.”

DIA alignment is Flynn’s focus

In his own remarks at the DIA ceremony, Flynn made no reference to his 2010 critique, reserving his comments instead for praise of the 16,000-member agency and Burgess, its outgoing director.

He said he’s focused on aligning DIA with the Pentagon’s new defense strategy and building the newly-established Defense Clandestine Service, an espionage agency DoD created in April.

“Transitioning from one leader to another is about more than just changing riders,” he said. “It is about using these opportunities to reflect on the direction of the organization and gain a clearer organization of the challenges that lie ahead. It’s about shaping the Defense Clandestine Service, partnering even more closely with our combatant commanders, our national intelligence and law enforcement agencies and coalition partners. It’s about our entire analysis system and how it takes shape in an era where information and intelligence as well as the nature of the threat are difficult to discern. DIA and the people within it stand above all others around the world and are recognized both for their professionalism and their steadfast readiness to routinely step up in support of our nation.”

Burgess handed over the directorship of DIA at the headquarters ceremony, where Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey awarded him the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, but he won’t formally retire from the Army until September. He told attendees the past decade had been the high point of the agency’s 50-year history.

“We’ve seen a new generation of intelligence professionals make back-to-back deployments to war zones over the last decade and conduct analysis and collection against highly-capable and adaptive adversaries,” he said. “Never before has DIA contributed that volume and caliber of intelligence to military commanders and policymakers at the Defense and national levels. Good intelligence does make a difference. The majority of us have seen that happen, but unfortunately, some of us have also seen where intelligence falls short. One value matters most in the intelligence business: we must always tell our leaders at all echelons what they need to know. Not what they want to hear.”


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