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Magazine / Q&A

More Than Luck

A veteran intelligence chief talks about finally connecting the dots.

David Shedd: Getting better at discerning al-Qaida’s “pattern of life.”(Chet Susslin)

photo of James Kitfield
October 27, 2011

In a string of successful operations this year, U.S. counterterrorism forces have drawn a bead on the top tier of the terrorist hierarchy. They killed Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last May, and then Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two top leaders in al-Qaida’s dangerous franchise in Yemen. Ten years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, U.S. officials seem to be accurately “connecting the dots” from terrorism plots back to the masterminds who hatched them. National Journal Senior Correspondent James Kitfield spoke recently with David Shedd, an intelligence veteran who is now deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, about what the recent successes say about post-9/11 intelligence reforms. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

NJ What do you consider the most important changes in U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism activities since 9/11?

Shedd Well, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a seminal impact. We have a new generation of young war-fighters and intelligence professionals coming back from these war zones very comfortable with commingling the capabilities of their various organizations. The amount of information that has been fused from different sources and put at their disposal has increased exponentially just in recent years, and it has dramatically changed their ability to go after adversaries.

 

NJ Is that why the U.S. has had a string of successes in recent years in targeting the top leadership cadre of al-Qaida and the Taliban?

Shedd Yes, we can absolutely draw a better bead on these guys today, and that is a manifestation of this integration of intelligence and military capabilities. We are watching them from on high and collecting intelligence on them on the ground, and fusing all of that information through improved tradecraft. As a result, we are getting better at discerning what we call their “pattern of life,” which in turn suggests where they might be and what they might be doing at any given moment, night or day.

When people ask me what key piece of intelligence enabled us to find, fix, and finish off someone like [al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, for instance, I tell them I don’t know or care. It was the collaboration of numerous people fusing intelligence gathered by national intelligence means, signals intelligence, geo-spatial imagery, human intelligence, and open-source intelligence. The same was true in our ability to bring justice to Osama bin Laden. That was a testament to the work of numerous agencies working collaboratively over a very extended period of time. And when I heard their work led to the events of May 1, 2011, and the dispatch of bin Laden, I was ecstatic.

NJ As the senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the National Security Council, you were responsible for implementing the intelligence reforms that stemmed from the 9/11 commission’s 2004 report. In retrospect, what were the most critical reforms?

Shedd Creation of the position of a director of national intelligence, and the establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center. The first created an effective manager and advocate for the entire intelligence community, and the latter brought together all of the available information collected by the intelligence agencies in a way that fills out the strategic picture of the terrorist threat. The NCTC has become a real center of excellence when it comes to bringing data together and commingling it under clear guidelines that protect privacy and civil liberties. The system is still not perfect, but the information flow is dramatically better than in the past.

NJ Didn’t creation of the DNI position lead to heated disa-greements over the division of labor between that person and the head of the CIA?

Shedd Yes, the separation of duties between the DCI and director of the CIA sparked a lot of debate, and it is ongoing in some circles. The thinking was that the job of running the CIA and managing the overall intelligence community, while also serving as the president’s principal intelligence adviser, was just too big for any one person. There was another important issue: Historically, the director of the CIA had real difficulties accessing and managing intelligence collected inside the United States. As the FBI transformed into more of a domestic intelligence-gathering agency after 9/11, the idea that the FBI director would de facto be reporting to the director of central intelligence caused concerns. So creating a more neutral DNI above both those positions was a helpful reform.

NJ What do you say to critics who maintain that the DNI position and organization added another layer of bureaucracy, making intelligence collection and analysis even more cumbersome?

Shedd I just don’t agree with that criticism. If we hadn’t created a DNI, then today the CIA director would be running his own much-expanded agency, managing 15 other intelligence-gathering agencies, tasking the FBI director directly, and acting as the president’s principal intelligence adviser. It’s too much. I also believe you need someone who can bring managerial skills to adjudicating information-sharing decisions among all the intelligence agencies. On some of these decisions that involve a lot of money and raise issues about how intelligence should be gathered and shared, if you didn’t have a DNI to help adjudicate those decisions, you’d have to invent the position all over again.

You also need someone who can help shape the overall intelligence-budgeting process, which the reforms gave the DNI significant authorities to do. And you need an effective advocate for the entire intelligence community. If we hadn’t had former DNI Mike McConnell pushing hard for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to be amended in 2008 for the first time in decades, bringing it into the 21st century, I doubt it would have happened. 

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