Within the area of counter-terrorism, how does the intelligence community support tactical and strategic operations?
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a greatly enhanced effort at improving intelligence support for U.S. military operations and for law enforcement agencies engaged in monitoring for domestic terrorist activities. As the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States concluded in its report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, primarily a law enforcement agency as opposed to functioning as an intelligence agency, was ill-prepared for the challenge of tracking al Qaeda elements operating inside the United States in the months leading up to the attacks:
“The office’s [the FBI] priorities were driven by two primary concerns. First, performance in the Bureau was generally measured against statistics such as number of arrests, indictments, prosecutions, and convictions. Counterterrorism and counterintelligence work, often involving lengthy intelligence investigations that might never have positive or quantifiable results, was not career-enhancing…Second, priorities were driven at the local level by the field offices, whose concerns centered on traditional crimes…”
In short, the FBI, the principle federal agency responsible for domestic intelligence gathering with regard to terrorism, was not focused on the problem of al Qaeda.
Another obstacle to effective intelligence support to counterterrorism operations was the legal structure put in place precisely to prevent close information-sharing arrangements between the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence organizations within the federal government. A direct outgrowth of the domestic intelligence gathering scandal of the 1970s, these statutory obstacles to intelligence sharing proved highly detrimental to efforts at preventing the attacks of 9/11 as well as earlier terrorist attacks on the United States.
Since the mid-2000s, intelligence support of terrorist operations has improved tremendously. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress’s response to the intelligence failure that contributed to 9/11, legal obstacles to intelligence support have been largely removed, and the intelligence community has been reoriented to confront the challenge of terrorist organizations. These changes have occurred at both the tactical and strategic levels. At the tactical level, the United States has greatly expanded resources dedicated to gathering information on terrorists, including the disparate cells operating semi-independently across the globe, as well as on tracking the means by which terrorists raise and move the funds necessary to finance their operations. Special operations forces have been expanded, as have the number of civilian human operatives working “in the field” to gather intelligence on terrorists.
At the strategic level, the United States has devoted increased financial resources towards developing better capabilities at confronting the challenge of terrorism on a global level. Department of Defense agencies like the National Security Agency and the Defense Clandestine Service, and the civilian-led National Clandestine Service, have all been reconfigured to better confront terrorist threats from both a strategic and tactical level.
Today, intelligence support involves all elements of the vast intelligence community, from the electronic intelligence gathered by satellites to the work of human agents. Those assets support both tactical and strategic operations.