Thinking Outside the Box

September 20, 2010 Topic: IntelligenceTerrorism Region: United States Blog Brand: Bruce Hoffman Tags: CounterterrorismWar On Terrorism

Thinking Outside the Box

The NYPD is coming at the terrorism problem in new and counterintuitive ways. The Beltway is stuck in old patterns and old thinking.

I got my first job in Washington 35 years ago. If I have learned anything since then, it is that when someone here talks about the need to think “out of the box,” everyone usually runs as fast they can in the opposite direction.


This of course was one of the salient criticisms of American counterterrorism strategy and policy that the 9/11 Commission made in its seminal 2004 report. “We believe,” it concluded that “the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

The American approach to counterterrorism, as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in the Washington Post two months ago, has been markedly less creative than overly bureaucratic. It entailed, they meticulously documented, the creation of a vast and expensive counterterrorism and homeland security archipelago.

This led Priest and Arkin to conclude that “lack of focus, not lack of resources was at the heart” of the serial failures over the past year to anticipate the Fort Hood shootings that claimed the lives of thirteen persons last November; the fortuitously botched Christmas Day airline bombing plot; and, the attempted attack in New York City’s Times Square this past May.

As I wrote in this space last month, for my money, the most innovative and cutting-edge work being done in the U.S. at any level of government in the critically vital symbiotic areas of counterterrorism and homeland security is that performed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD)—and specifically by its separate Intelligence and Counterterrorism Divisions.

The “Metropolitan” section of the Sunday New York Times (which persons living outside of the New York metropolitan region usually do not receive in hardcopy) carried a fascinating profile of the Intelligence Division’s Analytic Unit and its accomplished director, Mitchell D. Silber.

The article provided a rare, but highly informative and, indeed, compelling, look at this “little-known unit of the New York Police Dept. [that] relies on the expertise of civilian analysts to unlock an unfamiliar world.”

As reporter Alan Feuer explained:

Formally known as the Analytic Unit of the department’s Intelligence Division, the team was created in 2002 as part of the city’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It stands as a unique experiment in breaking traditional law-enforcement boundaries, comprising two dozen civilian experts—lawyers, academics, corporate consultants, investment bankers, alumni of the World Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations and even a former employee of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.

The team serves as the Police Department’s terrorism reference arm: available on demand to explain Islamic law or Pakistani politics to detectives in the field.

‘We have found that conducting terrorism investigations is more art than science and requires a breadth of complementary skill sets,’ Mr. Silber said during one of several interviews this summer. ‘Our detectives tend to have a very narrow focus. But the analysts have 360-degree visibility. They focus on the bigger picture, and they sometimes see things detectives don’t see.’

Interestingly, the article also recounted NYPD’s success in luring analysts from the federal government in Washington—precisely the place, one would have assumed, where the most exciting, challenging and innovative counterterrorism and homeland security work is being done.

Alas, this does not appear to be the case. “New York seems an ideal place to practice this theory of intellectual investigation,” Feuer continues, “and the unit has managed over the years to attract people who have worked in the Washington bureaucracy and seem to prefer the city.”

Coincidentally, I later chanced upon evidence to support this argument while reading the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of OSS: The OSS Society Journal, kindly sent to me by its publisher.

The OSS, of course, is the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II–era U.S. intelligence and covert action agency founded by First World War hero, Medal of Honor recipient and Wall Street lawyer Wiliam J. “Wild Bill” Donovan at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request. The OSS was the precursor to both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

The journal's mission is to “celebrate the historic accomplishments of the Office of Strategic Services and to educate the American public about the continuing importance of strategic intelligence to the preservation of freedom.” It might also be said, that an additional purpose is to celebrate and highlight the “out of the box” thinking that epitomized the OSS and played so signal a role in the victory won in less than five years by the U.S. in World War II.

The current issue of OSS contains a fascinating article titled, “Glorious Amateurs Needed In War With Terrorists” by Charles Pinck, the president of the OSS Society. Pinck’s fundamental argument is that, “if lawmakers truly want to reform our intelligence community, they would be wise to look backward instead of forward—all the way back to World War II’s Office of Strategic Services . . .”

His points about the OSS’s “diverse and brilliant” personnel, Donovan’s encouragement of what now would have been termed, “out of the box” thinking are all well taken. But what really struck me was Pinck’s anecdote about a young acquaintance, who some years ago had sought his advice on joining one of the sixteen agencies that comprise America’s intelligence community,

“This person’s record was nothing less than remarkable,” Pinck writes.

After graduating from high school, he backpacked alone for 18 months across five continents. Along the way he discovered a talent for languages and achieved conversational proficiency in three. He went on to get an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern history from a top university with a 3.9 grade point average. Later, he taught himself Farsi by moving to an Iranian expatriate community, spending thousands of hours learning the language fluently and the culture. Despite these impressive qualifications, he was unable to elicit any interest from our intelligence community . . . . Had he been alive in World War II, the OSS would have grabbed him in a second.

Doubtless, so would the NYPD had he applied for an analyst’s position with unit that Silber leads.

That fact alone encapsulates perhaps the challenges we continue to face in the war on terrorism—a war that has now dragged on for nearly a decade. It may also perhaps explain why innovative ideas such as Congressman Frank Wolf’s (R-VA) proposal to institutionalize a “red team” counterterrorist capability as an essential element of our efforts to combat terrorism in the war against al-Qaeda, unfortunately has never acquired any traction in Washington.

The logic behind Congressman Wolf’s idea is simple and makes eminent sense. Since both the U.S. intelligence community and our national security and law-enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with data, information and a multiplicity of immediate “in-box”-driven issues that continually challenge their ability to think both strategically and in terms of a patently evolving, dynamic, multidimensional threat, the red team concept would represent a new approach to counterterrorism that would potentially enable the United States to stay one step ahead of our adversaries’ own strategy and tactics.

First, it would have a broader remit than the red team exercises currently employed by individual agencies. Congressman Wolf’s idea is that this red team would have a strategic counterterrorism mandate and would therefore look at general, global patterns of terrorism rather than the use and effects of individual tactics.

Second, it would be composed of nongovernment specialists and experts representing a broad array of different perspectives, backgrounds and opinions—the type of “glorious amateurs” described by General Donovan who once populated the OSS but who would now be enlisted in the war on terrorism.

Under Congressman Wolf’s formulation, these persons would advise and help inform the assessments of both the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence by providing broad strategic analysis of terrorism trends and patterns and their possible future implications. In this manner, alternative assessments and strategic counterterrorism analysis could be provided to the Intelligence Community that would also help to avoid “group think.”

To date, Washington has turned a cold shoulder to this idea. As yesterday’s New York Times article again showed, what “out of the box” thinking in the war on terrorism exists, appears mostly to be outside the Beltway as well.