The Intelligence Wars: Lessons from Baghdad

  • Published

The Intelligence Wars: Lessons from Baghdad by Steven K. O’Hern. Prometheus Books, 2008, 292 pp.

The Intelligence Wars should have been a true-life spy adventure set in war-torn Baghdad, but author Steven K. O’Hern was not satisfied with recounting his time as leader of a human intelligence (HUMINT) unit tasked with hunting insurgents. When the book discusses HUMINT tradecraft and demonstrates such techniques via personal experiences or anecdotes, it is an engaging, often educational, read. Unfortunately, Colonel O’Hern, now retired, wastes too many pages either regurgitating “generational warfare” myths or railing against issues often better addressed in professional journals.

A career officer in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, the author subsequently assumed command of the Strategic Counterintelligence Directorate (SCID) of Multi-National Force–Iraq. His years as a special agent and the six months he spent in Baghdad in 2005 lend credibility to discussions of HUMINT, a traditionally Army-dominated field. But O’Hern’s lack of experience with other intelligence disciplines stands in stark contrast to his HUMINT background. His consistent laments regarding an intelligence community focused excessively on technology, though possibly accurate, are not sufficiently substantiated in the book.

Chapters 5 and 6, about HUMINT operations, are certainly the most rewarding ones. Through a careful, comprehensible explanation of source selection and handling, O’Hern sets the stage for a number of interesting demonstrations of tradecraft in use. Sadly, many of his stories, truncated to two or three paragraphs, easily could have filled the remainder of the book and provided a much better opportunity for learning lessons developed by the author and his SCID team. Instead, these chapters serve only as a minor respite in what is otherwise a largely academic discussion about theories of the evolution of war and the US military’s ill-preparedness to engage in “fourth-generation warfare.”

Although O’Hern acknowledges the contributions of other intelligence disciplines and the importance of intelligence “cross-cue” only in passing, his insights into HUMINT offer excellent education to intelligence professionals throughout the community. Equally enlightening are his observations about the cultural and interpersonal dynamics of a divided Iraq. The author’s recounting of visits to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, each floor occupied by different sectarian factions, or his trip to Kurdish-dominated regions that consider Iraq a foreign country is both informative and frustrating with regard to US goals for the region.

Chapter 3, “Fourth-Generation Warfare,” and chapter 9, “The Next War,” represent the low points of the book. Although O’Hern is intellectually honest enough to acknowledge the existence of criticisms of generational warfare theory, he continues to cling to a concept likely to alienate his more studied audience. The greatest disappointment, however, is that these chapters contribute nothing to the book; indeed, their absence would not detract from important topics that should be its sole focus. A simple examination of insurgency would have proven sufficient for establishing the context of the author’s experiences conducting HUMINT operations in Iraq. Furthermore, the opening fictional account of chapter 8 is insulting in its depiction of intelligence officers and, again, contributes nothing. Readers will find similar pettiness in the latter part of the chapter, which discusses analysts, although the treatment of analyst-handler fusion is valuable.

A lesser failing of the book, one that affects O’Hern’s contributions to professional thought, concerns the inescapable difficulty of writing a “history” about a war in progress. Limiting the story to a chronicle of his experiences would have largely eliminated this predicament, but the emphasis on “fixing” the problems encountered in his six-month tour, four years before publication, only wastes ink. The author’s recommendations for better integration of reservists and guardsmen with law-enforcement backgrounds into intelligence, and for the establishment of a single officer in charge of all intelligence operations in-theater are worth investigating. Unfortunately, many of his other concerns, particularly regarding the bureaucratic nature of the US military, the sharing of intelligence among agencies, and the pairing of analysts with operators have already been addressed in the years since O’Hern’s tour of duty. Current solutions have not yet proved fully successful, but his recommendations are now outdated.

When he concentrates solely on HUMINT, the author does an excellent job of highlighting both its importance to counterinsurgencies and its weaknesses, such as a lack of precision and reliability. His “lessons learned” from Iraq regarding the use of analysts to feed guidance directly to handlers and their sources, the pitfalls of using contractors to support HUMINT operations, and the lack of actionable intelligence from the vast majority of “casual sources” could serve as important guides for intelligence personnel. Oddly, in chapter 7, which criticizes the existence of “stovepipes,” O’Hern writes about the importance of protecting information from misuse by outside agencies, thus validating the rationale for such stovepipes. Aside from his own designated lessons, readers can learn more from his stories about the operations of SCID personnel.

An interesting read for anyone studying counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, The Intelligence Wars has value primarily to intelligence professionals. Appropriately, it concentrates on the Army’s management of HUMINT, but most members of the Air Force community will have little use for it.

Lt Col Stephen C. Price Jr., USAF

US European Command, Stuttgart, Germany

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."