Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and National Leadership: A Practical Guide

  • Published

Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and National Leadership: A Practical Guide by Gary Berntsen with Foreword by Seth G. Jones. Potomac Books, Inc., 2008, 144 pp.

Gary Berntsen, a relatively new author, has penned two previous volumes with Ralph Pezzullo, including Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda (2005) and the novel, The Walk-In (2008). He speaks from vast experience in the shadowy world of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine services, where Berntsen served as station chief on three occasions and led one of the teams into Afghanistan in the early days after 9/11. For those familiar with the operation, Berntsen is one of the two Garys (Gary Schroen is the other). His street creed alone makes his words count. Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and National Leadership—A Practical Guide is highly recommended for government and military professionals involved with intelligence collection or analysis.

Berntsen knows the nuances of human intelligence (HUMINT) and is unafraid of criticizing the agency he served. As every good intelligence professional should be, he appears almost embarrassed by 9/11, vowing that it must never be allowed to happen again. He prescribes many of the solutions quite boldly toward the intended audience of the incoming president and his staff. He is not joking here—he is quite serious.

The book describes what Berntsen maintains must be done in the CIA. At times the author is contemptuous of governmental bureaucracy and warns of political expediency winning over national security.

"The CIA should absolutely be allowed to practice covert action to defend fledgling democracies. It is wishful thinking to believe that individuals with backgrounds in narco-trafficking, military coups, and murder will moderate or reform themselves once they enter the political process or are sworn into office. . . . A new administration needs to quickly come to terms with what the Clandestine Service can and cannot do when it comes to covert action so that it is aware of all its potential options when dealing with foreign nations" (p. 15).

The author concisely delineates the salient elements for those inside the Beltway by listing the “Critical Points” at the end of each chapter, making them ready-made for Power Point jockeys. Berntsen often strikes bone in the text, such as in chapter 4, when he discusses the polygraph, which he would largely eliminate for pre-employment screening, “except where applicants volunteer to serve in the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center . . . ” or for “. . . specific, narrow topics when an incident or event has occurred” (p. 27). He rightly points out that the current practices causes the loss of valuable human potential, such as those fluent in Arabic, Persian, Pashto, and Urdu, while not appreciably increasing national security. Given the recent Nada Prouty case, this suggestion is likely to be ignored.

Many in the intelligence community (IC) will cringe at Berntsen’s suggestion that military participation in intelligence collection should be welcomed (p. 32). A disturbing section for Pentagon leaders is likely to be the accompanying section discussing the attaché program, which the author claims is currently “relegated to second-class status” (p. 33). Feathers will also be ruffled by his assessment of the human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities of the Department of Defense. The author is particularly critical of the training, bluntly stating that human collection teams (HCT) “. . . bravely face the dangers of tactical intelligence field collection in Iraq and Afghanistan and yet are denied the tools to succeed” (p. 34). He specifically highlights HCT’s lack of sufficient area studies and language training before deployment. These words should not be ignored, particularly if the appropriate lessons from Iraq can be quickly applied to Afghanistan.

Given the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East, readers should pay particular attention to chapter 5, “Counterterrorism: Intelligence, Law Enforcement, and Military Power.” Berntsen warns against presidential naïveté, which he rightly points out as very dangerous. He illustrates the point with the example of the failed rescue attempt of US hostages held in Iran in 1980, blaming Pres. Jimmy Carter in part. He also discusses the need for better connectivity between agencies in crisis situations. Although not new, he does apply an interesting spin to the argument.

The shortest, but most interesting, chapter in the book is “Language Skills: Preparing for Tomorrow Today.” Current foreign language capabilities within the IC and the military are totally unacceptable. As possible solutions, Berntsen calls for the development of a Middle Eastern Studies Institute in Dearborn, Michigan; the establishment of a requirement that all US military academy cadets study a Middle Eastern language for all four years; and most interestingly the suggestion that 50 percent of the students receiving Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarships be required to participate in intensive Middle Eastern language training, including a year-long study abroad in the Middle East. Although practical, these controversial and expensive solutions become even more unlikely given the current economic crisis.

If there is one criticism that can be offered about the volume, that criticism would be that the book is too short for readers other than government staffers more used to dealing with one pagers. If one were to remove the glossary, the “Chronology of CIA Directors,” and the “Suggested Readings” section (acceptable, but short), the text would barely break 100 pages. In many ways, given the size and format, it is more like a long article than a short book. The former would probably have been more appropriate but perhaps less widely read. In any case, the volume is useful and should be put on the required reading list of those interested in making HUMINT better and America safer. None of the suggestions leap out as anything brilliantly new or startlingly innovative but all are well organized and soundly based in a real patriot’s practical experience and good sense. They will be ignored at our nation’s peril. Keep an eye on this author. More good will likely come from him in the future.

Robert A. Norton, PhD

Professor, Auburn University

"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."