Center for Strategic Communication

KABUL, AFghanistan (Sept. 11, 2010) Fire Controlman 1st Class Andrew Eden, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command disclosure officer, right, and French Air Force Sgt. Lydia Briand prepare to raise the American Flag at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford/released)

Cross-posted from Joshua Foust’s regular column in The Atlantic.

The United States’ overriding interest in “actionable” information on terrorists has produced a dangerous form of tunnel vision.

In the last 24 months, unpredictable events have caught U.S. policymakers by surprise: the “Arab Spring” movement in 2011 and the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. In the wake of both surprises, many in Congress and the public have been wondering: why didn’t we see this coming?

Over the last decade of counterterrorism operations, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has undergone a remarkable transformation. A relatively modest part of the national security community before the 9/11 attacks, by 2010 the IC had swelled to encompass nearly a million people largely focused on prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global counterterrorism mission.

In their landmark 2010 series, the Washington Post reported that the IC “has become so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

While the sheer size of the IC is staggering — the 2013 budget for intelligence activities tops $75 billion – its mission is also of serious concern. Large areas of the IC have move away from their traditional role of analyzing a broad range of current events for policymakers and toward supporting the global counterterrorism mission. News stories about this shift suggest the counterterrorism mission has become the overarching concern of the national security staff.

This shift in focus can create blind spots that pose unique challenges for the president. If branch chiefs and the policymakers they support value “exploitable” information over deep understanding, they might be ignoring potentially vital information that doesn’t seem immediately of interest.

Imagine an analyst finding reports of a growing discontent in a Middle Eastern country’s politics; if that does not provide immediate benefit for a decision-making process for targeting suspected terrorists, it can easily be ignored in the avalanche of targeting information.

Before his sudden resignation this past week, CIA Director David Petraeus was widely rumored to be spending much of his time micromanaging the CIA’s expanded paramilitary operations — poring over drone target lists and pushing for more kinetic action. Right before his sudden departure from the agency, Petraeus had requested a dramatic expansion of its armed drone fleet. It’s safe to assume this wasn’t to get better analysis out of Langley.

One reason for the IC’s shift is that counterterrorism intelligence is relatively easy to collect: much of it can be acquired remotely, through forensic financial investigation and sophisticated surveillance. Moreover, the analysis of this data also lends itself to technologically advanced analysis — the so-called “gonkulators” that ingest enormous amounts of data and automatically generate conclusions and targets of interest.

The rapid adoption of complicated technological systems happened at the same time as the shift toward the expanded counterterrorism mission. Lost in the shuffle was an equal focus on human intelligence (HUMINT) and local expertise. Though vital to some missions, like the covert drone war in Pakistan, even HUMINT has been limited by the focus on immediately exploitable information while deeper understanding of countries and conflict zones has atrophied.

But expertise is more than just collecting interviews with local people (a central tenet of HUMINT). As the scholar Manan Ahmed, a historian of Pakistan at Freie Universitat Berlin noted, “There are […] satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data?”

Developing the specific knowledge to understand why and how certain pieces of information matter — not just to a narrow counterterrorism mission but the full range of U.S. security — is difficult and time consuming. Few in the intelligence community have it, and sometimes policymakers have mistakenly relied on outsiders to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with embarrassing results.

President Obama can reverse this trend. He needs to bring the IC back to its roots. The counterterrorism mission can and should continue, but it should be placed in the context of the IC’s traditional focus on the long term prospects of regions and countries of concern. By fusing deep local knowledge with the vast technological capabilities built over the last decade, the IC can generate the knowledge it needs to inform the President about how to make smart decisions that secure America’s interests for the long term.

The IC can go back to the basics by prioritizing the kind of information it wants: by focusing less on the daily grind of counterterrorism missions and more on the social, political, and economic currents that are driving change across the Middle East and around the world. By developing a more holistic picture of the foreign policy challenges facing the country in the next four years, smart choices can fill in the knowledge gaps and make future surprises less likely.