February 12, 2011:
The 10 years since September 11, 2001 have continued to highlight a long-understood, but little acknowledge fact about the intelligence community. Simply put, military intelligence services have historically been, and continue to be, more efficient, effective, and professional than their civilian counterparts. This is not limited to the United States, but has been a major trend the world over since the end of the Second World War. This has not attracted much attention. That's not surprising, as how can some sergeant in civilian clothes, lurking in a back-alley in some foreign country, negotiating with some local gangster to buy military secrets, going to compare with the image of James Bond.
Most countries in the world have two different organizations for obtaining, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence of a military nature: military intelligence services and civilian intelligence services. By far, civilian intelligence services tend to be the most well-known (or infamous) and are almost always tasked with conducting traditional espionage operations (recruiting spies, bugging offices, stealing information, etc.....). The most famous of these are the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, MI6), and Israel's Mossad (external intelligence) and Shin Bet (domestic intelligence). Most people have at least heard of these agencies, usually because of some scandal or misbehavior that comes to light in the news. In contrast, few civilians know anything at all about their countries actually military intelligence capabilities. The U.S. Army has 28,000 personnel in its Military Intelligence Corps as well as more in the ultra-secret Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). The British Army possesses their own Intelligence Corps and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) includes military intelligence, known as AMAN, as an entirely separate branch of service, on a par with the Infantry or Armored branches.
While not very well-known, military intelligence agencies are often remarkably effective at their jobs, often in contrast to their civilian counterparts, who sometimes find their roles usurped by the actual military when they fail to do their jobs effectively. Mossad, Shin Bet, and the CIA in particular have long suffered from repeated blows to their professional reputations. The CIA spent most of the Cold War propping up dictatorships like the Shah of Iran, or participating in covert actions that did little to secure the defense of the US. Along with this is the Agency's laundry list of scandals and criticisms like the Iran-Contra Affair, allegations of torture and waterboarding, and lack of skill at infiltrating terrorist groups. Many of these criticisms are legitimate, since many career Agency officers eventually write their memoirs complaining about the bureaucracy and lack of effectiveness that have plagued the Agency for decades.
In Israel, Mossad, once a model intelligence service, is now sometimes viewed as renegade and out of control. Shin Bet, despite its excellent spy networks in Palestinian communities, has long been accused of using torture and ill-treatment of detainees, allegations that caught the attention of the Israeli justice system in the past. The most effective intelligence collection agencies in the country are now AMAN and the IDF's Intelligence Corps.
On the other hand, military intelligence agencies in these three countries tend to be extremely effective and, even when they're not, they repeatedly show the ability to adapt and improve. In the U.S., the Army's Intelligence Support Activity is a kind of jack-of-all-trades, being tasked to recruit informants in terrorist networks, gather signals intelligence on enemy and hostile countries and organizations, conduct undercover operations, and gather intelligence prior to major combat actions. If this seems like stealing some of the CIA's responsibilities, that's exactly what it is, and it isn't the first time in American history it has happened. During the Vietnam War, the CIA's South Vietnam station was the largest CIA outfit in any country at the time. Despite the money and manpower involved, the CIA, in a fact admitted by at least one case officer turned author, simply failed at counterinsurgency and military intelligence. Because of this, the Army Special Forces (Green Berets) took on the responsibility of gathering Human Intelligence (HUMINT) by setting up Project GAMMA (Detachment B-57) in June 1967 to conduct covert intelligence collection. Under the Green Berets, GAMMA became so successful that by 1968, the small detachment of six Green Berets and hundreds of Vietnamese working in 13 intelligence nets (spy rings) were providing over 60 percent of effective intelligence concerning North Vietnamese activities in Cambodia.
Aside from the ISA, the rest of the US Army Intelligence apparatus, despite bumps, tends to perform with a high degree of effectiveness. While not as glamorous as recruiting spies or running undercover operations, interrogating prisoners of war, collecting enemy documents and maps, and analyzing maps and reports makes up most of what military intelligence personnel do. As so far, they're leaving the civilians in the dust.
The air forces and navies, of the countries mentioned, also have intelligence operations. But it has always fallen to the army to do most of the work. Air force and naval intelligence mainly concentrate on their opposite numbers in potential enemy nations. The army intel professionals have always tended to deal more with the "big picture" and the business of finding out everything needed to win.