January 12, 2010

The Value of a Lessons Learned Process

I was on a plane to the Middle East on Sunday evening when I spotted these lines from Leon Panetta's op-ed in the Washington Post:

The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies. They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations. This is a vicious foe, one that has struck our country before and is determined to do so again.

As an agency, we have found consolation in the strength and heroism of our fallen colleagues and their families.

We have found no consolation, however, in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of "poor tradecraft." That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.

The op-ed was, written, I believe, in response to commentary like this op-ed by Reuel Marc Gerecht arguing that poor tradcraft was, in fact, at least in part to blame for the deaths of seven U.S. operatives and one Jordian agent. I myself do not know much of anything about the tradecraft of an intelligence officer at the CIA, so I am not going to pass judgment on what happened in eastern Afghanistan. What Panetta wrote above, though, sure does trouble me.

Panetta assumes that is beyond the pale to say that Marines or U.S. soldiers died in a firefight due to poor war-fighting skills, but that in fact has happened quite regularly over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every single firefight U.S. soldiers and Marines engage in is subject to an admirably honest after action review (AAR). Readers of this blog no doubt count themselves as veterans of many an AAR held everywhere from Fort Polk, Louisiana to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. In some military mini-disasters -- like the hapless convoy that was ambushed during the Battle of Nasiriyah and resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch -- an extensive AAR process reveals that soldiers died because they did, in fact, possess poor war-fighting skills. (After Nasiriyah, that particular finding led many within the U.S. Army to stress the importance of basic rifle marksmanship and maintenance for even so-called "support" soldiers.)

The military is, by now, used to engaging in a pretty frightful AAR process that, when successful, lays bare the weaknesses of fighting organizations tested by realistic training or combat. When aggressive national security journalists don't think the U.S. Army or Marine Corps is being honest enough, they do not hesistate to say so. (Exhibit A.) So in conclusion, it is not, in fact, taboo to say that Marines died because they have poor war-fighting skills. Marines do sometimes die because they have poor war-fighting skills. And when that happens, the U.S. Marine Corps relies, like the U.S. Army, on a vigorous AAR process to identify faults in training, leadership and equipment.

One can only hope that the CIA is engaged in a similar process today. But when the director pre-emptively says that the "main lesson" of this loss is that "CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies", it makes me think the director, at least, is on the defensive. Because that's a pretty anodyne main lesson to draw from this. A visit to any tactical U.S. military unit in Iraq or Afghanistan -- where successes and failings are analyzed and provoke reforms on a daily basis -- tells you it doesn't have to be that way.

The CIA is, of course, conducting an investigation. But an investigation can be a lot different in tone and scope than an AAR. An investigation has a prosecutorial air about it and can focus on factors outside an organization. An AAR, by contrast, should focus on dynamics inside an organization. It should also be conductd in such a way as to encourage honesty from subordinate leaders and participants -- no one should fear for their career. A how-to guide can be found here. Tips and techniques from readers on how to conduct an effective AAR are encouraged in the comments section.

In related news, the report on the failings of U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan -- and the accompanying recommendations for a way forward -- has been downloaded 9,864 times as of yesterday. That's a new record for a CNAS report. I heard the director of one of the civilian intelligence agencies thought the Flynn report was in part directed toward his agency. It wasn't, but his alleged knee-jerk response -- angry and defensive -- was revealing.