When is all source intelligence not all source intelligence?

by Philip Ingram MBE

The intelligence game is a fickle one and on a BBC Radio Ulster debate on 8th October 2019 the real lack of understanding as to how fickle that game could be was brought home by Andrée Murphy, from the Falls Road based Relatives for Justice Organisation. She adeptly quoted all of the intelligence meetings and organisations that existed in Northern Ireland in the latter days of ‘The Troubles’ and made the understandable assumption that that meant the intelligence processes were joined up.

“If only they were,” is a cry I have heard on so many occasions and I refer to a continued lack of joined up process in my blog https://greyharemedia.com/dsei-makes-me-feel-cheated/ which talks of a time in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and ably praised one capability that existed in Northern Ireland.

When Andrée talked of joint meetings and an All Source Intelligence cell what she assumed was they put everything on the table that all of the different organisation that were involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the higher up the meetings were chaired the more control there would be over the process.

I have had many ‘All Source’ Intelligence cells working for me over many years and the one thing that is consistent between all of them is that ‘all source’ does not mean all intelligence or knowledge of all sources providing intelligence and information.  In reality, there isn’t one place in the country that is a single repository for every piece of intelligence that is coming from every source.

An ‘All Source’ intelligence cell is for many pieces of intelligence releasable at the classification of the lowest user of that cell.  So, if it is collating releasable to NATO material, only information and intelligence releasable to NATO will be processed in that cell. In Northern Ireland there was information not able to be released by the Security Service to the Army, by the Army to the Police, by the Police to the Army and every combination.

Critical to this is understanding the intelligence cycle.  Direct, Collect, Process, Disseminate – a simple cycle that hides huge complexities.

Direct informs what you want to know, what intelligence you need, what your priorities are, that will be different in a situation where you have the Army supporting the local police and the National Capability having operation oversight as was the case in Northern Ireland

Only the organisation doing the directing will set their objectives, one or two of them they may share with others but very very rarely all of them.  Organisations often didn’t like to let other organisations know what they didn’t know and often didn’t share requirements.

Collect is tasking to capabilities capable of collecting the information needed to process it into intelligence.  You can task assets you own and have control over and request support from assets others have, if you know about them, have authority to use them and get information from them and it fits with the priority of whoever is the ultimate owner of the assets. Clearly if an asset is undeclared you have no tasking capability over it at all; “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

You never have enough of your own assets to collect everything you need, and you never get all of the information or intelligence gleaned from someone else’s assets. When it comes to ownership of assets, especially sensitive assets their full capabilities are often hidden and usually classified in a way to keep them compartmentalised.  This means only those that need to know are fully briefed.

Intelligence from HUMINT assets rarely reveals the source.  In the early days and for at least half of the period called ‘The Troubles’, the RUC did not have personnel cleared to Top Secret level so that intelligence could not be shared with them.  Even when clearances existed, not everything was shared.

You may have joint tasking groups, or tasking and coordination groups but that doesn’t mean that every asset is declared to those groups nor does it mean that every asset declared is made available.  Politics between collection and intelligence capabilities is huge, usually because information and access are power, and organisations do not want to reveal their true capability and ultimately for them it is sadly an influence and budget game. I have been forced to play “my source is better than your source” games in operational theatres before, luckily outside the briefings my colleagues and I would sit down together and deconflict. (My sources were always the best).

The higher the level of any coordination group, the more the politics of each organisation represented comes into play, so rather than total exposure of operational intelligence matters, there is a dance off between different agencies seeking influence.

Even though I had clearances to a level higher in some areas than the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and many of his intelligence staff, because I was originally from Northern Ireland, there were areas I was not allowed into when I visited  and capabilities I could and would never be briefed on. The reality was I never needed a full; operational briefing. There is no such thing as total visibility and that was accepted as a norm within this type of work.

The role of processing Intelligence is the remit of the All Source Cell.  A slight misnomer in its title as it doesn’t process intelligence from every source that is out there, but it processes intelligence from every source it is authorised to receive information and intelligence from. That is a very subtle but important difference. It provides a baseline, with usually sufficient detail for the routine operations in hand and as a foundation for more complex operations where other, undeclared, compartmentalised information and intelligence can be used to develop the picture or amend the assessment or give that vital extra piece that enables a specialist operation.

Intelligence from sensitive sources is always kept compartmentalised unless it can be sufficiently anonymised so as not to give the source away.  Even then its distribution is very carefully controlled. Often, even with written agreements to share everything, very sensitive intelligence is not shared with anyone outside an agreed names list.

The final bit of the cycle is dissemination.  Intelligence is produced at various levels of classification and the general rule is disseminate what you can to the lowest possible level, however the reality was that that which came out at the lowest classifications gave little insight, the higher the level of classification the greater the insight, however, fewer people saw it and in almost every case it was never complete insight.

The RUC / PSNI will have had a few individuals cleared to the highest levels who will have had total visibility of all that the police were doing and some insight to higher level Army and MI5 activities, but not total insight.  The same would be true for the Army and for the Security Service and not even political masters would have had complete oversight. In essence there were 3 stovepipes with limited cross over at certain levels, but most intelligence and intelligence operations remained within stovepipes and there were frequent stove pipes within stovepipes. Many intelligence operations never saw the light of exposure outside their particular pipe!

It is very easy for those who have never worked in the murky world of intelligence to think it is a panacea, an all seeing, well-oiled and coordinated beast with direction from the top.  The murkiness is an accurate description and highlights the real lack of visibility there is up, down across and around intelligence operations.

The start of the road to better cooperation between intelligence providers only appeared in the post 9/11 era when the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre was set up in London in June 2003.  Prior to that and in Northern Ireland in particular a joined-up intelligence machinery, across the police, army and security service was a very tongue in cheek description of what really existed.

When looking for centrally coordinated conspiracies, consistency in the mechanisms that existed are needed.  Unfortunately, those consistencies didn’t really exist, because they couldn’t really exist as the level of cooperation between different agencies was very mixed and usually quite shaky.  Where there were gaps in intelligence and there are always many and were many in Northern Ireland, individuals made judgement calls to fill those gaps if needed. Almost certainly over the protracted period ‘The Troubles’ existed, some of those judgement calls were wrong at the time and possibly more were wrong with 2020 hindsight.

In dealing with terror and people hiding amongst the community, using innocents and communities as human camouflage as they operate outside the law, criticising judgement calls for those operating within the law, on partial information and intelligence is easy. Some, who should have operated within the law went too far as happens in every conflict and they should be brought to account for their actions.  However, that number will be extremely small.  Every terrorist operated outside the law, so it is hypocritical of anyone to criticise the machinery of state alone. Everyone who operated outside the law should be brought to justice for the sake of every victim and their families.

***Addendum*** I should have added this in the main body of the blog but it comes as an afterthought.  Two things, the first is that the terror organisations had their own intelligence machinery, less structured, less oversight and ‘collection’ was based on uncorroborated sources often intimidated into providing information or information provided through rumour.  How often did we hear of apologies for innocent lives being taken?  That process is never questioned publicly! The second point is that the intelligence war, to the horror of the G/J3 community (they know who they are) I will say Intelligence operations, forced the terror organisations to culminate, they lost their ability to manoeuvre in the ‘military battlespace’ but weren’t ‘technically’ defeated militarily.  However, in the end, almost every decision made, even at the highest levels, was known by the security forces, operations were being interdicted, individuals arrested, dissenters to the move to a political process who had a desire to maintain ‘the struggle’ were disproportionally arrested, (has anyone speculated as to why?).  This wasn’t because of some new ‘magic’ intelligence capability or more joined up process the state had, it was because people within the communities where terrorists operated passed information on to the authorities.  Why is this not exposed publicly? It isn’t, because these people still live in those communities, they are members, pillars, of the local society, they have normal lives and whilst they may not agree with politics, they agree less with terror and bloodshed.  Their contribution will never be exposed until we, and the next generation are long gone, and that is right and appropriate for their and their families safety. Unfortunately violent bigotry remains.  However, their contribution to the peace process will never be formally acknowledged. Ultimately, the intelligence machinery of the state could only work if people within target communities helped, and the people overall wanted peace.