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Rethinking Intelligence: Interview with Erik Dahl

Dr. Erik Dahl is the author of “Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond,” Dr. Dahl served 21 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy, and is currently an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of National Security Affairs and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

Published: June 6, 2014

Dr. Erik Dahl is the author of “Intel­li­gence and Surprise Attack: Fail­ure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond,” Dr. Dahl served 21 years as an intel­li­gence officer in the U.S. Navy, and is currently an assist­ant professor at the Naval Post­gradu­ate School, Depart­ment of National Secur­ity Affairs and the Center for Home­land Defense and Secur­ity.

Mike German, a Fellow at the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, inter­viewed Erik Dahl on June 2, 2014. The follow­ing is an edited tran­script of that inter­view.


Q: Hi. My name is Mike German. I’m a fellow with the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and I’m engaged in a research project where I’m inter­view­ing intel­li­gence profes­sion­als and research­ers who are writ­ing about intel­li­gence reform in a way that chal­lenges the conven­tional wisdom with the hope that that this discus­sion can lead to more compre­hens­ive reform of the intel­li­gence policy and national secur­ity policy in the United States. And today I’m with Dr. Erik Dahl. He’s a professor here at Naval Post-Gradu­ate School, Depart­ment of National Secur­ity Affairs and the Center for Home­land Defense and Secur­ity. He was a Naval Intel­li­gence Officer for 21 years, and then obtained a PhD from the Fletcher School at Tufts Univer­sity. He is the author of last year’s Intel­li­gence and Surprise Attack: Fail­ure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond. Dr. Dahl, you served in and have stud­ied the intel­li­gence community for almost three decades- a little more than three decades.

Dahl: That’s right.

Q: It’s a $70 billion dollar a year enter­prise. Five million cleared employ­ees and staff. I tend to think of it more as an enter­prise than just a community anymore, but what is the mission of this intel­li­gence enter­prise?

Dahl: Well, it’s a good way to put it- intel­li­gence enter­prise. Certainly more than any single intel­li­gence community, which is what we usually talk about. But still, the funda­mental domain, the cent­ral part of the Amer­ican intel­li­gence enter­prise as you put it, was estab­lished after World War II to prevent what we call stra­tegic surprise. To really try to -bottom line- to prevent another Pearl Harbor-type surprise devast­at­ing attack on the United States. The intel­li­gence community and intel­li­gence agen­cies have always had a lot more to do during the Cold War, keep­ing track of current events, of world events, keep­ing our milit­ary prepared- but that was the main goal. And the ques­tion since 9/11 has been whether or not that still is suffi­cient for a single primary goal. Is it enough to try to keep Amer­ica safe from a single devast­at­ing attack or are we today- and perhaps we’ll get a chance to talk about this. Are we today expect­ing our intel­li­gence community to keep indi­vidual Amer­ic­ans safe- not just Amer­ica safe, but all Amer­ic­ans safe- and how do we do that?

Q: And despite the effort and the expense that we put into this effort, intel­li­gence often fails and in your book you mention two spec­tac­u­lar fail­ures: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But based on your stud­ies of surprise attacks like this and you focused on that surprise attack. What’s the conven­tional wisdom regard­ing why intel­li­gence fails?

Dahl: Well the subject of intel­li­gence fail­ure is prob­ably the most stud­ied ques­tion in the intel­li­gence stud­ies liter­at­ure. And in fact there is, as you say, there is a conven­tional wisdom. There is a stand­ard under­stand­ing about why intel­li­gence fails and how intel­li­gence fails.  It really was first estab­lished back in one of the most famous books after Pearl Harbor by Roberta Wohl­stet­ter. She termed it that, we weren’t able to find the import­ant warn­ing signals in the middle of all the noise of other things going on. We had a similar find­ing after the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 commis­sion had a differ­ent image but a similar concept. They said that the inform­a­tion was there, but we could­n’t connect the dots. So what this really means in intel­li­gence termin­o­logy is that we find that intel­li­gence analysis fails. At least that’s the stand­ard under­stand­ing about intel­li­gence fail­ure. That usually, the warn­ing signs were there, but we could­n’t under­stand it. We perhaps weren’t imagin­at­ive enough to under­stand it- at least that’s the conven­tional wisdom.

Q: Dr. Dahl, for your study you adap­ted a meth­od­o­logy that’s funda­mental to social science: the use of a control group. But this actu­ally hasn’t been used in a lot of fail­ures-or stud­ies of intel­li­gence fail­ures. You compared well-known intel­li­gence fail­ures like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to cases where the surprise was actu­ally thwarted or stopped. What did you learn from study­ing it that way?

Dahl: Well it’s fascin­at­ing that most of what we know about intel­li­gence, and espe­cially about how intel­li­gence works, comes from intel­li­gence fail­ures when things don’t go right. What I wanted to do was find out what happens when intel­li­gence works, when intel­li­gence succeeds in prevent­ing a surprise attack or prevent­ing a terror­ist attack. And what I expec­ted to find was that conven­tional wisdom would be borne out. In other words, I would find that when intel­li­gence works, it’s because intel­li­gence analysts connect the dots. They put together widely scattered bits of inform­a­tion, they come up with a theory, a hypo­thesis, bring it to a decision maker and the decision maker says, “Ah you’re bril­liant, you’re imagin­at­ive, let’s go stop some­thing bad from happen­ing!” But I found, that’s not what happens. In fact, there are many cases of bril­liant analysts connect­ing the dots that didn’t do any good. What does seem to work is when intel­li­gence collect­ors, not analysts, but collect­ors- it’s actu­ally the harder job of find­ing the intel­li­gence in the first place. But collect­ors can find very specific, precise inform­a­tion- what in the milit­ary sense, we call tactical or oper­a­tional intel­li­gence. And then they need to take it to a decision-maker, a policy-maker, a leader, who is recept­ive, who under­stands intel­li­gence and is will­ing to listen. And often, in fact, that second part is the hard­est part of the intel­li­gence busi­ness.

Q: And that’s what I found fascin­at­ing read­ing your book- that it’s often the intel­li­gence that gives sound warn­ing and the policy maker fails to heed that accur­ate warn­ing. What causes that policy maker not to heed the warn­ing?

Dahl: You know, many intel­li­gence experts and insiders, and also many academic schol­ars of intel­li­gence have argued that the main reason for intel­li­gence fail­ure, the main reason why our assess­ments aren’t used, is because policy makers don’t listen. And I didn’t find that’s exactly the case. What I found was that policy makers think they want long-range, big-picture stra­tegic intel­li­gence. They want some­body to connect the dots and come up with a bril­liant assess­ment. But that’s not what convinces them. Decision-makers, whether they’re milit­ary, govern­mental, civil­ian. Decision makers, I found, don’t want to make a diffi­cult, danger­ous decision based on a hunch, on an assess­ment, on some­body just connect­ing the dots. They want to know specific­ally what the nature of the prob­lem is and what specific­ally I need to do in order to solve it. That’s what makes them recept­ive to intel­li­gence.

Q: And of course, one of the success­ful surprise attacks that you stud­ied were the 9/11 attacks, and you docu­ment really an incred­ible amount of advance warn­ing going back for several years. And that’s one partic­u­larly strong aspect of the book I found where it’s all in a very concise way, one after another, it’s really quite compel­ling and even more aston­ish­ing how the policy makers didn’t adapt to these increas­ing warn­ings. Why do you think the conven­tional wisdom, that this was a fail­ure of imagin­a­tion, is wrong?

Dahl: Well it is amaz­ing. And I tried to put together, as you say. In my book, all the differ­ent warn­ings that we had before 9/11. And it’s amaz­ing. On the one hand you might think, how is it possible that our nation’s lead­ers didn’t under­stand these warn­ings? But then I real­ized that almost all of those warn­ings were of this broad, general, non-specific nature, what we call stra­tegic warn­ing. And usually we think, our experts think we need stra­tegic warn­ing. But our decision makers didn’t want to listen to it. In fact there’s one case where the FAA, the Federal Aviation Admin­is­tra­tion- they have their own intel­li­gence organ­iz­a­tion- and their intel­li­gence analysts put together the dots. They assessed that there was a real signi­fic­ant threat to terror­ists asso­ci­ated with al-Qaeda, perhaps using airplanes as bombs. But they didn’t have any specific facts to back it up. You would still think that the FAA, that organ­iz­a­tion within our govern­ment would be the most will­ing to listen to warn­ings like that. But even the FAA lead­er­ship wasn’t will­ing to do anything about that when all it was, was analysis. They hadn’t been able to get inside the al-Qaeda plot and give specific warn­ing. So it’s not that stra­tegic warn­ing that’s really needed. Instead, what we need is even better collec­tion, which is tougher on a specific threat. And that’s what we didn’t have before 9/11.

Q: Could it also be that the amount of warn­ing, that the repet­it­ive­ness of the warn­ing, actu­ally dulled its effect?

Dahl: We do see that happen fairly often. In other stud­ies of intel­li­gence fail­ure, such as the bomb­ing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, there were lots of warn­ings. Dozens of warn­ings in fact, of the possib­il­ity of car bombs against our facil­ity there, and they did dull the warn­ing. In fact the Marine lead­er­ship said after­ward, “Hey we didn’t know – [we didn’t] need anybody else telling us to watch out, we were watch­ing out as much as we could.” What we didn’t have in that case, was we didn’t know who to watch for. We didn’t know what kind of specific threat to have happen. And that’s what also happened before 9/11. So again we talk about connect­ing the dots, we like to think that’s what the 9/11 Commis­sion said, we need to connect the dots better. We need to collect the dots much more specific­ally. We need much more fine-grained intel­li­gence if we’re going to use that intel­li­gence to stop bad things from happen­ing.

Q: And when you say fine grained, do you mean focus­ing our intel­li­gence effort?

Dahl: I do. In fact, that gets into a topic that often people talk about today- big data, collec­tion of  large data sets.  What I found is, it’s not big data that prevents bad things from happen­ing, it’s little data. It’s really fine-grained intel­li­gence. In fact, for a terror­ist plot you need someone inside that plot, and you need to actu­ally know what precisely a decision-maker can do to prevent that.

Q: And one of the concerns I’ve raised about big data is that the more data the more alarms get set- maybe lower level alarms, but more alarms. And in your discus­sion of 9/11 attacks, with the possib­il­ity of false alarms, the fact that so many of these hair rais­ing incid­ents didn’t actu­ally come to fruition. I remem­ber in the FBI in 1999 in the run-up to the Millen­nium there was all sorts of concerns that you docu­mented in the book that all sorts of groups were going to take advant­age of the dawn of the new Millen­nium to have attacks- and then when there weren’t any, you know, the next warn­ing was maybe a little less likely to be heeded. Is that a possib­il­ity?

Dahl: Well that’s certainly some­thing that we see in intel­li­gence all the time. In fact that’s one of the import­ant ways that intel­li­gence for domestic purposes, Home­land Secur­ity issues- is differ­ent from inter­na­tional secur­ity intel­li­gence, in the sense that to some extent, when you’re focus­ing your intel­li­gence assets outward toward the rest of the world, toward outward enemies, false alarms and false posit­ives don’t matter quite as much because, well, we’re on alert anyway and a wrong report about a poten­tial foreign enemy that does­n’t come to fruition may not be that danger­ous, that bad. But when that false report is about a domestic person, domestic organ­iz­a­tion, not only do you risk over-warn­ing your decision-makers who then become numb to those warn­ings, but possibly, you’ve blamed or you’ve accused an Amer­ican citizen of doing some­thing that they weren’t trying to do. So it’s a double prob­lem domest­ic­ally.

Q: You also, for the book, compiled a data­base of success­fully thwarted or preven­ted terror­ist attacks. What did you learn from study­ing those incid­ents?

Dahl: I found really two major, major points. One is that the nature of the domestic terror­ism threat in the United States today is actu­ally more seri­ous, more severe than many believe it is- espe­cially when you consider that there are a number of plots that have been thwarted since 9/11 from domestic right-wing or other sorts of organ­iz­a­tions. It’s certainly not just inter­na­tional terror­ist groups. It’s certainly not just Muslim groups. That’s the nature of the threat. But then the most import­ant ques­tion I thought that we need to look at is how are these threats thwarted? How do we stop these things from happen­ing? And here I found that for the most part, the tools and tech­niques that are used to stop these would-be terror­ists are usually very similar, the same tools and tech­niques that law enforce­ment has been using for many years. It’s tips from the public, it’s under­cover officers, it’s the use of inform­ants. It’s not so much when we’re talk­ing domestic home­land secur­ity threats, it’s not so much the national intel­li­gence assets such as spies over­seas or satel­lites or even signals intel­li­gence efforts.

Q: And so over the course of the last year, there were some intel­li­gence leaks, and many Amer­ic­ans were shocked about the scope of the domestic elec­tronic surveil­lance that’s going on. What did you find about the role of that type of elec­tronic surveil­lance in stop­ping terror­ist attacks?

Dahl: I think that what we’re find­ing is that the domestic plots that have been foiled—I found over 100 domestic terror­ism plots that have been preven­ted since 9/11– at least from what I can tell, and from what we’ve seen from a number of the offi­cial stud­ies into the National Secur­ity Agency programs for instance. We aren’t find­ing that it’s that sort of program that stops domestic plots and home­land secur­ity plots. Those sorts of programs may certainly be effect­ive over­seas, we don’t have the inform­a­tion on that, but domest­ic­ally it’s mostly this low level, much more of a law enforce­ment approach that seems to be effect­ive.

Q: You actu­ally also wrote an essay called “Domestic Intel­li­gence Today: More Secur­ity but Less Liberty” where you describe how we’ve created this new domestic intel­li­gence enter­prise that collects a lot of inform­a­tion at the state and local level. And you said that the creation of this has altered the balance between secur­ity and liberty, and that while it’s clear we’re moving toward more govern­ment control, we’ve seen a bene­fit in secur­ity. But what metrics do we have to meas­ure whether that invest­ment in this domestic intel­li­gence enter­prise is actu­ally improv­ing secur­ity?

Dahl: That’s a great ques­tion. On the issue of the balance between secur­ity and liberty, I think one import­ant point is that soon after 9/11, most of our govern­ment offi­cials and the 9/11 Commis­sion itself argued that there didn’t have to be a trade-off between secur­ity and liberty. We could have both. I think that’s wrong. I think that what we are find­ing and the Obama admin­is­tra­tion is acknow­ledging that today- we are find­ing that in order to have greater secur­ity on the domestic front, we may have to give up some civil liber­ties. We may have to have more intrus­ive govern­ment inter­fer­ence and surveil­lance. The import­ant thing though is to real­ize that the place we put that balance should be some­thing that we, as a soci­ety, can recal­ib­rate. I don’t think that’s happened. We haven’t done that since 9/11. We haven’t been able to get a good handle on an agree­ment among our govern­ment agen­cies on what the nature of the threat is today and whether or not we have put that balance too much towards secur­ity and not enough towards civil liber­ties. But I’ll say that a way that I think we should meas­ure, a gauge to determ­ine whether domestic intel­li­gence efforts are proper, is that we should use the same think­ing that the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion uses to decide whether a drug should be able to be used by the public. And that is of course that a drug needs to be safe and effect­ive. If we look at it that way, first of all that means that a domestic intel­li­gence effort needs to be effect­ive. It needs to actu­ally be able to either stop bad things from happen­ing, or have some other value. And here I don’t think our govern­ment has done a good enough job of being able to make that case. But the other part is it needs to be safe for civil liber­ties, indi­vidual freedoms, at some level that we, in soci­ety agree is the appro­pri­ate level. Right now it looks as if the balance is off. We haven’t been able to determ­ine that these programs are suffi­ciently effect­ive, and we do think it’s possible that they may be caus­ing prob­lems for our indi­vidual liber­ties.

Q: And do you think the excess­ive secrecy- certainly around our national intel­li­gence programs, but even around the domestic intel­li­gence programs is actu­ally inhib­it­ing both that discus­sion and the demo­cratic control over these insti­tu­tions that would require that kind of analysis?

Dahl: I think we defin­itely need to have what we star­ted to have, but we’ve only star­ted to have it, which is a much better national discus­sion about intel­li­gence. Certainly back during the Cold War and during the time when I was busy in my milit­ary intel­li­gence career, intel­li­gence was a topic for spy novels and occa­sion­ally for public discus­sion, but for the most part, not very much. But today, espe­cially because the inform­a­tion that’s being collec­ted, the dots that are being collec­ted are about you and me, are about the Amer­ican people, the Amer­ican people need to have more over­sight, more avail­ab­il­ity to discuss these programs. Although I’ve got to admit, when I was an intel­li­gence officer, I would­n’t have wanted greater public free­dom and public inform­a­tion because that would seem to harm the process.

Q: But as a Naval Intel­li­gence Officer your focus was at hostile foreign nations or hostile organ­iz­a­tions.

Dahl: That’s right. And that’s one of the big shifts in intel­li­gence since 9/11 that maybe the Amer­ican people don’t quite real­ize suffi­ciently, it’s that we really have changed the focus for much of our Amer­ican intel­li­gence community. When I was a Naval Intel­li­gence Officer track­ing the Soviet Navy back during the Cold War for instance, one of our guid­ing prin­ciples was don’t spy on Amer­ic­ans. Well, after 9/11 we real­ized, and I believe it’s abso­lutely true we real­ized that there are threats that can involve Amer­ic­ans. There are threats that can be within our coun­try. So now some­times we need to spy on Amer­ic­ans. But I’m not sure whether the same intel­li­gence agen­cies, the same intel­li­gence officers who used to spy over­seas or spy on the Soviet Navy, I’m not sure whether those organ­iz­a­tions and indi­vidu­als are the right ones to be doing the spying on Amer­ic­ans. For instance I don’t think you, as an Amer­ican would want to hire me, as someone who trained and grew up in the old ways- you would­n’t want to hire me to conduct domestic surveil­lance. I don’t have that skill set.

Q: And with the terror­ism incid­ents that were thwarted, it was tradi­tional law enforce­ment meth­ods that mostly were most effect­ive. Is there a way that we can turn the domestic intel­li­gence activ­it­ies, turn those resources into more of that tradi­tional poli­cing do you think?

Dahl: I think that it’s import­ant if we can some­how, find a way to have our domestic intel­li­gence agen­cies achieve the same level of trust and under­stand­ing with the Amer­ican people, that law enforce­ment does. Now certainly there are prob­lems with law enforce­ment and differ­ent communit­ies. In New York City for instance, the NYPD is under fire for civil liber­ties viol­a­tions, charges, those sorts of things. But still law enforce­ment as a whole, through­out Amer­ica, is gener­ally respec­ted by the Amer­ican people. Our communit­ies know that if they’re not happy with their sher­iff’s depart­ment, chances are they can vote in a new sher­iff. But we don’t have that oppor­tun­ity at the national level. That’s why one of the things that we need to do is re-emphas­ize in some way the state and local, the lower level intel­li­gence and surveil­lance and law enforce­ment assets, and bring those to bear. You can much more easily calib­rate the nature of your domestic surveil­lance effort at a local level than you can at the national level.

Q: And with tradi­tional law enforce­ment, over­sight mech­an­isms are built in through the courts, through civil proced­ures. How does intel­li­gence over­sight fail? Have you looked at that at all? And did that play a role in any of the success­fully thwarted attacks, that it was actu­ally over­sight mech­an­isms that compelled the intel­li­gence agen­cies to act more effect­ively?

Dahl: I think that certainly at the national level, the 9/11 Commis­sion poin­ted out, they’re abso­lutely correct that one of the prob­lems before 9/11 was that the intel­li­gence community did not have suffi­cient over­sight, in the sense that intel­li­gence over­sight really has two parts to it: One is to try to make sure that the intel­li­gence agen­cies don’t viol­ate the law, don’t do some­thing wrong. But the second part that often does­n’t get enough atten­tion is that intel­li­gence over­sight can and should help intel­li­gence agen­cies and offi­cials focus on the things that need to be focused on. Before 9/11 really nobody was focus­ing on inter­na­tional terror­ism. The intel­li­gence over­seers never grilled the Director of the CIA on why you’re not spend­ing more time worry­ing on those things. That way, today, we need to have that type of over­sight as well. But one issue is that when you get down to the state and local level, over­sight involves many differ­ent organ­iz­a­tions, many differ­ent local­it­ies and juris­dic­tions, so it’s a more complic­ated prob­lem.

Q: So how do Amer­ic­ans eval­u­ate the perform­ance of the intel­li­gence enter­prise? You quote Robert Jervis who said that for Amer­ic­ans to expect the intel­li­gence community to predict non-routine polit­ical occur­rences is unreal­istic and you your­self say that some sort of surprise is inev­it­able. So, if preven­tion of stra­tegic surprise is the mission, and surprise is inev­it­able, how do Amer­ic­ans eval­u­ate whether the $70 million invest­ment, the risk to their civil liber­ties are actu­ally worth the secur­ity product they receive in return?

Dahl: Meas­ur­ing intel­li­gence value is a tough job. In fact I remembered during my intel­li­gence career, one of my bosses once asked me in frus­tra­tion, “Can you ever tell me what a pound of intel­li­gence is worth?” And there’s no way to do that. In a milit­ary sense, you can judge how much a gallon of gasol­ine is worth, or how much a trained pilot is worth. But intel­li­gence is tougher. What we do usually is revert back to that maybe most simple meas­ure­ment, which is whether or not bad things happen. And that’s the quote that polit­ical scient­ists like Robert Jervis have typic­ally used. We want intel­li­gence to keep us safe from bad things. And during the Cold War, that usually meant keep us safe from nuclear anni­hil­a­tion. And that worked pretty well. But during the Cold War lots of Amer­ic­ans died in lots of incid­ents and small wars around the world. Today the concern is, and I think it’s legit­im­ate, that our intel­li­gence offi­cials are saying we’re trying to hold the intel­li­gence community to a higher stand­ard, trying to prevent the death of one indi­vidual Amer­ican in a terror­ist attack for instance. And that really is impossible. But what think we need to do is real­ize that intel­li­gence and the Amer­ican intel­li­gence community does many differ­ent things. When we’re look­ing domest­ic­ally, the intel­li­gence community needs to be able to better explain its perform­ance against this very specific prob­lem of domestic terror­ism. And here, we have a prob­lem because it hasn’t been shown in even the offi­cial stud­ies that looked at it that the National Secur­ity Agency programs have actu­ally had a hand in stop­ping terror­ist plots. But it’s also import­ant to keep in mind that the intel­li­gence community is involved with many other things, many other things than just that. And I think that having a better national discus­sion, a national dialogue, the Amer­ican people will real­ize that there are many other prob­lems and issues that the intel­li­gence community around the world and within the United States focuses on and that often provides a great deal of value.

Q: And it’s nice that we’re having some of that dialogue, but it’s some­what by acci­dent because there were leaks. Do you think the intel­li­gence community could be better at provid­ing more inform­a­tion so the Amer­ican people can have a better under­stand­ing of what the debate is about?

Dahl: Abso­lutely. The intel­li­gence community is typic­ally very bad at public rela­tions- although really today it’s much better than it used to be. I remem­ber back during the Cold War we used to talk about the National Secur­ity Agency as “no such agency.” During my Navy career, I was in fact a reporter for a little while, and once I tried to call the NSA for comment and they didn’t even have a press office. So we’re much better than we are today, but we’re still not good enough. And the intel­li­gence community needs to real­ize that what I call receptiv­ity, in other words the trust and under­stand­ing between the intel­li­gence agen­cies and its consumers, the people who receive intel­li­gence and pay the bills, that receptiv­ity and trust is vital. And right now we defin­itely don’t have that on a domestic level between the Amer­ican people and the intel­li­gence community. Basic­ally the intel­li­gence community needs to step up its act when it comes to public rela­tions.

Q: And what reforms would you recom­mend?

Dahl: I think two major, major changes are needed: One on the national level and another on the state and local level. On the national level, as I mentioned earlier, we need a new type of intel­li­gence agency, a new type of intel­li­gence mind­set, when we focus the tele­scope of intel­li­gence, if you will, away from the rest of the world and focus it on the domestic popu­la­tion. What I would like to see is a new domestic intel­li­gence agency similar to the Brit­ish MI5, their domestic secur­ity agency. Now, it’s prob­ably doubt­ful that we’d ever have the national will and the budget and the money to set up an agency like that, but we might be able to do some­thing with either continu­ing to reform the FBI intel­li­gence effort or perhaps turn the DHS intel­li­gence effort, which is usually considered a small player in the intel­li­gence community, but beef up that effort and have an organ­iz­a­tion that uses the tools and tech­niques of intel­li­gence, but at the same time it is very under­stand­ing about the need for civil liber­ties and privacy, the sorts of things that law enforce­ment offi­cials are typic­ally used to. But at the same time we’re doing that at the national level. We need to have a more robust and even more profes­sional state and local intel­li­gence effort. There are a lot of efforts going on around the coun­try estab­lish­ing new intel­li­gence fusion centers and devel­op­ing law enforce­ment intel­li­gence, poli­cing intel­li­gence efforts. I think we need to step that up, because as I mentioned before it’s at the local level that you could calib­rate those intel­li­gence efforts much more appro­pri­ately. You may find you need a differ­ent type of intel­li­gence effort in New York City than you do in Seattle or Port­land for instance.

Q: And again, when you’re using the term intel­li­gence, you’re not talk­ing about bulk data surveil­lance, you’re talk­ing more focused.

Dahl: That’s right. I really think that unless the national intel­li­gence community can explain to the Amer­ican people better, what the value has been so far of the bulk surveil­lance programs- I think that what I found in my book is the case, and that is that that it’s not big data, it’s little data that stops bad things from happen­ing.

Q: One of the things I really appre­ci­ate about what you’re writ­ing is how much it’s import­ant for the Amer­ican people to have this discus­sion, and your book and your articles are certainly a contri­bu­tion to that discus­sion. What other read­ing mater­i­als would you point to that view­ers could look at and get a better under­stand­ing of the intel­li­gence community?

Dahl: Well, I’d like to say that in addi­tion to my book, [which] I hope, is a good intro­duc­tion to the broader ques­tions about intel­li­gence and intel­li­gence fail­ure- I think actu­ally we have a bit of a prob­lem, because although there is a lot of good work out there that’s been done look­ing at the current national secur­ity agency and domestic intel­li­gence prob­lems, a lot of good work done by some of the offi­cial stud­ies such as the pres­id­en­tial review group that issued a several hundred page report– the prob­lem is those reports are awfully long. A lot of good inform­a­tion there, but I would encour­age that someone inter­ested in this take a look and skim reports like those. For instance there are also the duel­ing opin­ions by two federal judges. One that ruled that these programs are consti­tu­tional, the other ruled that they’re not. A lot of good inform­a­tion there, but kind of hard to wade through, I’ve got to admit. One of the most useful single articles that I’ve seen recently on this was just in Foreign Affairs recently by Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes called “Reform­ing the NSA” in the Foreign Affairs May/June 2014 issue. And they struck a good middle ground. Usually the op-eds and the opin­ion pieces we read are either that the NSA is doing a terrible job and Edward Snowden was a hero, or on the other hand the NSA is doing a great job and Edward Snowden was a traitor. Well, the truth may be some­where in the middle there. And I also think in fact that one of the authors of that Foreign Affairs piece, Benjamin Wittes, has a very useful blog called The Lawfare Blog, he’s a fellow at Brook­ings and has a lot of good inter­est­ing cover­age on these issues on his blog.

Q: Great. Well I thank you so much for your contri­bu­tion and for speak­ing with me today. So thanks very much.

Dahl: Thanks very much. Thank you.