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BW Businessworld

It’s A War Out There

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We've got thousands dead. All I want is the mission. You gave it to me. I'm grateful." Thus responded Henry Crumpton (Hank) to his call of duty towards operations in Afghanistan. In The Art of Intelligence, Crumpton recounts how he joined the CIA as one of the youngest recruits, carried out operations in different geographies and rose to be the head of Special Operations in CIA's Counterterrorism Center and later as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. The book is packed with many instances of action that involve running agent networks all over the world, collecting valuable intelligence, executing global covert action, leading men in war, and helping defend the US — aspects that make the book a good read for students of international relations.

This enjoyable read starts with the various components of the tradecraft and Crumpton's experiences with these. The first half talks about training, recruiting and liaisoning skills. Having spent around a decade running agent networks in Africa, Crumpton says, "Good spies are like athletes; good spies are born, developed and trained." A key step, as Crumpton explains, is how CIA transformed itself with the inception of new technology. Like how usage of GPS during the war in Afghanistan was instrumental in sharing intelligence quickly with ground forces. Or how proliferation of the Web made espionage an important part of collecting digital intelligence. Familiar with tough decisions that affect many lives, he notes that though engaging the enemy lethally is important, understanding and winning over the people is crucial. Parallels could be easily drawn in a corporate zone.

The dynamics between the CIA, Department of Defence, the FBI and policy-makers figures as a running theme in various contexts. Crumpton often takes a dig at the FBI for an almost non-existent intelligence analysis and sharing mechanism with the CIA, and compares it to that of the CIA's success in thwarting al Qaeda's Millennium Plot, which used a constant feedback loop between intelligence collection and analysis.

He stresses on the need for intelligence and covert action, while underlining that it is not a magic bullet. His frustration is visible when he mentions, "We had UBL (Usama bin Laden) in our electrical-optical insights, but we had no realistic policy, no clear authority..." He also mentions how Barack Obama came into office with negative views of the CIA and how it changed with CIA's key role in UBL's death.  That said, the constant eulogising leaves a false impression of CIA being a ‘perfect' body. Also, the stress on the importance of the private sector in intelligence collection hints at publicity for the author's firm — The Crumpton Group, a strategic international advisory. The author underscores the importance of crucial leadership skills needed in challenging and risk-filled environments.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012)