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Why Intel Goes Bad: The Devil's Advocate

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

Last June in my posts on “Intel Gone Bad”, I described what happens when people abuse intelligence, and the tragedies that result. Two questions remain: why does this happen? And, what can we possibly do to stop this?

Today, I’ll try to tackle the first question, “Why does intelligence go bad?” To go with my core idea, that intelligence is evidence, I’ll also wrangle with, “How can some detectives/prosecutors get some cases so wrong?”

Simple. They don’t have a Devil’s Advocate. Sure, everyone has used the phrase “Devil’s Advocate” in conversation, but have you ever googled it? The results are surprisingly relevant.

According to Wikipedia, the “Devil’s Advocate” or promoter of the faith, argued against the canonization of a potential saint. He was opposed by “God’s Advocate” or the promoter of the cause, the lawyer arguing for canonization.

When Pope John Paul II became the pope, he put a renewed emphasis on the process of canonization. In 1983, he eliminated Devil’s Advocates. Up to that point in the 20th century, 98 people had achieved sainthood. Over the course of John Paul II’s term as Pope, over 500 people received the honor with another 1,300 beatifications. (Appropriately, John Paul II’s own canonization proceedings have flown through the Vatican.) To put this in context, Pope John Paul II canonized more people than had been canonized the previous five centuries.

Whether eliminating the Devil’s Advocate position alone accounts for the dramatic rise in sainthood, one can’t argue that it had an effect. In an adversarial system of justice, like the U.S. justice system or the Catholic Church’s old canonization proceedings, rulings come much slower but are more accurate.

Yet, when it comes to prosecuting terrorism or fighting insurgencies, we have nothing resembling the Devil’s Advocate. Take, for example, an Army battalion or brigade. The leaders, at every level, want to kill suspected terrorists. The operations officers want to plan operations that kill insurgents. Subordinate leaders want to lead men on the ground killing terrorists. The Staff Judge Advocates--the lawyers on staff--do provide legal advice, but their job isn’t to argue against an operation, merely to say whether a commander has enough evidence to launch an attack.

The person best suited for the role of a Devil’s Advocate--the intelligence officer--is the one providing the information to kill insurgents. The intel officer is supposed to think like the enemy, predict his movements and actions, and find him on the battlefield. Providing flimsy evidence to a commander is easier than building strong cases.

Why doesn’t the U.S. Army have a Devil’s Advocate in its lowest level units? (Some national level units do have “red teams” but they are far removed from the battlefield.) Mainly because the U.S. Army and Marine Corps (and Navy and Air Force) weren’t designed for counter-insurgency warfare; our military just isn’t designed to fight terrorists.

Does this extend to terrorist killing units, like the special operations folks who hunted down Osama bin Laden? I’ll admit that I haven’t worked with counter-terrorist units as much as regular maneuver units, but according to the Newsweek article, “Inside the Killing Machine” it sure doesn’t seem like it. From what I have seen first hand, special operations troops seem even more inclined to launch a mission on flmsy evidence than regular maneuver folks. (I’ll elaborate in future posts.)

I’m a realist (kind of). I know that having a Devil’s Advocate wouldn’t increase the numbers of terrorists or insurgents the U.S. kills. Instead, it would make the process more accurate. In the long run, that means we would kill more terrorists.

This matters. If you create too many saints, the worst thing that could happen is that the guy who has to keep track of the General Roman Calendar could get confused. If you target the wrong person in a military operation, innocent people will die.

six comments

Good Post. I think that the “Devil’s Advocate” or Red Team is a role that the commander must designate someone to have. In a perfect world, intel would do it. But, ultimately, it’s the commander’s prerogative. Good commanders will welcome this. Bad commanders will perceive it as an internal threat to their rule.


I actually wonder what would happen if commanders set up an entire adversarial process in their battalion/brigade headquarters. (With versions in SOF headquarters.) It would dramatically slow the pace of operations, but the accuracy—and hence effectiveness—of missions would increase dramatically.

I see the concept of setting up adversarial/law enforcement/devil’s advocates in maneuver organizations as one of the ways that a counter-insurgency army looks different than a maneuver army.


Technically, that’s the purpose of the wargaming step of MDMP. We have the tools available; we just have to use them.


@ Mike F – I wish I could retweet that last comment. well put.


At the same time, wouldn’t a devil’s advocate position make the transfer from intelligence to active operation a slower process thus inhibiting fast action?


Matty P, it absolutely would. The analogy I would use is the FBI when they pull the gun too early. Quite often someones life is ruined when they never committed the crime, because we jumped the gun.

Often in targeting operations I have made this case, slower and more accurate is better than faster and inaccurate. The OBL case bears this out completely.

As to wargaming, Mike F you are completely right, this is a step. From what I have seen, this step is too often paper drilled, and far more frequently not applied to routine targeting operations at company levels.