National Security Watch: Collecting data for the fight
SAN ANTONIOWhen Capt. Jason Feser first arrived in the northern Iraq city of Mosul for his yearlong tour of duty, he found that his headquarters was drowning in information. In the fast-paced environment of Mosul, where soldiers were tracking an adaptable and persistent insurgency in the ancient city, it was hard to keep up with the threats.
"The environment changes every dayand Mosul changes from block to block," says Feser.
But individual commanders in Mosul were running their own intelligence collection operations and nobody was charged with putting it all together in one place. One military intelligence team was building its own database of local political and neighborhood leaders. The chaplains kept track of the religious leaders. And other soldiers were cataloguing the city's hospitals and clinics. After suggesting to his commanders that someone gather all the data in one place, Feser got the job.
This made perfect sense. Feser was running a four-man team under the 25th Infantry Division in charge of the burgeoning discipline of geospatial intelligence, which involves developing complex maps from satellite images and other sources. At a San Antonio conference on geospatial intelligence, Feser described how he cobbled together one single database from 19 separate collections of information.
The final product was a massive trove of intelligence, including details on mosques, religious leaders, hospitals, and important Iraqi tribal leaders. Everything could be mapped out, block by block, throughout the city. Feser's four-man team produced everything from tailored maps for specific operations to analytical reports on patterns of roadside bombs.
"We had to evolve from doing standard maps and terrain products to what's really needed," he says, which was a way to map out cultural data to help soldiers understand the complicated city. At its peak, the unit was printing some 1,500 unique reports a month for some 10,000 soldiers, while making much of its information available digitally to other soldiers.
But Feser's presentation also unintentionally exposed some of the enormous gaps that still exist in the intelligence community's ability to share information. Part way through his remarks, an official from the Defense Intelligence Agency stood up and said that his office had never received any of that detail. Instead, he said that DIA maps of Mosul still had labels like "Mosque 1" and "Mosque 2."
These gaps are a broader problem. In a separate presentation, Collin Agee, a senior intelligence specialist for the U.S. Army, said that at one point, troops in Iraq had made an estimated 400,000 patrols. But only about 6,000 intelligence reports made it up to the brigade levelor only about 1.5 percent. This meant that officials were losing out on many potentially valuable sources of information. There have been plans to outfit some soldiers with special personal digital assistants to send intelligence reports back to headquarters in real time, but only some 20 have been issued so far. Agee said that some 1,000 should be in Iraq by the end of the year.
The information gaps are particularly surprising in Feser's case because his team was tracking the insurgency. For one project, Feser worked with a Stryker brigade that aggressively targeted suspected insurgents, interrogating suspects minutes after they were captured. Feser tried to process the data into the large database as soon as possible to track the latest insurgent trend. Separately, his team also produced twice-weekly reports tracking the four-week trends of roadside bomb attacks, looking for groupings and patterns, as well as any relations to U.S. operations.
Feser even did his own form of video forensics.
"The No. 1 one weakness of terroriststhey have to brag," says Feser. "They videotape it and publish it."
So his team would scour the videotapes and, using advanced mapping technologies and other tools, determine which building, and sometimes which window, the video was shot from. He did the same kind of work on mortar attacks. The work hit home when one of his friends was killed by a round that landed on top of his trailer, which happened to be right next to Feser's trailer.
"Everybody gets engaged over there at some point," he said.
Sometimes the problems were quite basic. Soldiers established 10 telephone hotlines to report roadside bombs and other insurgent activity. But Iraqis don't tend to use specific street addresses and often give vague descriptions.
"When someone in Mosul calls with a tip, we don't get great coordinates," he says. "We had to map the environment the enemy lived in." This included landmarks like cafes, stores, and government offices.