Counterintelligence: Seeing Through the Enemy's Eyes

by Major John W. Davis (USAR, Retired)

This article previously appeared in Army, Volume 49, Number 5,  May 1999. Copyright by the Association of the U. S. Army and reproduced by permission.

On a 50-mile front near Sedan, France, massed German armor circumvented the northern end of the Maginot Line in May 1940. Panic struck the French forces, which fled headlong from the blitzkrieg. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, visiting French leaders in Paris, asked the French commander in chief, “Where is the strategic reserve?” “There is none,” the commander replied.

Churchill said later, “I was dumb-founded…I admit this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life. Why had the British  Government and the War Office not known about this?” This battlefield surprise rolled up the French Army and British Expeditionary Force, and pushed them to Dunkirk, France, and the sea.

Surprise on the battlefield is the event that men and women in combat fear most because surprise means dead soldiers. It was to preclude such surprise and assure victory that the principles of war evolved. Each principle of the U.S. Army—objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, simplicity, and surprise—helps to minimize the fog of war and helps to assure victory.

The absence of a French reserve led to the fall of France. The Germans knew about this, but the British did not. What happened?

Such a question introduces the role of counterintelligence (CI) on the modern battlefield. CI analysts have in their arsenal two weapons of which they may not even be aware: the principles of war and operations security (OPSEC). Wu Tsu, quoted by Sun Tzu, said, “What is called the right way is a return to fundamental principles; if conduct is not in accord with [the right way], although one’s position is important and honorable, misfortune will overtake him.”

The French and British spent years learning everything about the Germans. They knew to the last German soldier how many men the Germans could transport from Hanover to Aachen on a given day. The problem was that they never looked at themselves the way the Germans did. The Germans knew them even better than they knew themselves. The Germans knew that the French had violated the primary principle of war. An element of critical allied information was lost to the enemy collection threat. Good CI could have precluded this, and the battle in France could have ended differently.

What should have happened then? What could happen now?

CI must first evaluate U.S. Operations. They must examine the United States though adversarial eyes and ask the questions about U.S. operations that an opponent would ask. CI must think like the adversary, looking at friendly operations from the outside inward.

Allied CI could have begun by asking, “What is critical to our operation? What could compromise its success?” Once they established the critical information parameters, they could compare it to Germany’s ability to collect critical information. If there was no strategic reserve and if the Germans, once through the Maginot Line, could ravage communications and command centers, then the war was lost. CI could have identified this risk and helped to mitigate the German surprise.

OPSEC was absent. They did not use the five-step process in which they can evaluate critical information against the collection threat to reveal vulnerabilities. Grave risk to the Allied side went unobserved. Allied CI should have analyzed the Allied position the same way the Germans did. They did not. They did not see themselves as if through the enemy’s eyes. The Germans discovered a critical vulnerability and used the information for victory.

The study of this long-ago disaster has application today. Who evaluates the U.S. position on today’s fields of conflict? Do we still underestimate the Somali tribesman’s ability to collect intelligence against U.S. standard operating procedures? Do we still ignore military rules against the collection of laundry by locals in Bosnia, as we did in Vietnam? Are we so busy evaluating our enemies’ orders of battle that we forget to look at our own and see ourselves as they see us?

CI has  the principles of war. We know what it takes to assure victory and preclude surprise. We must look at our own operations in light of these principles because without a doubt our adversaries do. We must then apply the five-step OPSEC process. We must see where critical information is vulnerable to enemy collection capabilities and then make recommendations for countermeasures. As Winston Churchill ruefully observed, “What were we to think of the great French army? What was the Maginot Line for if not to economize troops, enabling large forces to be held in reserve for a counterstroke? But now there was no reserve.

The resulting disaster is now history. Can CI learn from this? To do so it must go back to the “right way” of Wu Tsu. We must give our adversaries credit for being as smart as we are and see ourselves through their eyes. Never underestimate the enemy. Do it the right way.

Major John Davis, USAR Retired, spent 13 years overseas with various military elements and works at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in the Intelligence and Security Division and teaches the threat portion of the Department of the Army OPSEC course in Huntsville, Alabama. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in European History from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Readers can reach the author at davisj@smdc.army.mil  or things@bellsouth.net.