That figure stunned me. I found it in the 12th paragraph of a front-page New York Times story about “senior commanders” at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) playing fast and loose with intelligence reports to give their air war against ISIS an unjustified sheen of success: “CENTCOM’s mammoth intelligence operation, with some 1,500 civilian, military, and contract analysts, is housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, in a bay front building that has the look of a sterile government facility posing as a Spanish hacienda.”
Think about that. CENTCOM, one of six U.S. military commands that divide the planet up like a pie, has at least 1,500 intelligence analysts (military, civilian, and private contractors) all to itself. Let me repeat that: 1,500 of them. CENTCOM is essentially the country’s war command, responsible for most of the Greater Middle East, that expanse of now-chaotic territory filled with strife-torn and failing states that runs from Pakistan’s border to Egypt. That’s no small task and about it there is much to be known. Still, that figure should act like a flash of lightning, illuminating for a second an otherwise dark and stormy landscape.
And mind you, that’s just the analysts, not the full CENTCOM intelligence roster for which we have no figure at all. In other words, even if that 1,500 represents a full count of the command’s intelligence analysts, not just the ones at its Tampa headquarters but in the field at places like its enormous operation at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, CENTCOM still has almost half as many of them as military personnel on the ground in Iraq (3,500 at latest count). Now, try to imagine what those 1,500 analysts are doing, even for a command deep in a “quagmire” in Syria and Iraq, as President Obama recently dubbed it (though he was admittedly speaking about the Russians), as well as what looks like a failing war, 14 years later, in Afghanistan, and another in Yemen led by the Saudis but backed by Washington. Even given all of that, what in the world could they possibly be “analyzing”? Who at CENTCOM, in the Defense Intelligence Agency, or elsewhere has the time to attend to the reports and data flows that must be generated by 1,500 analysts?
Of course, in the gargantuan beast that is the American military and intelligence universe, streams of raw intelligence beyond compare are undoubtedly flooding into CENTCOM’s headquarters, possibly overwhelming even 1,500 analysts. There’s “human intelligence,” or HUMINT, from sources and agents on the ground; there’s imagery and satellite intelligence, or GEOINT, by the bushelful. Given the size and scope of American global surveillance activities, there must be untold tons of signals intelligence, or SIGINT; and with all those drones flying over battlefields and prospective battlefields across the Greater Middle East, there’s undoubtedly a river of full motion video, or FMV, flowing into CENTCOM headquarters and various command posts; and don’t forget the information being shared with the command by allied intelligence services, including those of the “five eyes“ nations, and various Middle Eastern countries; and of course, some of the command’s analysts must be handling humdrum, everyday open-source material, or OSINT, as well -- local radio and TV broadcasts, the press, the Internet, scholarly journals, and god knows what else.