US Naval Intelligence Discusses Their Role Within the Global Maritime Industry [INTERVIEW]

binoculars us navy nimitz-class aircraft carrier intelligence big eyes
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ricardo J. Reyes (RELEASED)

gCaptain’s Rob Almeida, along with Maritime Domain Awareness expert, Cesar Morales, were invited to the headquarters of US Naval Intelligence (ONI) for a meeting with CAPT William Bray, Commanding Officer of the Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center, and ONI Counter-Piracy Branch Chief, Brian Green.

The primary purpose of this interview was to gain some insight into their operations and the relationship this organization has with the global commercial shipping industry.

Morales:  Thank you for having us.  I wanted to start off by talking about ONI and its relationship to the maritime industry.  Specifically, first of all how would you characterize that relationship and what is it that ONI does for the maritime industry?

Bray:  We have a very good relationship with the maritime industry.  First of all, Brian and several other employees in the Nimitz [ONI] have backgrounds in the merchant shipping industry.  So, we need that detailed and experienced type of person here so we can really understand it.  We view the industry as a customer in the sense that strategic trade, maritime trade is an important national interest of the United States.  We don’t pick favorites.  We don’t do any sort of analytical intelligence work for any specific company or anything like that.  But we do provide a service on threats to the shipping industry as it pertains to general US interests as far as maritime trades goes.

Morales:  As far as products that are provided to the maritime stakeholder, what specific products does ONI provide?

Bray:  Well, we provide the Piracy Analysis Warning Weekly (PAWW), which is unclassified and goes out to a wide distribution including being sent out to the merchant community at large, which provides a statistical roll-up of piracy, crime on the high seas, threats to shipping, plus some unclassified analytical assessments in there.  That’s the primary product that ONI delivers to the merchant community on a regular basis.  We do, of course, communicate quite frequently and informally with these stakeholders via unclassified channels as we ask questions of them and they ask questions of us.

Green:  We have the PAWW, which focuses primarily on the Horn of Africa and Somali pirates, and then the other product is the Worldwide Threat to Shipping (WTS), which is a worldwide outlook on maritime crime and piracy, and then, as Rob is aware, from time-to-time, we may disseminate a special advisory which would indicate a Somali threat of some kind.  Once again, it goes out to a variety of entities, both military and industry recipients.

office of naval intelligence watch floor ONI
The watch floor at the Office of US Naval Intelligence

Morales:  And what measuring stick do you use to make sure that these products are actually meeting the needs of the maritime industry?

Green:  The analysts here are very talented, very dedicated, and highly motivated in what they do.  They very much have a passion for their work.  At the forefront of their minds is indications and warnings.   I think that’s at the heart of intelligence analysis and it definitely applies to piracy and maritime crime.  So I think the first measuring stick would be the analysts here being focused and dedicated to what they’re doing, and having a feel for what needs to be sent out.  And then the second measuring stick I would submit would be the feedback we get from the shippers.

Almeida:   What kind of feedback do you get?  Do ship owners call you directly?

Green:  We get quite a few thank you emails.  We’ve been told that some of the information that we provide to the shipping industry is the “crown jewel” for their monthly or weekly or quarterly reports.  I think it’s just the general feedback that we get, whether it’s from an email or a phone call, if we happen to go to a symposium or some type of event that someone may be at and they realize where we’re from, they’ll make it a point to say thanks.  And quite frankly, there’s a mutual respect there.  We very much respect what the mariners are doing on the bridge of a ship or in the engine room, like CAPT Bray said, moving that commerce, moving that cargo from Point A to Point B.  A lot of times it’s DoD cargo and we have a lot of respect for what they do.

Bray:  IMB’s Piracy Reporting Center puts out a lot of information on their broadcasts.  They get information from us and the UKMTO directly, and they have their own sources of information.  I actually visited them in Kuala a year ago and sat in there with Mr. Chong and his team, it’s a pretty small team, I mean it’s not a huge operation, but they have a 24/7 watch and I could sit there and they showed me how they got ONI’s information and how they turned it around and put it out there.  I think for the shipping industry, especially for the U.S.-flagged community and U.S. citizens, it’s of some comfort to know that the entire U.S. intelligence community’s capabilities can be brought to bear on an issue that concerns them.  That’s something that IMB cannot provide.  So depending on what the issue is and what is going on, they know that we have access to information and sources of information that are not accessible to the civilian community and we can bring it to bear.  And we have on obviously extreme cases like Maersk Alabama, the hijacking last year of the sailing vessel Quest, which ended tragically, and in many other cases.

So, while we can’t share that kind of information directly with uncleared personnel, our ability to assimilate that information informs the assessments we give to them.  So, they’re getting an all-source assessment.  They may not know why we think a certain way.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t need to.

Morales:  Sir, that brings me to the next question.  How do you overcome the communication challenges faced in a relationship between an intelligence organization and the commercial maritime industry where there isn’t a large population of people with clearances?  How do you mitigate the challenges of getting them an effective product but still making sure that information meets their needs given their non-classified environment?

Bray:  Being able to what we call “down domain” assessments and information to share with foreign intelligence partners, or commercial stakeholders, is a standard practice.  It’s sort of in our DNA to understand how to go from the highest classification on a particular issue to a classification I can share with – pick a country – and then in many cases all the way down to an unclassified level.  We do that with the merchant customers all the time.

You think about what do they need to know.  What concerns do shipping companies, the owners, insurers and actual crews have.

Obviously, everyone’s concerned with safety.  Safety for life and limb, and property, is of foremost concern.  They’re also interested in trends.  They have to make business decisions about putting guards on, does it financially make sense?   So when we can give them trend analysis that can be – we can wash the classifications out of that through various means and just give them sort of an overall holistic assessment of what’s going on, that serves one need.   From the issue of protecting, indications and warning, that’s a fast-moving thing usually, and they don’t need to know how we know something.

Morales:  You mentioned indications and warnings (I&W).  What process is in place to ensure that indications and warnings, as defined by ONI, is the same as what is defined by the customer?  What’s their daily concern?  What’s their role between the two in that ONI has their own I&W that feeds the information?

Bray:  I don’t think that there’s really much of a difference.  If there’s an active threat that we know about we’re able to feed that information through, it gets out on the broadcast, we don’t need to reveal the source of that information.

Morales:  Regarding outreach and engagement with the maritime community, what branch of ONI focuses specifically on engaging with the stake holders and the customers?

Bray:  It’s definitely Nimitz.  Nimitz includes not just Brian’s team and the piracy analysts, but people who have an understanding of how the global merchant shipping business works and they use that understanding to serve a particular intelligence need.  For example,  I have counter-proliferation analysts and they’re studying about illicit weapons shipping or precursor materials that could service a WMD program, could be arms shipments in violation of a UN Security Council resolution.  In order to understand all that, you have to understanding how the shipping business works and about the cargo and transshipping.  They do that.  The same thing with counter-narcotics.  The whole counter-narcotics division, a lot of it is focused on how the merchant shipping business is used to illicitly to move narcotics, often unwittingly.  The shipping owners and crews don’t even know it’s being used.  Really, Nimitz is where all that interaction with the merchant industry takes place.

Morales:  From a maritime domain awareness perspective, achieving an effective understanding of the activities on the water, and again, tying it to the engagement, communication, the outreach to the stakeholder community, what does ONI do to ensure that there’s a continual effective understanding, given the dynamic nature of the maritime domain?  And I know we’ve sort of touched on a couple of these themes but to sort of wrap it up from an information sharing, a domain awareness perspective and addressing the needs of the stakeholder and the customer, where is ONI’s view on meeting these needs?

Bray:  Well, I could talk for a long time about MDA.  I’ve got to focus this a little bit.  Speaking for Nimitz in particular, I’ve read almost every MDA policy document I could get my hands on in the last couple of years, and I still don’t know what it is.

What is awareness?

We do intelligence.  We try to pinpoint threats, threats to the United States, threats to U.S. citizens, long term, short term, immediate, what have you, and that’s just good old fashioned intelligence work.  Having an awareness of what’s on the high seas, is, first of all, you never really know how much of it you have, and secondly you don’t have any sort of focused understanding of where the threat is.  There are 70,000 merchant ships at any time in the world, commissioned greater than 300 gross tons, you know there’s a lot of shipping flowing around the world constantly.  It’s a massive heart beat of commerce back and forth.  And those are just the big ships.  If you want to understand the threat to the United States, having some sort of awareness of what’s going on 200 miles off the coast of California, at that point it’s a little late in the game.  You’ve really got to understand the threat to the United States in tracking the people, the networks ashore that could interface with the merchant community in some way to use it to get to the United States.

It’s like the counter-narcotics folks.  They’re not watching a screen of shipping moving in the Gulf of Mexico or anything, they’re getting after the target by understanding the illicit networks through the traditional intelligence sources, whether that’s human intelligence, signals intelligence, whatever.  They’re trying to build an intelligence case and when it crosses that threshold into the maritime industry, you’ve already got an understanding of what the threat is and how it might be used.  You can direct then, some sort of legal authority, whether it’s the United States, Mexicans, to interdict and go and find that particular problem.  To us that’s MDA.  That’s what it is.  I don’t know another way to describe it.  I have seen lots of money spent to try to find some sort of technical solution to MDA.  Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s been well spent.  Its intentions were good but it has not delivered what it’s promised.

Morales:  Where is the drive for information sharing and information exchange occurring?

Green:  So we come here every day to do our job of counter-piracy intelligence analysis. We have to get information.  We receive information, analyze it and then disseminate it appropriately to a wide level of customers, everything from national level decision makers and policy makers, to leaders in the Pentagon, the fleet, inter-agency partners, coalition partners, and, as has been spoken at great length here today, the maritime industry.  How do we obtain our situational awareness on the water?  It’s through a variety of intelligence sources, I think we’ll leave it at that.  We appreciate mariners providing information, in concert with best management practices, about piracy events on the water.  This information enables us to understand  pirate activity with regard to tactics, procedures, with regard to the trends that we’re seeing.  In turn, we package this information into weekly unclassified products so we can, in turn, provide information to the industry for them to leverage for situational awareness.

Morales:  I appreciate the opportunity to talking with you and for your time.   Thank you for your service.