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Debriefing branch: defense strategic debriefing course.


How important is it for the defense of our nation to anticipate an adversary's reaction or to have a complete understanding of the military tactics and capabilities they will use? "Very" would be the response given by any commander faced with this question. Having the foresight into an individual leader's decision making process and character allows for a more comprehensive plan of action when preparing battle space or dealing with foreign policy. A good chess player will tell you that if you know how your counterpart plays and can anticipate not only his moves but also his defensive strategy, it is easier to calculate the outcome ahead of time and anticipate the victory. The ability to plan, conduct, debrief and report accurately is paramount in continuing the important mission of protecting the U.S., its interests, and most importantly its people from all things that jeopardize its sovereignty. The advance training provided by HT-JCOE emphasizes the importance of collection through its various training platforms. The Debriefing Branch is just one such pillar of training offered.


The Debriefing Branch of HT-JCOE consists solely, thus far, of the Defense Strategic Debriefing Course (DSDC). This course is one of the center's four Joint Certification courses and the graduates also receive an additional skill identifier (ASI). Created in 1983, the DSDC is the oldest and most-established of all HT-JCOE courses. Prior to HT-JCOE stand-up, it was a joint Department of Defense (DOD) course under Army executive agency. DSDC is a five-week course conducted eight times a year, with a ninth iteration dedicated to the joint reserve force. All graduates are certified as DOD strategic debriefers.


DSDC's mission is to train the art of strategic debriefing-the collection and reporting of national-level information acquired from usually willing and cooperative U.S. and foreign sources. Although simple in concept-talk to people, get information, write reports-the course addresses the various complexities and subtleties involved in the debriefing process. As one senior instructor explains it,
 "The focus of the course is not just asking questions and taking
 notes. We don't shy away from the reality of human interaction,
 which is that people are unpredictable. Some are difficult to deal
 with, and they don't always provide clear and clean-cut information.
 Experienced debriefers understand that there is no one style, no one
 correct way to do this business, because there's no one right way of
 interacting with other people."

DSDC's consumer base is extremely wide-ranging. Each branch of service-Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard-has requirements for debriefers, and sends military and civilian students from operational field units, staffs, and analytic centers. Several joint agencies and combatant commands also have requirements, including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Special Operations Command, and U.S. Southern Command, and Northern Command. There is also non-DOD interest in the course, with occasional students from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice.

Today, DSDC graduates serve throughout the U.S. Intelligence Community. The richness in consumer diversity is matched by individual student diversity. On day one, a newly-hired DIA Human Intelligence (HUMINT) collector-in-training, for example, may be sitting next to a combat veteran Soldier or Marine with multiple deployments. During an engagement drill, a Navy Lieutenant Commander may be partnered with an Air Force Staff Sergeant or mid-grade Army civilian. Rank and service take a back seat to HUMINT skills development in an environment that stresses functional performance as individuals as well as cooperative members of a HUMINT collection team.

Student diversity is deliberately factored into the course, with students placed in Detachment teams that distribute by service, gender, and experience. Because DSDC from day one promotes a teamwork approach to HUMINT collection, this facilitates the learning experience. For example, the experienced student Soldier fresh from an Iraq deployment assists the newly hired DIA student preparing for a debrief session on Iraqi atmospheric or human terrain issues. In turn, the DIA student, who is one year out of graduate school, reciprocates with report editing assistance for the Soldier whose writing skills may be out of practice. The student from CENTCOM, familiar with the commander's priority intelligence requirements, provides insight on the issues that the debrief and report should emphasize. The mobilized reservist Marine who is a corporate salesman in civilian life advises his teammates on self-confidence and interaction techniques. As one instructor assigned to Detachment duty said,
 "Students learn from each other, not just from us instructors.
 By the end of the course, they're a tight knit team, drawing
 and benefiting from each others' strengths and individualities.
 It's gratifying to see, as this is training for the reality of
 field operations, where operating alone means limiting success."

One of the more interesting DSDC student trends in recent years has been the increase in female attendance. This probably reflects field awareness of the unique insight and skills women bring to HUMINT. While women in DOD HUMINT were a rarity in decades past, nowadays any given DSDC class usually includes 12 to 15 percent of female students, from all agencies and branches of service. Most do extremely well in the training environment, and feedback from the field clearly demonstrates their abilities, skills, and contributions in the operational environment, either peacetime or active theater of operations.

Another welcome student trend has been the inclusion of Wounded Warrior members in recent classes. These are usually former combat arms Soldiers and Marines wounded in battle and transitioning to the intelligence field. These students bring a unique perspective to the training environment, as well as exemplary attitudes and motivation. Those with severe hand and arm injuries are provided with voice-activated software, and Secretary of Defense-funded tailored training on its usage to facilitate report generation. Of note, Wounded Warrior graduates maintain the same standards, and meet the same course requirements, as any other DSDC student.

Paralleling the intelligence community's increased emphasis on HUMINT in general, DSDC has experienced explosive growth over the past several years. For 20 years, from standup in 1983 to around 2003, it trained 12 to 15 students per class, or about 100 per year. This number expanded incrementally and gradually, to its current capability of over 72 students per class, or more than 600 per year, with plans to increase.


As student throughput increased over the years, the school relocated to larger facilities or added classroom annexes. The recent move to Matlack Hall, in May 2010, provides both state-of-the-art training facilities as well as the potential for future expansion. DSDC has managed the expansions of the past without compromising quality or content of the training. Further expansion will also retain the commitment to high quality training.


DSDC students spend the first few days of the course learning the principles and theory of HUMINT, specifically the task of debriefing and reporting which are present throughout the full spectrum of HUMINT operations to include legalities and regulations. Mechanics and technical details such as systematic questioning, note-taking, report formatting, and special software applications are also introduced during this first phase. Several hands-on drills are inserted to reinforce the material, including writing exercises and short interaction vignettes to practice interpersonal skills. This stage of training, although somewhat demanding on students, is extremely beneficial to DSDC instructors as it identifies student strengths as well as areas needing improvement. This facilitates individualized mentoring as the course progresses, especially for students requiring additional instruction.


At the conclusion of this initial academic phase, the real coursework begins. Rather than passive classroom instruction, all training is conducted in individual learn-by-doing mode. The course literally intensifies in both focus and pace, as every day includes one-on-one debriefing scenarios and the resultant report writing. Fortunately, by this stage students are ready to apply what they've learned, and anxious to engage in hands-on practice. As a recent graduate expressed it: "Enough PowerPoint. Bring on the sources."

The heart of the DSDC program, as with other HT-JCOE courses, is immersive role-playing. Experienced instructors play roles simulating any number of debriefing situations and types of sources, with students conducting the cycle of planning, preparation, execution and reporting. Students conduct many graded debrief sessions, some of them several hours long, never with the same instructor. These are challenging events, especially for students new to HUMINT interaction. Not only are they expected to apply effective questioning/interview skills that accurately capture all pertinent information, they must also establish the appropriate level of rapport that is often the key to success. Over the span of the course, DSDC students not only develop their skills and confidence but also emerge with their own style, melding individual skills and personalities to effectively manage a HUMINT source.



Roles vary by the specific type of debrief program, as well as by the instructor. There are hundreds taught at DSDC. Each also varies in complexity and volume of technical detail as well as in the interpersonal issues. Students are expected to adjust the balance between the two, and are evaluated and graded on both factors. For example, debriefing a cooperative engineer or scientist, while generally straightforward and requiring only minimal attention to people skills is extremely challenging if questioning and note-taking is weak. Pursuing every detail of every issue, and asking smart questions, is mentally exhausting.

Conversely, debriefing an emotional source, or one prone to suspicion or lack of cooperation, presents an entirely different challenge. Debriefers must adjust their focus to the critical soft skill of establishing trust and rapport. For many sources, depending on the situation and scenario, this is the key to success. Although the intangibles make this component of instruction difficult to teach as well as evaluate, it is emphasized throughout DSDC training. Students practice overcoming hesitant or suspicious sources, through common sense application of politeness and empathy, and are given feedback and graded on their ability to do so. This is challenging for some students. As one graduate observed,
 "I was surprised by the resistance factor inserted into one of the
 teaching scenarios. I was asking what I thought were good questions,
 and had clearly established why I was there and what I needed. But
 the information just wasn't flowing. As the debrief continued, it
 became clear that the role-playing instructor was forcing me to
 consider that this particular source felt compelled to debrief,
 but was nervous and deep down didn't want to cooperate. I had to
 adjust my whole approach, and pay attention not just to source's
 information but his concerns about meeting me."


From the student perspective, the most well received phase of the course, both for its reality and training value, is the final exercise, dubbed Strategic Operations Exercise (SOX). The SOX, conducted during the last six days, is a freeform training event in which students telephonically contact their role-player "sources," make arrangements for meetings which can take place outside the classroom to include in public venues, and manage their own schedules to include report production.

SOX is designed to simulate a busy week in an operational collection unit, incorporating planning factors such as source-driven availability, meeting site conditions, and the importance of thorough time management. Outside of operational role-play sessions, student-instructor contact is deliberately limited, to force teamwork among the students. After four weeks of strict schedule and deadline-driven training, students enjoy the freedom and independence of the final exercise. It is during this exercise that students discover for themselves how effective they can be as collectors with only minimal direction. It is their "solo" qualification.

Through the years, DSDC has adjusted its curriculum and training as the intelligence threat has changed, and as customers have modified their requirements. Reflecting its early-80s conception period, DSDC's original focus was on Soviet Cold War scenarios. Most debrief sessions dealt with such issues as the Soviet military-industrial infrastructure and ballistic missile submarine operations. But as times changed, so did the training.

Currently, there are scenarios on terrorist/insurgency group funding and intentions, dual-use technology, maritime piracy and smuggling, and cyber warfare. Generating new role packages, which includes technical content details as well as source particulars, is research-intensive and time-consuming. However, doing so is critical for course relevancy and credibility, especially given the extensive experience level of today's students, who demand immersive and realistic training.

DSDC doesn't just teach a collection methodology, it also complements the training of other HUMINT schools. DOD recognizes debriefing as a distinct HUMINT discipline and DSDC graduates, unless there is any additional training required by their particular Defense HUMINT Executor, are fully authorized to conduct collection operations. However, debriefing is widely regarded as a supplemental and foundational skill for all other HUMINT disciplines, including more sensitive source operations, attache operations, counterintelligence, liaison, and interrogation. Simply put, all HUMINT encounters at some point require interaction with a source to gather information. The DSDC focus on the meeting itself and information acquisition as the central critical process has obvious application for HUMINTers trained in source handling. As a senior DSDC instructor explains it,
 "We teach the activity within the bubble-what happens between
 collector and source, and how to acquire the information. Everything
 outside the bubble, including security measures required to travel to
 the site and protect both source and collector-these are taught at
 other schools, including those within HT-JCOE."

Since its inception, the DSDC training methodology has always emphasized constant and continuous student feedback. This is especially critical given the highly subjective nature of HUMINT, with effectiveness difficult to measure and quantify. At the conclusion of each debriefing session, students are scheduled a full half-hour of critique from the instructor, in which all aspects of the meeting are discussed, to include the efficiency of the questioning as well as the interpersonal elements. For example, instructors will evaluate the thoroughness and flow of the questioning with such questions as:
 Were reportable issues identified? Was there proper follow-up that
 ensured collection of every important detail known to source? Was the
 questioning style appropriate to the source and situation? If a
 cooperative source was in a position of authority, was the questioning
 conversational in nature rather than overly direct and
 interrogation-like? If the source is foreign, or there are language
 barriers or cultural differences, were the questions precise and

Critiques of students' people skills address the more intangible and subtle teaching points. Instructors discuss and evaluate the student's over-all demeanor, self-confidence, body language, use of humor as appropriate and other aspects of interaction. Reflecting the reality that some debriefs are more rapport-dependent than others, grading of interpersonal skills is weighted, varying with the type of source and situation.

In addition to immediate verbal feedback after each debrief session, students are also provided a written evaluation report covering the same teaching points and recommendations for improvement. As many students note, the written evaluations make it much easier to track their progress through the course, and identify trends both positive and negative. As a final feedback tool, all debrief sessions within the building are videotaped, and provided to students for self-evaluation purposes.

Given the sheer volume of potential issues and problems facing any new debriefer, it is impossible to cover all possible scenarios necessary to prepare students for the realities of field operations. In response, DSDC staff members some years ago instituted a voluntary 'brown bag lunch' program to address some of the more non-traditional, real world training topics. These candid and informal discussions have become very popular, especially with students just entering the HUMINT community. Some of the topics available, and selected at student request, include HUMINT career opportunities, interagency and interservice operational coordination, and a "lessons learned/mistakes I've made" seminar led by honest instructors.

One of the most popular brown bags is a female-only 'ladies lunch,' with the female instructors sharing their experiences and providing insight and advice on breaking down barriers and stereotypes that often challenge the roles of women in the world of HUMINT. Although it may not be apparent to the female students, their lunchtime discussion and very presence at DSDC is a tribute to the person for whom the building is named-Mrs. Dorothe K. Matlack, a pioneer in her time who directly influenced overt collection in the intelligence community and validated the contributions of women.

DSDC has enjoyed a healthy partnership with the DOD Reserve Force for many years, providing a dedicated version of the course to both Army and DIA reserve units. Logistically, it's a complicated training event demanding close coordination due to multiple staffs and locations. Essentially, the staff elements of both the Army and DIA reserve components provide students with 'Phase One' academics training. Upon completion, both groups of students converge on DSDC for practical exercise role-play sessions. Notably, although the training is split into two phases, the material is identical and graduation confers the same debriefer certification.

DSDC is fully online, with all student reports, regulations and supporting documentation, research material, evaluations, and videotaped debrief sessions residing within an internally-maintained local area network (LAN). Tech-savvy students appreciate the web-based, home-page driven system that puts all necessary information at the student workstation. Except for hardcopy report editing and printing of material to take into debrief sessions, from the student perspective the course is essentially paperless. All staff functions, including generation and maintenance of lesson plans, presentations, and role packages, are also conducted on the LAN.


Over the past 27 years, DSDC has produced 5,000 debriefers, all the while enjoying a reputation of professionalism and responsiveness to the intelligence community. From its beginning in the final stages of the Cold War era to the current period of transnational asymmetric threats, DSDC has prepared HUMINT collectors throughout DOD to conduct the basic, bedrock process of intelligence debriefing. As the threat and consumer requirements change, DSDC will transform and adjust to ensure DOD HUMINT's quality edge. DSDC graduates have made significant intelligence contributions and impact in meeting the needs of the U.S. and DOD Intelligence Communities.

CW4 Parker has over 23 years of service in the U.S. Army as a HUMINT Collector (351M) with training in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Arabic languages. Mr. Parker is currently assigned to HT-JCOE as the Branch Chief for the Debriefing Branch. He has served multiple tours in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan and has a diverse background in the Special Operations Forces community, tactical assignments at division and below and strategic assignments with DIA. CW4 Parker holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma.

Mr. Russell is a DIA civilian assigned to DSDC as the Course Director. He has been an overt strategic debriefer for 25 years with assignments in Japan, the Middle East, and CONUS. He has served the community both as a DIA civilian and as a U.S. Navy Intelligence Officer.

Mr. Pahle has been a contractor instructor at the DSDC for the past 7 years. He previously served for 38 years as a HUMINT Officer with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and DIA. Mr. Pahle has served in Germany, Iran, Cuba, Panama, as well as CONUS. He is a retired DIA Senior Intelligence Officer.
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Author:Parker, John; Russell, Dave; Pahle, Ted
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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