leading INTELLIGENCE

By Michael Allen & Bryan Smith

U.S. intelligence is beset by serious problems these days. Edward Snowden, a reduction in authorities, risk aversion, and budget cuts have all harmed this essential function of U.S. national security policy. This is dangerous. Intelligence is our first line of defense and is vital to making well-informed decisions, avoiding surprise, and giving our warfighters the ability to succeed. Intelligence is ever more critical to imposing effective sanctions on weapons proliferators, Kremlin cronies, and terrorist financiers. We rely on intelligence to give the President objective information about the plans and intentions of other actors. We also rely on it to bring the fight to the enemy so as to keep it from our shores.

Due to the wide array of national security challenges, high-quality intelligence is in greater demand than ever. Intelligence also functions now as a currency in international relations; we share capabilities and intelligence “packages” to improve relationships in furtherance of our national security objectives, like tailored intelligence to inform the Iraqi Security Forces’ targeting decisions or imagery data to benefit the campaign against Boko Haram in West Africa.

Given its importance, the degradation of intelligence capabilities is foolhardy in a world that is dramatically less stable today than it was even a decade ago, a judgment validated in detail by several chapters in this book. Policymakers will turn to the Intelligence Community (IC)—all 17 elements within it—to determine if Iran is cheating on its nuclear obligations, to monitor Russia’s creeping domination of Ukraine, to understand the threat posed by the Islamic State in and beyond Iraq and the Levant, and to assess the extent of Chinese pilferage of U.S. intellectual property through cyber intrusions.

While the severity and diversity of security threats are up, funding is down. Statutory constraints on the collection and use of telephone records have increased, as congressional and public support for intelligence programs has eroded. Friendly governments and U.S. corporate partners are increasingly leery about intelligence cooperation with a government they fear cannot keep secrets. Our long-held technological edge is narrowing, even as the democratization of certain technologies, such as ubiquitous strong encryption, makes the collection of technical intelligence more difficult. If this were not enough, the White House has imposed needless and harmful limits on collection and covert operations, and fostered risk-aversion in headquarters and field operations. These negative trends must be reversed.

Since September 11, 2001, the IC’s activities have been extraordinary. As the de facto combatant commander for the war on terrorism, the CIA has put tremendous pressure on America’s enemies, reducing their freedom to plan, communicate, and travel. A major positive trend in U.S. intelligence has been the increased level of integration within and between the intelligence agencies, and their ability to work in concert with military, law enforcement, and diplomatic operations. The most celebrated example of integration success is, of course, the Osama bin Laden raid over four years ago.

But as we move further away from September 11, 2001, and face negative trends and a deteriorating global picture, the U.S. government needs to redouble its efforts by ensuring we have the right legal authorities, restoring base funding to near its post-9/11 peak, in part to fund the wide array of IC capabilities, human and technical, necessary to sustain our technological superiority. But most of all we need presidential leadership to defend the IC’s missions and personnel and enable its activities in furtherance of U.S. national security objectives.

The degradation of intelligence capabilities is foolhardy in a world that is dramatically less stable today than it was even a decade ago,

One of the key intelligence challenges identified by the 9/11 Commission Report was the difficulty the NSA faced in tracing connections from terrorist suspects overseas back to the homeland. For example, in the lead up to the 9/11 attacks, the NSA was monitoring a safe house in Yemen. Had the U.S. government been able to determine that someone in this safe house had made calls to San Diego, the call records program would have provided authorities the necessary tools to make connections between the San Diego number and other hijackers hiding in the United States.[70]

Although the phone records program is just one of the tools the NSA and FBI use to track terrorists on American soil, it has proved useful in foiling a number of attacks, including by identifying the co-conspirators of would-be New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi. The new phone records program recently revised by the USA Freedom Act will make the NSA’s job more difficult. Because phone records will now remain with the phone companies, the speed and agility needed to break fast-moving terrorist plots will suffer.  

The limitations placed on the phone records program is just one example of undue restrictions levied upon the NSA in the aftermath of the Snowden affair. Despite the growing threats to the United States and its interests around the world—and in particular the broadening conflict with ISIS and ongoing threat to the homeland posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates—President Obama has taken measures to limit signals intelligence collection on foreign nationals overseas. Surely, this makes the United States the only country in the world to extend privacy protections to non-citizens and self-impose restrictions on foreign intelligence collection.

Moreover, while the President did not give in to the overweening pressures that arose in the aftermath of the Snowden affair, he did go so far as to reassure certain foreign leaders that we will not target their communications for signals intelligence collection. At the same time, our allies in the United Kingdom and France are moving in the opposite direction. Both governments are working to expand their authorities to better enable their intelligence services to prevent attacks by terrorists returning from abroad and by homegrown violent extremists. In a rare turn of events, we ought to take a page from the French playbook and better enable our IC to protect against these threats.

In addition, all communications providers should be held to the same requirement to provide lawful intercept capabilities. Under the current law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, only telecommunication carriers and broadband providers are required to have the ability to produce communications records for the U.S. government in response to court orders. However, extremists and criminals are using new forms of communications not covered by existing authority, causing the FBI to “go dark.” The next President should take the lead in working with corporate stakeholders to find a sensible way forward that will preserve a critical surveillance authority while protecting the freedom of the internet, privacy, and civil liberties.  

Extremists and criminals are using new forms of communications not covered by existing authority, causing the FBI to be “going dark.” 

Intelligence can play an outsized role in influencing national security outcomes—for good or ill. At its best, key intelligence can provide a tremendous boost to national security outcomes—in value far exceeding intelligence’s cost to acquire. For instance, had the U.S. government been able to piece together clues and foil the 9/11 attacks, it might have saved nearly 3,000 lives and avoided hundreds of billions in economic damage. Conversely, bad intelligence can greatly increase the probability of poor national security outcomes. For instance, poor analytical tradecraft led to an erroneous assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities, part of the rationale for a massive deployment of U.S. forces,.

The 9/11 Commission Report documents that in the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the U.S. government drastically cut its intelligence capability, claiming a “peace dividend.” Many CIA stations overseas were closed and personnel fell dramatically, with only 25 new officers entering the CIA’s clandestine service in 1995. These cuts proved unwise and dangerous for the new security threats that led to the 9/11 attacks, the deadliest such attacks on our soil in modern history.

After the shock of 9/11, we recognized the fallacy of the “peace dividend” construct and reversed course, ultimately doubling intelligence funding to $80 billion in 2010.[71] This funding was sufficient to reverse personnel cuts made after the Cold War and permitted investments in game-changing technologies that enabled new and revolutionary collection capabilities. This funding fueled the “Golden Era of SIGINT” which, married with persistent imagery surveillance, had a revolutionary impact.

Unfortunately, recent budget cuts spurred by the Budget Control Act have now left the IC with funding levels insufficient for its ever-growing national security mission. From its peak in 2010, intelligence funding has been cut by approximately $10 billion. [72] Not every dollar of the rapid post-9/11 intelligence build-up was spent wisely, and some trimming was warranted. However, these cuts have now gone much too far. Indeed, DNI James Clapper worries that the recent cuts will have a termite-like effect, silently and invisibly eating away at the foundation of IC craft and capabilities. Thus, after three years of sequester-level funding (and the possibility of more this year), we are in serious jeopardy of repeating the funding mistakes of the early 1990s when we can least afford to do so. 

Cutting intelligence as the global landscape deteriorates simply makes no sense. At least in the 1990s, we could explain away our decisions based on a flawed belief in the “peace dividend” and an unusually benign international security environment.  How will we explain our mistakes next time?

Just how much intelligence funding is enough to enable the IC to do what the President needs from them? Unfortunately, no magic formula exists to tell us.  Clearly though, the default setting of apportioning a pro-rata “fair share” of the defense budget to intelligence is not a useful guide. Given intelligence’s leveraged value proposition, a strong argument can be made for investing disproportionately in intelligence.

The quality of intelligence that will be available to policymakers and warfighters in the next decade depends critically upon investments made today.

One thing is certain. The quality of intelligence that will be available to policymakers and warfighters in the next decade depends critically upon investments made today. These investments must include attack-resilient satellites and other collection sensors, high-tech agent spy gear, cyber defense, and code-breaking tools. Just as important, the IC must recruit and train top-flight talent, and modernize the IT systems that these professionals will use to better share information, while protecting that information from insider threats.

Governments (including, perhaps especially, the U.S. government) have lost their monopoly on authoritative information. In the wake of the misunderstood and misleading disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013, the credibility of U.S. intelligence came under attack, and the IC is still reeling from it. Sadly, the President offered belated, half-hearted support to the patriotic men and women who work in the intelligence community. It took President Obama seven months after the disclosures to publicly and comprehensively defend the NSA. As a result, public opinion foundered upon widespread misunderstanding of complex programs.

President Obama’s mixed reaction to public opinion has fostered risk aversion in the IC. DNI Clapper has said that we are making “conscious decisions to stop collecting on some specific targets.”[73] In addition, the Obama Administration’s 2009 decision to permit another criminal investigation of activities under the rendition, detention, and interrogation program sent an unfortunate signal to our intelligence professionals that the Commander in Chief was willing to risk their prosecution for intelligence activities that had been duly authorized by the Department of Justice. Together these events have fostered risk aversion in the IC just at a moment when we need creative and daring responses to an array of novel national security threats. The next President should not bow to political pressure and should defend the IC as its detractors seek to limit its capabilities with sensational and unfounded claims. 

While recent negative trends are daunting, the problems of U.S. intelligence are not insurmountable. In some cases, the problem implies its own solution (as with funding), while others (like the threat environment) cannot be so much solved as deftly managed. The key to tackling each will be committed, sustained leadership, especially that undertaken by the President himself, who is by far the single most important actor in the U.S. IC.

The next Administration will also be able to bring to intelligence leadership a new, full-throated support whose tone alone would be a great asset in tackling these problems. Inspiration of public support through presidential leadership is a prerequisite to enacting a sound intelligence agenda. It should not be acceptable to the President of the United States that his Director of National Intelligence says the IC will “not pretend to do more with less… it will do less with less.” 

The next President, his DNI, and entire IC-related team must conduct a well-conceived, proactive, and sustained public relations campaign to regain the public’s trust. Congress will need to be a partner in this campaign. The fact that the heads of the major intelligence agencies testify in public annually on the threats facing the country is unique worldwide. The IC and the beneficiaries of intelligence—the President, Congress, warfighters, and the law enforcement communities—should seek out opportunities to explain their work in order to gain the support of the American people. We need to be more active in telling the “good news” resulting from IC actions, while protecting sources and methods. When trust and confidence is fostered between the IC leadership and its dedicated personnel and the American people, it will be clear why some important aspects of the IC mission must remain secret, while subjected to rigorous oversight by Congress.

Strong presidential leadership also includes building personal relationships with national security leadership within the Federal government. It is vital that the next President develop a good working relationship with IC heads and the congressional oversight committees. Personal relationships foster more candid discussions and assessments that will lead to better, less politicized policy decisions.

President Obama’s assertion in 2013 that the threat to the United States “closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11”[74] reflects a naïve wishfulness that terrorism is on the decline and that the U.S. government and its military can resume a pre-9/11 posture. The enduring capability of AQAP, the rise of ISIS and Islamic extremists in Libya and across the Middle East, and the brutality of al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, remind us of the need to maintain an aggressive counterterrorism posture. Prior to 9/11, terrorists enjoyed only one safe haven in the world—Afghanistan. Today, terrorist groups control territory in several countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and, once again, parts of Afghanistan. We have made but modest progress in addressing this threat; rather, the number of extremists flocking to these areas continues to grow. In February 2015, the Director of the NCTC testified before Congress that more than 20,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria. Of the 20,000, at least 3,400 are from Western countries, many of whom may have passports that allow travel across Europe and the United States. This poses a serious threat to Western countries, as the extremists may return home with combat experience and training in weapons and explosives. 

As the Iran nuclear deal permits domestic enrichment and other nuclear R&D, U.S. policymakers will need increased intelligence collection to monitor the inevitable cascading effect.

In addition, as the Iran nuclear deal permits domestic enrichment and other nuclear R&D, U.S. policymakers will need increased intelligence collection to monitor the inevitable cascading effect. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and others may move toward developing nuclear capabilities to match Iran’s. The IC will also be called upon to help compensate for the glaring verification shortcomings in the Iranian nuclear deal. A resurgent Russia’s reinvigoration of its nuclear capability reminds us of the need to invest in capabilities to monitor their actions as well. A recent Defense Science Board study noted that the “pathways to proliferation are expanding,” citing “networks of cooperation” like the A.Q. Khan network, the Syria-North Korea collaboration on a nuclear reactor, and the Iran-North Korea missile relationship.[75]

In part because the indices of proliferation contain so few visible signatures, the IC’s record on counter-proliferation is mixed. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates called the Syrian construction of the al-Kibar reactor an intelligence failure. This raises questions about IC’s ability to monitor and detect nuclear activity, given the sheer scale of the territory to be monitored and increasingly sophisticated denial and deception techniques. As the Defense Science Board concluded, monitoring proliferation must be “a continuous process for which persistent surveillance tailored to the environment of concern is needed.”  

U.S. intelligence must expand its global coverage to keep up with these threats and better anticipate destabilizing events, such as the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011. Many of the unstable situations emanating from the Arab Spring have not returned to normal, not that normal was so wonderful from a U.S. national security perspective. While intelligence sharing relationships with our friends and allies are growing in importance given the nature of the transnational threats, they cannot replace our own recruiting and sourcing. 

The U.S. government should revitalize covert action as a policy tool—in particular the ability to counter propaganda from Russia and ISIS. Regarding covert action more generally, one of the principal faults of the current Administration is that there has been excessive, suffocating policy control over the execution of CIA’s operations. The next President should be encouraged to employ the CIA when appropriate and grant the professionals the flexibility to achieve stated policy objectives. Further, covert action should not be a “leaked" talking point used for political purposes, a device that the current Administration has employed on several occasions; but rather, it should be a serious policy tool requiring tolerance for creativity and risk.  

The CIA’s expeditionary capabilities should also be expanded to fill the gaps in hot spots until the military and policy catch up. We must safeguard the Agency's inventiveness and agility—demonstrated when it was the first U.S. Government component to enter Afghanistan after 9/11—the strengths that make it uniquely valuable. Moreover, while we increasingly rely on signals intelligence as communications technology improves and spreads, human intelligence still has unique utility because it can reveal more insight into motivations and intent. We should increase funding and our tolerance for failure, and free the CIA to do what it does best among IC agencies—collect human intelligence.

As ungoverned space expands amid more failed and fractured states, the CIA’s unique ability to identify allies and develop their own capabilities should grow. It is certainly true that the U.S. government cannot always deploy boots on the ground, but we should build partnership capabilities to prosecute the terrorist threat more vigorously together. For example, U.S. efforts in Yemen to bring “direct action” to AQAP have achieved some success. In fact, President Obama cited it as a model for U.S. counterterrorism efforts—before the recent displacement of the Yemeni government by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The IC, especially NSA and FBI, must continue to play an active role in guarding against cyber attacks from overseas. The quick attribution to the DPRK of the attack against Sony Pictures was an intelligence success and may detere future attackers concerned about exposure. But legislation is necessary to allow greatly expanded cyber threat sharing among the IC, the law enforcement community, and the private sector. Such legislation will better enable the IC to help protect against cyber attacks on the United States. As noted in chapter 7.1, the sustained pilferage of our intellectual property and personal information by China and the likelihood that terrorists and criminals will migrate to cyber space to carry out their agendas, make it imperative that the IC uncover attack vectors and malware before they impact our private or public networks. State actors attacking private sector networks for economic gain poses a new challenge for the IC. Despite a longstanding policy preventing the U.S. government from conducting offensive economic espionage, we should better enable the IC to defend against foreign states’ particularly China’s, economic espionage against U.S. businesses. State actors are of course also aggressively attacking U.S. government networks. The theft of thousands of security files from the Office of Personnel Management is a threat to our intelligence officers overseas.   

No other country combines, at scale, the potent U.S. mix of technological virtuosity, intellectual freedom, venture capital, legal protections, and risk-promoting culture. 

The cyber issue is a signpost that the overwhelming technology edge once enjoyed by U.S. intelligence in many areas, protected by extreme secrecy, has largely vanished over time. Recognizing this, visionary leadership within the CIA created IN-Q-TEL (originally named Peleus) in 1999 to enable the government to take small equity stakes in cutting-edge start-ups. IN-Q-TEL has enabled U.S. intelligence to learn, influence, and adapt to relevant commercial technologies.

Fortunately, no other country combines, at scale, the potent U.S. mix of technological virtuosity, intellectual freedom, venture capital, legal protections, and risk-promoting culture. And yet Silicon Valley and other U.S. technology centers are by no means monopolies. The world is gaining on the United States, as is clear from trends in advanced technology degrees, test scores, patents, market shares, and R&D investments. An era of leveling or “democratization” of technological capability is upon us. 

Technological advancement across the globe, even by non-hostile countries, is challenging the U.S. advantage, as these commercial technologies spread into the hands of those who wish us harm. The near ubiquity of extremely strong commercial encryption is a prime example. The Snowden disclosures have only accelerated a trend well underway. Likewise, the expected advent of commercial satellite constellations composed of dozens or hundreds of small satellites will add to the potential for adversaries to gain a level of global situational awareness that has been the sole province of the U.S. for decades.  In the cyber domain, countries thought to be unsophisticated, such as North Korea, perhaps with assistance from China, have overcome what appear to be low technological barriers of entry to engage in offensive cyber intelligence operations. Futuristic but viable technology-based threats, such as from synthetic biology or malignant application of artificial intelligence, further challenge U.S. technological dominance.

How then can U.S. intelligence continue to enjoy a comparative advantage in the face of global technological democratization? It will not be easy. We suggest several operating principles.

The U.S. government should increase and then protect research and technology spending within the intelligence budget. The IC should pursue all means of leveraging commercial technologies for intelligence. This enables the IC to benefit from massive commercial investments in non-recurring engineering to satisfy its mission needs.

When it comes to existential technological mission needs, the IC must “go big or go home.” These needs include:  countering strong, ubiquitous encryption; detecting and defending against unprecedented “Zero Day” cyber attacks; and ensuring that satellites can conduct their mission in the face of potent and growing Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. In areas of highly classified, government-directed R&D, the IC should pursue multiple, competing paths, and keep them open as long as there is no clearly superior approach. While expensive in the near-term, this approach is cost-effective over the long haul and constitutes yet another reason budgets must grow.

We must make much more effective use of the advanced space technologies we already have. The IC needs to unlock the full potential of its collection satellites by radically improving the way it tasks and operates them on the ground. These operations must be much more agile and dynamic and permit interaction across all types of satellites. A very promising experiment is underway now to do this, drawing on advances in cognitive computing, processing, and big data analytics. However, scaling this capability and making it operational will require the concerted attention of top leadership, especially as it will encounter strong cultural resistance within various IC domains. 

The next President needs to incentivize legal, measured risk-taking by the Intelligence Community—not risk avoidance.

The IC must also broaden its approach to tap open sources of information (such as social media and commercial satellite data) to task its spy satellites and other collectors. Additionally, we must make much greater use of social media for anticipatory intelligence.

We must fully explore and exploit both the offensive and defensive sides of all technologies. For example, the emerging “Internet of Things” offers great potential to expand our collection of novel, precise, and actionable intelligence, but it also opens a Pandora’s Box of counter-intelligence concerns. Similarly, the same digital grid that offer the NSA and CIA such lucrative collection opportunities also gives our operatives “digital exhaust trails” that can potentially expose their actions. It thus becomes imperative for intelligence professionals to widely share information between these same two sides—our exploiters and our defenders. Where possible, we need to involve the same experts and operators in both missions. CIA’s newly created Directorate of Digital Innovation may prove to be a model worth emulating in this regard across the IC.

When these principles are viewed together, it becomes clear that successful implementation requires a deft integration of complex skills and disparate technologies, approaches, and missions. Therefore, despite the greater emphasis on commercial technologies, highly complex systems engineering skills will continue to be called upon to retain our technological edge in intelligence. Ironically, these are the same skills possessed by the IC’s traditional government contractors. Finally therefore, we must maintain this strong traditional supplier base, whose capacity for innovation is often underestimated and whose continued health cannot simply be assumed. 

We envision the next President as an advocate-leader of U.S. intelligence, not a distrustful overseer. He or she, along with the DNI, will need to convince Congress to restore, modernize, and stabilize statutory authorities and funding. That leadership should focus on building a partnership with Congress. So too, should the next Administration make it a priority to enact new authorities to fully enable intelligence to help defend the nation against cyber attack, and other 21st -century threats. Also, the next President needs to incentivize legal, measured risk-taking by the Intelligence Community, not risk avoidance. Operational imagination and boldness should be the watchwords. Finally, the White House must place operational security ahead of public relations—no White House intelligence leaks.

At the same time, the next President must have realistic expectations for intelligence; he or she must accept that it can never inoculate the Administration from Black Swans or our own bad judgment. The next President must also understand that covert action cannot be a substitute for policy, but it can be a very effective policy tool as long as it adheres strictly to the law. So too must the next Administration understand that greater transparency, while preserving what must be kept secret in certain intelligence endeavors, will help engender greater support without necessarily compromising secrecy in other areas.

[70] FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III., Testimony before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary, 113th Congress, June 13, 2013.

(71) CRS, “Intelligence Spending and Appropriations: Issues for Congress,” September 18, 2013, p. 3.

(72) Office of the Director of National Defense News Releases No. 46, November 21, 2014 and No. 1, February 2, 2015; and Department of Defense News Releases No. NR-348-14, June 30, 2014, and No. NR-034-15, February 2, 2015.

(73) http://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/speeches-and-interviews/202-speeches-interviews-2014/1115-remarks-as-delivered-by-the-honorable-james-r-clapper-director-of-national-intelligence-afcea-insa-national-security-and-intelligence-summit

(74) President Obama, “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” May 23, 2013.

(75) Department of Defense, Defense Science Board, “Task Force Report: Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies,” January 2014.


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