JHI on the Issues 2016: The Need for an “Intelligence Surge”

Candidate Statement: At the third presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said “Syria will remain a hotbed of terrorism as long as the civil war aided and abetted by the Iranians and the Russians continue, so I have said, look, we need to keep our eye on ISIS. That's why I want to have an intelligence surge that protects us here at home, why we have to go after them from the air, on the ground, online, why we have to make sure here at home we don't let terrorists buy weapons.” Following the Orlando attack, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of “restraining our intelligence gathering” and promised to supply the “tools they [intelligence community, law enforcement and military] need to prevent terrorist attacks.” 

Summary: It is encouraging to hear both candidates speak of reequipping the Intelligence Community (IC)—weakened by restrictive policies, diminished resources, and a climate of distrust surrounding IC organizations and personnel—to effectively confront the multiplying challenges and threats to U.S. national security. Both candidates, however, could go further in laying out specifics. Clinton’s “intelligence surge” in response to international and domestic acts of terrorism sounds appealing but falters on some specifics. An “intelligence surge” must necessarily include a mission to persuade Congress to restore and stabilize statutory authorities, funding, broad support for the intelligence community, and investment into the technologies and personnel that will serve as the nation’s first line of defense. It must also lean more “offensive” in nature by expanding the collection of human intelligence and revitalizing covert action as a foreign policy tool.

Talking Points:

  • Both Trump and Clinton are correct in highlighting the need to increase U.S. intelligence capabilities to effectively address growing threats from state actors (China, Russia, North Korea) and non-state actors (ISIS, Al Qaeda).
  • The Obama administration has put the IC in an untenable position by enforcing restrictive policies on collection, limiting critical funding, and allowing a political climate of distrust in IC organizations and personnel following the Snowden and Bradley Manning leaks.
  • In addition to the problems of reducing authorities, risk aversion, and budget, U.S. intelligence must confront a growing number of asymmetric challenges posed by China and Russia and the threat of non-state actors, like al Qaeda and ISIS, who are developing intelligence tradecraft and capabilities.
  • Intelligence is vital to making well-informed decisions, avoiding surprise, giving our warfighters the ability to succeed, and keeping enemies from our shores.
  • In order to implement an intelligence surge, Congress must restore, modernize, and stabilize statutory authorities and funding. 
  • We need an “intelligence surge” and here’s a plan to do it from Choosing to Lead.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • How does Clinton intend to implement the “intelligence surge?” What does the “surge” mean regarding things like budgetary resources, legal authorities, and prioritization between placement and numbers of intelligence gathering assets and analysis?
  • What “tools” does Trump believe the intelligence community currently lacks, and how would the IC change under his leadership?
  • Would either candidate consider introducing laws similar to those in the UK, France, and Switzerland that increase certain domestic surveillance powers in order to fight terrorism?

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

  • The United States is in serious jeopardy of repeating the fatal mistakes of the early 1990s when it drastically slashed its intelligence budget and exposed the nation to serious risks.  Bill Clinton, riding the “peace dividend” in 1992, campaigned on the policy of cutting the intelligence budget by $7 billion over four years.  The cuts Clinton would oversee over the next eight years in office would cause George Tenet to compare the IC to operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy while addressing the challenges of war in Bosnia and Kosovo, Chinese military buildup and aggression towards Taiwan, potential conflict between India and Pakistan, narcotics trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, and the growing terrorist threat of al-Qaeda.  
  • Since September 11, 2001, the IC’s activities have been extraordinary. However, as we move further away from September 11, we face negative trends and a deteriorating global picture.  This is problematic as the world is far less safe today than it was even a decade ago.
  • Russian intelligence activities are increasing to a level that mirrors the height of the Cold War, with the extensive use of so-called “active measures” in places like Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. The Chinese continue to expand their cyber intelligence collection operations against U.S. government and private sector entities alike, often targeting the core research and development efforts of private sector corporations that are at the heart of the American economy.  In addition, the Chinese have increasingly begun to take more overt and covert actions in support of efforts to expand their sphere of control and influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • The intelligence budget peaked in 2010, and since then, it has been cut by some $10 billion. DNI 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.  The next president must reverse this trend to address today’s threats and meet future existential technological challenges.
  • As the U.S. has chosen to dismantle Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (one of the most effective U.S. intelligence tools to identify terrorists in contact with U.S. persons as well as identify connections amongst terror suspects overseas) countries such as Britain, France, and Switzerland are expanding such authorities to better enable their intelligence services to prevent attacks by homegrown violent extremists and returning terrorists fighters.
  • President Obama’s mixed reaction on matters such as Edward Snowden and the NSA has fostered risk aversion in the IC. Similarly, the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to permit a criminal investigation of activities under the rendition, detention, and interrogation program sent a signal to our intelligence professionals that the Commander-in-Chief was willing to risk their prosecution for activities that had been duly authorized by the Department of Justice. Together these events have fostered risk aversion in the IC at a moment when we need creative and daring responses to an array of novel national security threats.
  • Restoring strength to U.S. intelligence will require a president who makes intelligence a priority, who actively engages to support the men and women who execute the intelligence mission, and ensures that the IC can contend with a complex global threat environment. Attention is required on all four intelligence disciplines: collection, analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action. The next administration should pursue the following initiatives: (1) Expand the collection of human intelligence; (2) Revitalize covert action as a foreign policy tool; (3) Re-establish trust with our foreign security service partners; (4) Adequately resource counterintelligence programs to confront a growing threat; (5) Broaden the IC’s approach to tap open sources of information; and (6) Resource the IC to maintain a qualitative edge in technical, as well as human, capabilities.