The Future of US Intelligence: Challenges and Opportunities

When looking at the total context of intelligence within the United States, it can often seem as though it is merely a field wrought with peril, and without much in the way of opportunities to balance out its myriad of ongoing challenges. Indeed, insofar as intelligence is most often viewed, both by policymakers and the general public, as a reactive, risk-mitigation based field, its operational orientation is thereby one with a pessimistic bias. In addition, given the scope of challenges faced by the US intelligence community, both contemporarily and those coming in the near future, such a perspective would not necessarily be incorrect. However, many of the recent relevant developments in intelligence contain dimensions of both challenge and opportunity within themselves. The primary role of both the intelligence community itself and the policymakers and overseers charged with working with it for the foreseeable future will be to manage such developments in a way which maximizes opportunities for the United States and mitigates potential arising risks. The tensions, though spread out over a wide variety of topics, within this task will mainly rest on questions of effective investment of resources and management of global intelligence relationships, some of which are only partially controlled by the intelligence community itself. Indeed, in addition to the general uncertainty which defines working in a field so closely related to global politics and economics, recent events within the United States have both exposed the intelligence community to greater public scrutiny and made its operations much more contentious as a matter of partisan politics. There are, therefore, both internal and external challenges that are likely to be ongoing in the near future, and will need to be addressed in an interlinked, coordinated manner.

 

In the main, the US intelligence community faces something of a paradox of resources and capacities. Though its budgetary resources remain healthy and it is unlikely to face the level of political scrutiny it did during the congressional investigations of the mid-70s (in part due to a number of operational reforms adopted in the wake of those investigations), there are nevertheless deficiencies in a number of areas. Long-term legacies of budgetary cutbacks during the immediate post-Cold War period have led to problems of analysis and operations experience within the core of the community, despite the massive injection of additional funds post-9/11. Despite large recruitment drives, there remains a lack of skilled specialists in certain areas of relevance for the intelligence community (in particular foreign languages) and the community is not entirely reflective of the United States in terms of background diversity of workers within it (meaning certain new perspectives are not coming in). Furthermore, leaks from within the intelligence community, along with sometimes inaccurate or overstated media coverage of the contents of these leaks, may be affecting both public confidence in the intelligence community and the appeal of the community as a career option. These ongoing challenges come at the same time as there has been an expansion in both the number and variety of potential threats and areas of interest for the intelligence community. The recent reemergence of nationally-based security threats (particularly from Russia, China and North Korea) as top intelligence priorities forces the community to consider these alongside threats from transnational actors (e.g. Sunni extremist groups). However, such threats require different kinds of collection and analysis resources to be used against them and such resources cannot necessarily be easily shifted from within the existing operational structures.

 

Some of the challenges, which are likely to be faced by the intelligence community in the near future, have, at least on the surface level, obvious solutions. Technology creep and the ability of rival intelligence agencies to develop increasingly sophisticated cyber warfare tools, for instance, is partially a matter of investment in IT systems and making sure that the necessary resources are present for intelligence agencies to effectively defend data. However, saying that merely increasing the amount of funds dedicated to such activities will prevent further issue fails to grapple with both the declining cost of technological warfare for rival actors and the factor of training and human error. Though there are certainly some areas of intelligence where increased funding will be necessary for the near future, in addition to routine upkeep and renewal of technical collection systems such as satellites, this should not be viewed as a panacea. Furthermore, given increasing divisions within the United States over the role and effectiveness of intelligence operations, both on a partisan political basis and within the general public mind, it is not certain that funding capacity will continue to exist on the levels it has post-9/11. Insofar as they exist within the democratic political structure, intelligence agencies will need to continue to demonstrate both their value to policymakers and their general alignment with the interests and values of the nation as a whole. In a more sharply divided body politic, as the United States seems to be becoming, this task is made increasingly difficult. The pressure to “do more with less”, or that the funding and operations of the intelligence agencies are more likely to become part of the general partisan back-and-forth than they have been previously (to some degree, this can already be seen in the Trump administration’s often-conflictual relationship with the intelligence community, on the basis of alleged political interference in the 2016 election).

 

With this said, opportunities for the intelligence community to both improve its operations and to produce better analysis are apparent within the current context. The increasingly diverse nature of the population of the United States, with more US citizens having knowledge of other nations, cultures and languages, represents a large potential contribution to the community’s knowledge and skill base if properly utilized. Furthermore, increasing connectivity and the presence of online intelligence resources, primarily through open intelligence such as social media, represent a new, if largely untested, potential avenue for both warning and opportunity. The intelligence community has, however, not been able to fully harness the potential of such developments as of yet, and such resources will continue to face problems of verification and relevance. This is all linked to the increasingly interconnected and open nature of the world, with the number of fully-closed “black box” states having dwindled since the end of the Cold War (albeit with some of the most important intelligence target states still remaining concealed to varying degrees). Effective integration of the increasing deluge of open intelligence into the analysis process will continue to pose a challenge for the community, but the mere presence of such a wide swath of information does represent an opportunity to create more fulsome pictures of geopolitical problems. Furthermore, a greater amount of open intelligence may free up resources in other intelligence collection methods to focus more narrowly on those areas where they are truly necessary.

 

In order to effectively meet these challenges, and effectively embrace these opportunities, it is first necessary to develop a sense of where both fit into the historical and contemporary goals and structures of US intelligence. This means, in part, investigating which of these developments are truly novel and which are merely new evolutions of problems which have presented themselves and been dealt with (or not) previously. A balance between being over-impressed by apparent changes and being overly-cynical in dismissing their potential impacts will be necessary to navigate the potentially-turbulent near-future.

 

Rebalancing Between Transnational & Nationally-Based Intelligence Targets

The agenda and operational methods of US intelligence are often thought of as being divided between an “old” system and a “new” one, with the former corresponding from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the latter representing the current, post-9/11 era. The key differences, in addition to the general evolution of intelligence collection technologies during the intervening time period, being that the former tended to focus on threats coming from nation-states and their military capacities (most prominently the Soviet Union) whilst the latter focuses on threats from transnational actors (such as Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups). Though this basic distinction is overly simplistic (intelligence resources were, of course, dedicated to transnational terrorist and organized crime groups during the “old” period, and state-sponsorship of terrorism is a major concern of the “new”), it does point to the difference in the major perceived threats, and thereby major foci of intelligence activities, between the two areas. In many ways, these top-level priorities influenced the shape of decision-making throughout the entire intelligence apparatus in both areas. From decisions about the allocation of analyst staffing to which types of technical intelligence systems ought to be purchased, and many decisions in between, the character and capabilities of any intelligence community are largely shaped by what it perceives its major threats to be. In the post-9/11 era, the United States has invested heavily in technologies to track online communications and to provide real-time video surveillance of suspected terrorist hotspots (such as through surveillance drones), whilst developing networks of human intelligence contacts within relevant societies. In addition, recruitment placed priority on skills and background relevant to those societies most relevant to countering terrorist threats (for example, persons with Arabic language skills). Though doubtless necessary in order to counter acute threats, the recent reemergence of nation-state based threats as top priorities has created something of a disconnect between the existing expertise of the intelligence communities and what they will be required to address in the near future.

 

To some extent, this spending and allocation of analyst and operator resources has “crowded out” devotion of resources to intelligence activities related to the actions of nation-states, given that capacity is always limited and the intelligence apparatus cannot watch everything at once. In part, this is an understandable response to the particular perceived threat on the part of policymakers, though it also reflected the political priority of having the intelligence community being seen to “do something” in response to public fears of terrorism. This was likely exacerbated by the widespread perception that the intelligence community failed to properly warn of the potential for terrorist activities and that 9/11 happen “on their watch”. We do not know, from unclassified information, if collection and analysis priorities were properly dedicated to a balance of targets in the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century. It is certainly possible that too many resources were introduced to the intelligence community too quickly after 9/11 for them to be absorbed and deployed effectively, given the underinvestment the relevant agencies during the 1990s. It is also possible that recruitment emphasis placed on relatively novel threats, when combined with the general problems of generational knowledge and skill transfer within the community, created an atrophy of analysis related to “old” style threats coming from nation states. Given the emphasis that the Obama administration put on the so-called “pivot to Asia”, in terms of military, diplomatic and intelligence energy, in a bid to counter growing Chinese geopolitical power, there was clearly a sense that some reprioritization was necessary. Though it is unlikely that these anti-terrorist intelligence capabilities will become unnecessary any time in the near future, they will need to increasingly exist alongside capabilities more specifically tailored to both collect information on potentially hostile states and to counter their intelligence operations aimed at US interests.

 

The problems with doing this in the real world are in terms of both resources and strategic orientation. Even if additional funds were allocated to recruit and train new analysts and operators who would focus on, for instance, Russia and China, they would still need to be trained and integrated into the intelligence system. There would therefore be a significant, in intelligence terms, time lag between the investment of new funds and any potentially significant outcomes they would bring. A program to bring back former analysts with regionally specific knowledge or language capabilities on limited terms to fill existing gaps in the system would be helpful in this regard, but no such capacity currently exists and may encounter difficulties in being implemented. This is in addition to the generally poor job that the intelligence community has done at the preservation of institutional memory. As will be discussed further later, there is a significant age gulf between analysts in the “old” and “new” intelligence communities, and there currently exist few formal ways (such as a mentorship program) that the former can transfer relevant knowledge to the latter. The same point in regards to time lag on implementation, as well as operational capacity, holds true for any new technical collection systems which would need to be deployed vis-à-vis Russia and China. The additional wrinkle, in that case, is that such systems are likely to have a need for greater on-board counter-measures in order to properly function, as nations are more likely to have sophisticated methods of evading or countering collection than do relatively poor, unorganized terrorist groups. Being largely built in the context of the Cold War, the US intelligence apparatus had a particular institutional culture and operational orientation that grew out of the fact of who and what it viewed its primary adversary as. The attempted reorientation of this apparatus in the post-9/11 context to a new, more diffuse, set of foes has been a trying one and a variety of real and perceived missteps have accompanied it. Attempting yet another “pivot”, or more accurately a half-pivot, back towards the direction of nation states as primary targets is likely to be both costly and difficult to pull off from an organizational perspective.

 

Cybersecurity & Technological Capacity

In the current context, all activities involved in US intelligence, and, indeed, the activities of any nation’s intelligence system are deeply intertwined with digital systems. This ranges from the obvious, such as digitally-enabled collection systems, to the implications of cyber warfare on the tactics of counter-intelligence. Indeed, cybersecurity has been repeatedly identified as a major concern by those in the community, topping annual DNI threat assessments for several years. Though the United State has, thus far, avoided a situation of major compromise in regards to cybersecurity, there are several reasons to believe that this challenge will become more complex over the near term. Furthermore, increasingly sophisticated counterintelligence measures are likely to be employed by nation-state targets, which will necessitate additional development in both the offensive and defensive intelligence capabilities of the United States.

 

A major factor in the increased perceived threats to cybersecurity comes from the fact that the cost-of-entry for entities interested in deploying cyberwarfare tactics has been dropping exponentially over time along with the general decrease in cost of computing power. Whereas, in a previous era, it would be only the wealthiest or most sophisticated actors that could deploy such tactics (particularly as a large swath of the global population was not anywhere close to being connected online), recent breaches of cybersecurity in both the private and governmental realms have come from both governmentally-linked entities and private groups or individuals with seemingly limited resources. Though most of the concern in regards to cybersecurity has been, rightfully, directed at attacks originating from sources linked to the Chinese and Russian governments, these represent only the most obvious forms of threat. Unlike in physical forms of warfare, in the realm of cyber one does not necessarily have to possess the newest and most extensive weapons cache in order to create the most destruction. On the contrary, it may even be easier for lower-level attackers to slip under the radar and exploit system vulnerabilities (many of which are more linked to poor training or human error than anything inherent in the digital architecture), as they are less conspicuous. The recent increase in so-called “ransomware” attacks on both private and public entities in the United States, attacks whose origins and overall purpose remain unclear, points to this. As well, given the interconnection of public and private online systems, it is now less possible than ever to speak of “governmental” and “non-governmental” assets within a digital space. All the cybersecurity investments in the world on the part of the United States federal government will mean little if similar investments are not made by state and local governments, as well as the private companies they interact with on a daily basis. In the same manner that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, cybersecurity is only as secure as its most vulnerable point, no matter in what form it comes. This will become even more true as more and more household and office devices move online, into the so-called “Internet of things” (IoT), where a device such as a coffeemaker or a fridge could now represent a backdoor into security architecture.

 

Though it is true that agencies such as the NSA and CIA have developed sophisticated security tools and operate via secure networks, given that they must ultimately interact with the outside world in some capacity, these measures will never be completely infallible. Particularly given the age gap and resulting differential levels of sophistication and knowledge in working with digital systems within the overall workforce of the intelligence community, the potential for an oversight resulting in a security breach is high. Understanding that the majority of cyber vulnerabilities are created by human error, greater investment will be needed in terms of training on these topics at all levels of the workforce, as well as concrete measures to reduce the potential for individual error (measures introduced in the wake of the Snowden leaks have gone part of the way towards addressing this, albeit for different reasons). Furthermore, the increasing amount of information available about individuals online, such as via social media profiles, creates additional operational challenges for US intelligence. It has made maintaining cover for agents in the field more difficult, can expose intelligence employees to harassment, violence or blackmail if their profession is discovered and creates additional vulnerabilities in terms of human intelligence work from hostile powers. As a result of all of this, the intelligence community is placed in the untenable position of having to counter threats without necessarily knowing where they are coming from, and without a clear profile of the motivations and background of the enemy. The rapid movement of technology, combined with the decentralized nature of technological innovation, means that threat assessments which were relevant at one point may not necessarily be so even a few months ahead.

 

These challenges on the counterintelligence side must be considered alongside those on the side of collection and operations, which are similar in that they also involve a lack of clarity due to the fast-moving nature of the problem and opaqueness in terms of rival intelligence capabilities. Simply put, the pressure on the US intelligence community to develop and deploy collection systems which will properly function in the presence of sophisticated digital countermeasures is high. This is likely to increase sharply in the coming years, as there is a rebalancing in terms of collection targets towards actors, such as China and Russia, who have invested heavily in their own cybersecurity capacity. This contrasts with the relatively low technological capability of most terrorist groups. The coming reality in terms of tech-based collection in these areas is likely to take the form of a tit-for-tat competition of measures and countermeasures between states, requiring continual updating to keep pace. In order to avoid merely becoming trapped in such an escalating cycle, the US intelligence community will also need to develop and refine complimentary capacities in terms of, for instance, exploiting human intelligence elements in order to bypass cybersecurity measures. In the same way as cybersecurity, a mistake is made if forward-facing cyber measures are considered as wholly novel and separate from “traditional” intelligence methods. Rather, they ought to be viewed as necessary complements to one another, with increased potential for success when properly combined.

 

The United States government does have some advantages in the cyber arena, due to the continuing concentration of large tech companies in the US, along with their top employees. However, it is less certain than ever that the intelligence community can count on these resources as potential “pools” from which to draw new employees. Political fractures, many stemming from the Snowden leaks, have made tech companies more wary of collaborating with the federal government, either due to genuine ideological conflict or the need to appeal to a particular consumer base wary of intelligence activities. Given that the intelligence community cannot, unlike a private tech company, rely on bringing in workers who are not US citizens in order to fill workforce gaps, ongoing strains with the tech community are likely to limit the operational capacity of the US in a way that is not the case in authoritarian societies. At the same time, there is an increased emphasis on STEM fields and coding within the educational sector in the United States, particularly with increased enrollment numbers at the post-secondary level. It is therefore possible that over a medium-term, a more productive relationship could be developed between the communities on the basis of new graduates.

 

Public Confidence & Internal Security

Perhaps at a level unseen since the congressional investigations of the mid-1970s, and certainly dwarfing previous concerns about the conduct of the intelligence community in the post-9/11 era, public confidence in intelligence has been shaken in recent years. This is due to a combination of both perceived failures and politicization of intelligence work (most notably the role of intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War) and public revelations about intelligence activities which were perceived as violating the civil liberties of American citizens (most notably the Snowden NSA leaks). Though the reaction from Congress has been more muted in the recent context, albeit with the passage of some collection-based reforms in response to the Snowden leaks, a drop in public trust has led to a number of negative consequences for intelligence agencies. Though there is not yet evidence of a widespread drop in recruitment sign-ups, public opinion polling has shown a drop in confidence and a greater skepticism towards intelligence activities (albeit one which is generally limited to those instances where intelligence agencies are perceived to be violating the rights of US persons). Such a drop in confidence can manifest itself in a variety of ways, depending on the individual and where they find themselves. For instance, they may vote for politicians who seek to dismantle intelligence programs or undertake methods in their own lives to encrypt more of their online communications. Some tech companies have begun advertising their products with encryption and an unwillingness to collaborate with government authorities as an explicit selling point (for instance, the controversy over the building of a “back door” into the iPhone operating system during the FBI investigation of the San Bernardino terrorist shooting). Though for the most part the people using such methods are not likely to have been intelligence targets, the increased prominence of available encryption technologies in response to public demand inside the US has very quickly spread outside of it. In other words, techniques such as increased encryption are more likely to be adopted by those outside of the US whom the intelligence community has a legitimate security interest in performing collection on. Certainly, previous public revelations of classified activities performed by US intelligence agencies (such as the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program) did generate political controversy, which led to such activities being curtailed under the Obama administration, but, insofar as they were outwardly directed, this was more muted. By contrast, the recent revelations hearken back more to the controversies of the 70s, such as government surveillance of US-based activist groups, and thereby have generated significant changes in individual and corporate behaviour. The overall impact of such a confidence drop, and what can be done to restore trust besides waiting out the controversy, is not entirely clear but represents a barrier to both collection and analysis.

 

This general feeling of breached trust has been accompanied by an increasingly partisan cast to perceptions of intelligence activities during the Trump administration. Whether rightly or wrongly, a widespread perception existed on the Republican side in the 2016 election that the US intelligence community favoured a victory by Hillary Clinton. This was partially based on activities undertaken by the community in order to assess potential Russian interference within the election, which was perceived to have benefitted Trump. During the election, this led to a drop in confidence in the objectivity of the intelligence community on the part of both Republican elected officials and grassroots members (especially novel as they have traditionally been more supportive of allowing the intelligence community a freer hand to conduct activities). Trump himself also accused intelligence agencies of conducting illegal surveillance on him and his campaign and used language which compared them to Nazi Germany after his victory in the election. Understandably, this, combined with controversies around appointments of officials such as Michael Flynn, led to a highly contentious relationship between the new administration and the intelligence community in the early goings of the presidency. It remains to be seen what the longer term implications of these controversies are. For the time being, the relationship between the Trump administration and the intelligence community seems to have improved (though with the odd point that Trump himself is not receiving daily briefings from the DNI, but rather from the Chief of the CIA), though the investigation into Russian election involvement is ongoing and remains highly contentious. It may be that, despite his earlier rhetoric, Trump is ultimately able to forge a productive relationship with the intelligence community on the basis of a mutual interest in national security, along with Trump’s need to achieve policy victories in order to be reelected. Certainly, there have been cases of presidents who have campaigned, to some degree, against US intelligence activities, but were able to build a functional relationship with them later on. For instance, President Obama levelled heavy critiques at a variety of Bush-era CIA programs but did not pursue action against those who had conducted them once in office. However, insofar as Trump’s critiques of the intelligence community were more personal and less based on policy disagreements, it is not clear if the same candidate-to-president transformation is on offer in this case. Furthermore, even if the controversies around Trump himself are ultimately overcome, the broader politicization of the intelligence community in the public mind that has been opened up is unlikely to subside as easily. This will likely lead to a further erosion of public confidence and may lead to congressional interference (such as via budgetary means) over the long term. To some extent, this potential future has already been glimpsed in the handling of the Russian election interference issue by the House Intelligence Committee. In all, these issues are inherently linked to the increasing partisanship within the United States as a whole, something which has a wide variety of causal factors and which the intelligence community itself is unlikely to have any way of influencing in either direction.

 

On the issue of leaks themselves, it is both true that prominent leaks have created major operational challenges for the intelligence community and that there is a likelihood of them being an ongoing concern. Revelations about US intelligence activities stemming from the Snowden and Manning leaks, for instance, have put a strain on relationships with traditional US allies such as Germany, which may impede intelligence sharing and other forms of cooperation moving forward. Furthermore, these disclosures have made available classified information about US intelligence methods to rival states in a way which will impede collection efforts on them. It is very difficult to determine, from publicly disclosed information, what the overall impact of these leaks has been in terms of both internal morale and external operational capabilities, but it is not a stretch to say it is likely substantial. Though intelligence agencies have implemented a number of, in some cases costly, reforms to internal operations and personnel screening as a result of these leaks, recent unauthorized disclosures, such as those by contract intelligence worker Reality Winner in June of 2017, show ongoing challenges in achieving true security of classified documents. Given the proliferation of software and digital systems designed to facilitate leaking of classified information, combined with increasing media hunger for such leaks, it is likely that the US intelligence community will continue to contend with such issues into the foreseeable future.

 

Staffing & Knowledge Gaps

A number of problems within the intelligence community ultimately come down to issues of staffing, on a number of dimensions. The level of impact which these various deficits will have in future ultimately depends on to what extent they are able to be mitigated and what particular challenges will present themselves externally in the future. As with any organization, the level of preparedness for any potential scenario depends upon the skill and knowledge base which already exists within that organization. Some of these existing deficits can be addressed via training (such as a greater emphasis on cybersecurity skills for all staff), but many will depend upon structural features of the agencies and recruiting patterns, along with educational factors over which the agencies themselves have little influence.

 

In terms of workplace diversity, though it has made significant strides in expanding the representation of women and persons from non-White racial backgrounds, intelligence agencies still struggle with the recruitment of some sub-groups (in particular African-American men). This has resulted in a workforce which is still not truly reflective of the overall makeup of American society and undermines operational effectiveness in a number of ways. Intelligence communities of diverse, multicultural societies face unique challenges when it comes to the issue of staffing, along with unique opportunities if social diversity is reflected. Firstly, the lack of a reflective workforce may undermine public confidence and trust in the intelligence community insofar as it is not truly seen to be working “on our behalf” by some significant sub-communities within the nation. Such perceptions can create a vicious circle in terms of representations, where individuals do not apply to work for intelligence agencies on the notion that they not for “people like them”, and thereby ensure an ongoing lack of representation for the next generation of those within the sub-group who may otherwise be interested. There are, of course, differences in terms of educational attainment at an aggregate level between racial groups which also affect the ability of intelligence agencies to recruit a diverse selection of employees. However, this should not be an excuse to neglect active efforts in diversifying the recruiting pool. This is true because, secondly, the intelligence community does not seek to diversify its workforce solely out of a sense of social fairness (at least not mainly). Rather, a diverse background in terms of the workforce can create the conditions for better intelligence work in the long run, as it furthers the overall community goal of promoting diverse analytical perspectives. Persons with different backgrounds and life experiences bring different, often competing, perspectives and areas of expertise to the issues of concern to US intelligence. This has become even more relevant as the number of potential threats to US national interest has increased and diversified in the post-Cold War-era. To choose but one example, many second-generation US citizens retain an ability to work in the language of their parents, alongside English. Given the continued attractiveness of the United States as a destination country for immigrants from many diverse parts of the world, these individuals represent a potentially huge resource for the intelligence community to tap into.

 

Intelligence agencies, for reasons of both confidentiality and a desire to “protect turf”, have been historically reluctant to tap outside experts for advice on particular regions or topics that they seek to understand. Given the presence of many high-quality academic and other research institutions within the United States, particularly those with a regional specialization in history, economics and sociology, this represents a potential under-use of available resources. Though it is true that structural channels would need to be developed within the agencies to solicit such expertise from individuals without security clearances, and that some researchers may refuse to work with the intelligence community for a variety of reasons, these are not insurmountable challenges. Introducing such capabilities would be particularly helpful for the intelligence community to draw from on an ad-hoc basis when a previously quiet region or country, and one therefore having few intelligence resources dedicated to it, quickly becomes relevant. Being able to call upon external experts to bring the community “up to speed” would lessen the time delay for fresh analysis and therefore allow more timely analysis to be delivered to intelligence consumers.

 

Finally, US intelligence faces a problem of alignment between the capabilities and experience of its existing workforce and the relevant issues it is asked to deal with. It has been continually noted, for instance, that many analysts at the CIA and State Department are relatively inexperienced and have not spent sufficient time on their national or issue-based files to have truly intimate knowledge of them. This is reflective of what has been described as the “peaked” nature of the intelligence workforce, with a glut of relatively senior workers who were present during the Cold War and another glut of relatively new workers recruited in the increased intelligence spending post-9/11. There is a relative paucity of workers between these two peaks, as a result of cuts in intelligence spending during the 90s. This has meant that more senior officials have been acculturated in a different intelligence agenda environment, in terms of technical capabilities and the nature of threats, amongst other issues. In addition, it means that relatively important topic and regional areas may be assigned to analysts who are not particularly experienced on their brief. If intelligence spending had been spread out more evenly across the years, such a situation would likely not have resulted. Furthermore, language fluency areas of the most relevance to intelligence capabilities (e.g. Chinese, Arabic and a variety of other non-Latin alphabet languages) are still underdeveloped within the agencies. In part, this reflects a lack of emphasis on foreign language learning within the broader American educational system, though agencies could dedicate additional resources to scholarships and other such recruiting tools in order to foster their development in potential recruits. As discussed above, the potential to mitigate this gap does exist in the form of second-generation US citizens having knowledge of these languages, but this will rely both on public perceptions of intelligence within those communities, as well as dedicated recruitment activity. By contrast, as a legacy of the Cold War, there remain a substantial number of individuals with Russian language fluency in the community. Though these skills are now more relevant than they appeared to be in the initial years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is not clear whether there has been an active effort to preserve and transfer such skills within the agencies as a matter of institutional memory. If these analysts simply take those skills with them, not to mention the knowledge developed in the course of their careers, the community overall will need to substantially rebuild their Russian language capabilities from a much lower position. The same is true of a large variety of acquired knowledge possessed by career officers in the intelligence community.

 

Confidence of Policymakers

Fundamentally, the ability of the intelligence community to achieve its goals is conditioned upon its ability to access policymakers and the trust that policymakers hold in the judgements of the community. It is not clear if this relationship will be on a firm footing into the near future, even looking beyond the end of the Trump administration, which has had a particularly contentious relationship to intelligence, at least in the early going. Due the above-detailed reduction in public confidence in the intelligence community, the increased politicization of the role of intelligence and the perceived failures of the intelligence community in relation to issues like 9/11 and the Iraq War, it is not clear if both the material resources and access necessary for intelligence to properly perform its role can necessarily be counted upon. For one thing, the disclosed intelligence budget of the United States has varied a considerable amount on a year-by-year basis in the recent past, which has made planning for future activities difficult for directors and top-level management. Perceived failures and distrust may open intelligence up to further budgetary problems, especially when considered alongside the general gridlock that has characterized the budgetary process within Congress in recent years. The lack of license for the intelligence community to experiment, and to potentially have failures on the road to developing a successful program, has been substantially cut back as oversight has become more aggressive, and budget dollars have become more scarce. Policymakers are under pressure to show “bang for the buck” in terms of intelligence investment, which may, especially when considered in light of the annual nature of the budget cycle, result in the dismissal of work on longer-term programs and priorities that may not have an immediate payoff.

 

These same pressures can also result in a disconnect of access between top-level policymakers and the intelligence community. Given previous perceived failures and a lack of communication and explanation as to the nature of those failures within a broader intelligence context, policymakers may conclude that the intelligence community is not offering valuable insight. This is doubly true if the intelligence community is perceived to be a political, partisan actor rather than an objective one. Such a level of distrust may perversely result in policymakers taking decisions about intelligence priorities which actively undermine effectiveness, thereby seeming to “prove” their initial impressions. It is unclear to what extent the recent friction between the Trump administration and the intelligence community will affect the policymaker-to-intelligence relationship in the longer term. At minimum, the distraction it created doubtless took away from a focus on intelligence activities and led to a morale drop in the community.

 

Opportunities from Open Societies

The increased number of open societies following the end of the Cold War, as well as the relative increase of information accessibility in those societies which are authoritarian, has represented both a benefit and a challenge to the intelligence community. Of course, an increase in OPENINT resources means, at least in theory, that resources can be freed up in other intelligence areas in order to focus on those remaining intelligence areas which remain opaque. This is, to some extent, true, particularly as it regards the ability of analysts to assess public opinion within other countries and to access official messaging from other governments. There are also many more societies with governments which are, at the very least, not existentially hostile to the interests of the United States and thereby available for intelligence partnerships with, at least on an issue-by-issue basis. The United States is certainly in a less-dominant geopolitical position today than at the immediate end of the Cold War, with relationships with some countries becoming more ambiguous and less open to intelligence sharing. The capacity to repair and improve these relationships lies somewhat outside of the intelligence realm (at least at the higher diplomatic policy level), but still has repercussions for what intelligence the US community can receive, and in what manner. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that more avenues to information are at least somewhat open than ever before.

 

However, simply because a surplus of information is now open to the intelligence community does not necessarily mean this information is useful for its purposes. OPENINT has long been treated as a second-class variety of intelligence within the community and it is not clear if processes have developed about how to effectively integrate the increase amount of it into intelligence products. Furthermore, the large amount of information, both open and otherwise, that analysts are confronted with on a day-to-day basis can create something of “drinking from a firehose” effect, where it becomes more difficult to discern signal from noise. It has been continually noted that this is the case for social media, despite its ostensible promise in opening up dynamic information. The intelligence community is still feeling its way around how to best integrate social media information into analytic processes and how to discern what information on social media is relevant versus that which is not. In general, this can be said of the explosion of information in the digital world; that there is much more out there than ever before, but its level of quality is more suspect than ever. In some ways, the collection and processing apparatus of US intelligence still remains in a paradigm of attempting to unlock a small amount of highly guarded or difficult-to-locate information, which may result in overlooking open information which is “hidden” by virtue of an overall deluge. An interest in developing a capacity to better exploit OPENINT in the new reality must also be balanced, in terms of resources dedicated, with the ongoing need for more traditional intelligence collection activities. In terms of partner agencies, the risk of political spin being placed on shared intelligence for the purposes of the sending party is a constant threat, though it varies based on how longstanding the intelligence relationship with that nation is.

 

Conclusion

In the near future, the intelligence community of the United States will face a world of challenges, both internal and external, which its ability to affect the outcome of which will vary greatly depending on the topic. These challenges are part-and-parcel of intelligence work within a democratic society but have been greatly amplified by recent developments in technology and politics. The degree to which they can be successfully navigated will depend upon the adaptive nature of the intelligence community and their ability to communicate findings and concerns to policymakers in a timely manner. Though the challenges do seem vast, it is worth bearing in mind that the intelligence community has gone through similarly trying periods in its past and, in most cases, emerged stronger for it. The operating environment may have changed, but the fundamental mission and goals of the community remain the same. It is likely that a dedication to these will see it through this turbulent period.

 

Photo: Cyber-warfare specialists serving with the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group of the Maryland Air National Guard engage in weekend training at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Md. (2017), by U.S. Air Force (J.M. Eddins Jr.) via  US Department of Defense.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Carter Vance

Carter Vance is an MA candidate in the Political Economy program at Carleton University. He has a degree in Psychology from the University of Ottawa and in Social Work from Algoma University and has also studied at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Carter was previously co-chair of the University of Ottawa New Democratic Party, has worked in the offices of several Members of Parliament and has written on politics and public policy for outlets such as Thee Westerner, The Moderate Moose and Zionish. His interests include socioeconomic dimensions of security, the changing role of international political bodies in the 21st century and Canada’s role in global economic and security systems. He also hosts the politics and public affairs podcast The Affair’s Current.