The United States’ belated realization that foreign powers can wreak havoc on the American political process is already prompting discussions of how to thwart future interference directed at subverting democracy. Invariably the Intelligence Community (IC) and the broader U.S. national security enterprise will become targets for reform proposals. While such proposals are still inchoate, it is important to review the lessons of recent national security reforms. In the post-9/11 period, the emphasis on counterterrorism has narrowed the focus of national security reform toward a single issue, even as other threats – including those from state actors such as Russia and China – continued to challenge U.S. interests.
Although they produced entirely different results, the 9/11 attacks and the 2016 Russian influence campaign share several commonalities. Both were asymmetric assaults that exploited America’s open society. The 9/11 hijackers relied on the freedom to travel, while Russian intelligence took advantage of uncensored media. Both episodes were met with a similarly unprepared public that was shocked by the developments, even though al-Qaeda and Russia had both engaged in mayhem for years prior to attacking the United States. Consequently, both events share what Richards Heuer, in his classic Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, described as “vividness,” a cognitive bias that can distort decision-making.
Following 9/11, the U.S. implemented significant changes – partially due to the vividness factor – in how it looked at national security. Not only did stopping terrorist attacks become a top priority issue but policymakers fundamentally altered U.S. national security infrastructure to address violent, asymmetric, non-state threats. The permanence (e.g. the creation of an entirely new department) of these alterations means that even as threats have evolved, the U.S. is reliant on institutions anchored to a specific moment in time.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Director of National Intelligence were the two most significant post-9/11 additions to the national security infrastructure. DHS is a bureaucratic Frankenstein – the most monumental of CT-driven reforms – that began life as an advisory office in the White House. Its existence is a cautionary tale. The executive and legislative branches created a mash-up of 22 agencies with one foot in and one foot outside of the IC. The White House then, almost immediately, deprived DHS of one of its primary, intended functions – strategic CT analysis – with the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which, by way of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), became the National Counterterrorism Center. Creation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), also via the IRTPA, capped this harried, CT-oriented restructuring. Although the concept of a DNI had been circulating since at least 1978, its creation was ultimately linked to the 9/11 Commission’s findings.
In addition to driving the creation of new institutions, the post-9/11 environment led other entities to overemphasize CT, relative to other pernicious, if not as prominent, problems. The FBI had already created a succession of CT-focused elements – the Terrorism Research and Analysis Center in 1980 and then, the Counterterrorism Division in 1999, but following 9/11, then-Director Robert Mueller transferred 2,400 agents from criminal investigative work to CT and tripled the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Similarly, the Drug Enforcement Administration has assumed an outsized CT role, through its Special Operations Division. This distortion was not limited to the government. Scholarship, ostensibly addressing overarching issues of domestic intelligence reform, focused extensively on how reform pertained to CT, often giving short shrift to persistent issues such as counterintelligence and non-state criminal actors. Such works, while certainly of value, perpetuated the fixation on CT, even as more and more incidents of terrorism – particularly the “lone wolf” variety – became indistinguishable from other acts of violent crime.
Two considerations should accompany future crisis-driven reforms to the national security enterprise. The first is the need to maintain coverage of current and emerging threats abroad, at home, and – perhaps most importantly – in the transnational space that erases the divide between foreign and domestic issues. Ensuring a whole-of-government approach is the second consideration.
By focusing the national security enterprise on counterterrorism, U.S. policymakers have arguably reduced visibility on other threats to U.S. elements of national power. State use of perception management campaigns (e.g. the Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. elections) is among these threats but hardly the only one. To insure consistent horizon-scanning, the IC should establish interagency intelligence centers dedicated to the evaluation of regional and issue threats. Several of these – NCTC, the National Counterterrorism and Security Center, the National Counterproliferation Center, the National Gang Intelligence Center, and the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) – already exist and should be supplemented by others, aligned with the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF) and the Homeland Security Intelligence Priorities Framework (HSIPF). The DNI currently has the authority to transfer personnel to new national intelligence centers within a year of their establishment. Congress should enhance this authority by eliminating the time limitation on this authority, thereby allowing the DNI to move resources, temporarily, in the event of a crisis. This would make the lumbering IC a far nimbler organization, capable of adapting to challenges.
However, addressing national security solely through the IC is an incomplete solution to countering threats to U.S. elements of national power. After 9/11 it became accepted wisdom that state and local authorities needed to be incorporated into the national approach to counterterrorism. It is also increasingly clear that, in the realm of counterintelligence, the private sector will encounter many threats before the government is aware of them. In addition to providing the federal government with information, these entities also need to receive useful guidance – to close the feedback loop – on what to look for and how to navigate through the threat environment.
Unfortunately, even after 9/11, the national security enterprise has struggled with implementing a whole-of-government (and private sector) approach to national security. Fusion centers, for which DHS manages the Fusion Center Performance Program and, more recently, the NCTC’s Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group / Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team, have not proven to be the most efficient mechanisms for establishing a two-way relationship with state and local authorities in furtherance of counterterrorism objectives. The FBI and other counterintelligence-oriented entities have had similar struggles with facilitating robust engagement of private industry to disrupt foreign efforts at illicit acquisition of an informational advantage.
The United States is poised to reevaluate the effectiveness of its national security enterprise’s capability for countering an asymmetric threat. U.S. policymakers’ response to the 9/11 attacks refashioned the IC and other elements in the national security enterprise to address the then-most vivid concern. However, a CT-centric IC is not well postured to deal with other foreign, domestic, and transnational security issues. Any new proposal for reform should include the establishment of interagency centers aligned with the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and Homeland Security Intelligence Priorities Framework, to maintain awareness of threats across the state and non-state spectrum. The DNI’s authority to staff these centers should be enhanced, in order to agilely match resources against threats. Finally, relevant non-IC entities – whether federal, state, local, or private sector – should be made integral elements of the national security enterprise through the receipt of information, which will help them to recognize, report, and navigate around threats.