How to Revitalize the Intelligence Community: A Long, But Essential To-Do List

With the 2020 election over and the unduly delayed transition to the new Biden administration finally underway, the focus within individual government agencies will appropriately turn to assimilating the policies and priorities of the new administration. Within the Intelligence Community (IC), which served as a veritable punching bag during the Trump administration, this realignment should embrace both personnel and morale initiatives designed to depoliticize the intelligence function and assure the workforce that competency and integrity, not political fealty, will once again be the coin of the realm in the processes used to bring analytic intelligence products to consumers. This will be a welcome return to normalcy because the IC, and the nation, face a pressing threat environment populated by hostile actors pursuing agendas inimical to U.S. interests.

The announcement of Avril Haines as nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI) augurs well for a return to honesty, candor, and “speaking truth to power.” In her first public comments after Biden announced her as nominee, Haines vowed to speak the uncomfortable truths that can produce difficult conversations and decisions for a president, but that are essential to ensuring that the “first customer” receives advice reflecting the unvarnished verities of impartial intelligence analysis. Without such candor, the IC becomes a prop servicing the political interests of the president – an all too familiar posture taken by the last two DNI’s in the Trump administration.

Improving Personnel, Morale, and Analytic Integrity in the IC

Assuming her confirmation, Haines should be a breath of fresh air — an accomplished professional whose nomination was widely praised by Democratic lawmakers and intelligence professionals. She should be given broad discretion in selecting those who will directly report to her and have responsibility for executing her policies. But, ensuring a quality occupant for DNI and affording her the necessary discretion to select her “team” is only the first step required to rehabilitate personnel practices and optimize appointments in the IC.

Biden also needs to select seasoned professionals with the institutional knowledge and experience needed to hit the ground running to the other two positions that dominate intelligence operations: the CIA director and the secretary of defense. While the IC is a sometimes cumbersome apparatus populated by 17 different agencies, the CIA and those agencies operating under the authority of the defense secretary (e.g., the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)) dominate both the operational and budgetary aspects of U.S. intelligence activities.

All too frequently in past administrations, and most especially in Donald Trump’s, individuals were nominated (or, in the case of the Trump administration, functioned as “acting” caretakers avoiding the need for, and additional gravitas conferred by, Senate confirmation) to these positions with little or no consideration given to whether their attitudes and approaches on intelligence policy and operations were in harmony. While such consensus is understandably not necessarily the principal element in selecting nominees for these posts, the most promising approach to reinvigorating the IC and establishing the foundation for improved performance is to choose leaders who are in general concurrence on intelligence policies and priorities. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the IC’s leaders will faithfully seek to fulfill the requirement embodied in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) that the DNI, CIA director and defense secretary develop procedures that will improve the “coordination and deconfliction of operations that involve elements of both the Armed Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

But changing personnel at the top represents only an initial step toward revitalizing an IC buffeted by politicization and presidential indifference. The president-elect can set the tone for a new relationship by taking several steps at the earliest stages of his presidency. By way of example (with appropriate attribution to several suggestions made by former veteran CIA officers John Sipher and Marc Polymeropoulos):

Biden should openly repudiate Trump’s May 2019 memorandum which gave Attorney General William Barr the unfettered authority to declassify information related to Barr’s spurious counter-investigations of the probes that had been conducted by the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. While the terms of Trump’s memorandum terminate this authority upon Barr’s departure from DOJ, it is important that the new president reinforce what the law already provides: that the principal authority and responsibility for protecting intelligence sources and methods resides with the DNI.

Biden should firmly express his own endorsement of Haines’ commitment to speaking “truth to power” while emphasizing that, as president, he has no interest in having intelligence shaped by political or partisan considerations.

Developing and implementing effective national security policy is best accomplished through a national security advisor possessed of sufficient experience and standing in the national security community to be readily recognized as qualified to play the role of honest broker in developing policy options for the president, and then sufficient gravitas within the administration (demonstrated principally through the president’s confidence, both expressed and perceived) to have those policies executed by the national security bureaucracy. Seasoned intelligence professionals work best when they readily understand that their efforts are in pursuit of, and essential to, coherent policy and operational objectives formulated at the highest levels of the country’s national security apparatus. With his appointment of Jake Sullivan to the post of national security advisor, Biden has tapped the youngest person ever to hold the post, although arguably not the least experienced. Time will tell whether Sullivan’s impressive resume is sufficient for him to hold his own in the sometimes bare-knuckled debates that occur over national security policy.

Biden should nominate a CIA director with the experience and leadership skills necessary to obviate the need for a learning curve so that he or she can walk through the door and immediately turn to the task of rebuilding morale and refashioning the CIA to meet the changing, often asymmetric, threat environment confronting the United States.

Shortly after his inauguration, the new president should personally visit both the CIA and the Office of the DNI. While some might view such an overture as cosmetic, Biden can convey a substantive sea change in presidential attitude toward the IC by demonstrating his interest in, and appreciation for, the sacrifices made and critical work performed by the nation’s intelligence professionals — as opposed to his predecessor’s using the occasion of such a visit to ruminate about the alleged size of the crowd that attended his inauguration.

Biden would also be wise to use these visits to convey a few other points that need emphasis in the wake of the last administration. Foremost, he should affirm his abiding belief that the overriding loyalty of all public servants, especially those whose work is often cloaked in secrecy and shielded from public view, is to the Constitution rather than to any politician, regardless of office. Further, he should express his unwavering support for the laws and regulations that protect IC whistleblowers, and declare his intent to order that the necessary actions be taken to implement, as promptly as possible, the recommendations from the Government Accountability Office’s September 2020 Report “Whistleblower Protection – Actions Needed to Strengthen Selected Intelligence Community Office of Inspector General Programs.” By demonstrating his support for the legal measures that protect IC whistleblowers, the president can convey his understanding of the reality that these protections serve the nation’s security by furnishing an often overlooked counterintelligence safety value for employees and contractors of the IC. Simultaneously, the president can juxtapose these comments in support of IC whistleblower protections with a firmly expressed expectation that IC personnel will perform their work largely in secret, that leaking will not be tolerated, and that sensitive information must be properly protected.

While a visit and appropriate presidential commentary will offer a much needed change in tone, the new DNI will still face a daunting task in resuscitating morale within the IC. One approach worth considering is the early employment of a “climate survey” designed to take the temperature of the IC workforce on issues of job satisfaction, analytic independence, leadership, career progression and other topics that human resources and operations professionals determine will provide the best barometer of workforce satisfaction with accompanying data for use in improving personnel policies. James Clapper successfully employed such a survey as a management tool during his tenure as DNI in the Obama administration.

Any “climate survey” should diligently assess the issue of politicization and its effect on IC analytic processes and intelligence product. Indeed, another of the responsibilities that IRTPA assigns to the DNI is to establish standards for assessing the state of analytic integrity throughout the IC by insuring “that finished intelligence products produced by any element or elements of the intelligence community are timely, objective, independent of political considerations, based upon all sources of available intelligence, and employ the standards of proper analytic tradecraft.” If ever there was an optimal time for a careful, de novo assessment of the effect of politicization on both intelligence product and analytic tradecraft, the aftermath of the carnage of the Trump administration is that time.

FISA Reauthorization and Reform

The pandemic that has ravaged the country and the legislative calendar for the better part of 2020 continues relatively unabated so it remains unknown when Congress will return its attention to the question of whether to reauthorize certain authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (specifically, FISA’s business records provision that includes the authority to obtain Call Detail Records (CDRs), the roving wiretap surveillance authority, and the “lone wolf” provision, all of which expired in March 2020). In mid-March 2020, the House of Representatives, in a rare bipartisan action, passed a comprehensive FISA “reform” bill that would have extended all of these surveillance authorities except the ongoing “bulk” collection of CDRs, but the Senate failed to act on that measure, and, with the arrival of COVID in the United States, FISA understandably receded as a legislative priority.

With the election now over, at some point FISA will return to the legislative calendar and, when it does, there will be time enough to address the specific proposals advanced for congressional consideration. For the new DNI, prudence suggests that she and the other Biden administration principals most interested in FISA (i.e., the national security advisor, the FBI director, and the still unannounced nominees for defense secretary, CIA director and attorney general) reach an early consensus regarding the administration’s position on both the expired FISA provisions and on FISA “reform,” more generally, so that informed consultation with the appropriate congressional committees can be timely initiated.

Positioning the IC to Meet Existing and Future Challenges 

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the focus of the IC shifted dramatically from concentration on a single principal “target” (the Soviet bloc) toward many diverse targets posing commensurately more diverse, albeit not existential, dangers to U.S. national interests. Now, moving into the third decade of the 21st century, the aggressive rise of China presents the IC with a renewed “core” target posing a consequential threat to American global interests while the nation continues to deal with the more diverse and asymmetric threats posed by international terrorism and localized conflicts.

At the same time, the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union have seen an increase in the “customer base” for IC product extending far beyond the military and other traditional users in the federal government. As examples, thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies now want relevant terrorism-related intelligence information while the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local public health bodies want intelligence information that will help them understand, monitor, and respond to the spread of infectious diseases.

How well the IC prioritizes and responds to these intelligence demands certainly depends on the leadership, experience, and dedication of the IC’s human capital but, as important as they are to an effective intelligence organization, an experienced and invigorated workforce represents only one element in the intelligence equation. It is essential that the new administration commit both rhetorically and financially to assuring that the IC maintains a competitive edge in technical innovation.

This by no means is intended to minimize the importance that human intelligence collection, or HUMINT, continues to provide to American intelligence activities, especially in the area of counterterrorism. But, as intelligence professionals have noted, intelligence collectors face existential threats from exposure through adversaries’ use of ubiquitous, surreptitious, and ever more advanced surveillance platforms. Consequently, maintaining effective HUMINT collection in the future is also tied to developing ways to counter this surveillance threat using modern technology.

Innovative advantages in technology are always ephemeral. The exponential technological advantage in national security provided by the development of the atomic bomb lasted four years – until the Soviet Union exploded its own device in 1949. As noted in a report recently released by the Subcommittee on Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research (STAR) of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI),“technological races rarely stay ‘won’ for long” because “technology disperses …. [a]lways.” Recognizing this inexorable pace of technological innovation, the DNI must set the tone for consistently aggressive research and development programs. These R&D efforts, like all effective intelligence activities, must provide elbow room for failure because, as the ancient Chinese proverb says, failure is the mother of success.

In the 75 years since the Manhattan Project, the United States has led the world in technological innovation using a public/private “partnership” approach where the government sponsored basic research and the private sector found applications that commercialized that research. This ensured that technological advances not only served the nation’s security needs but also were assimilated in ways that often improved the living standards of the American people. Taxpayer support for expensive government R&D programs is always easier to sustain when those programs yield results that can be applied in ways that also tangibly benefit taxpayers.

Today, however, two trends have converged to threaten U.S. national security and, more specifically, to erode the relative advantages of the U.S. Intelligence Community. First, the United States and its adversaries are in a race to develop game-changing technologies with the potential to reshape cybersecurity and foreign intelligence collection, processing, and analysis. Second, since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ historical position as the uncontested leader in basic R&D has been fading.

In today’s competitive technological environment with the Chinese approaching the technological status of a “near peer” through aggressive expansion of their own R&D efforts, it is important to identify and prioritize those areas positioned as the cutting edge of innovation in the near future. As the HPSCI’s Subcommittee on STAR recently reported, the areas most deserving of focus, and dollars, appear to lie in the arcane fields of quantum computing, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence — each of which carries the potential to alter, if not the international balance of power, at least the competitive balance of intelligence capabilities.

The first nation to harness quantum computing will gain a decisive edge, however temporary it proves to be, in its achieving its own national security objectives while frustrating those of its adversaries. An operational quantum computer will afford the nation possessing it enormous cryptanalytic advantages that will neutralize today’s cybersecurity protocols while affording the possessor heretofore unprecedented computational capabilities that threaten to defeat any adversary’s information security systems and exploit its most sensitive military and diplomatic secrets like, for example, the codes that secure and, if necessary, activate U.S. nuclear weapons. Simply put, the first nation with an operational quantum computer may possess the ability to break any adversary’s military, diplomatic, or commercial codes while simultaneously producing information security protocols that render its own communications invulnerable to exploitation.

The potential effects of a hostile use of biotechnology requires little imagination as the nation struggles with a pandemic that has crippled its economy and put its national health infrastructure under siege. While bioweapons have been used in war throughout history, the modern expansion in genetic understanding, coupled with the rapid growth in computational power (possibly augmented by development of a functioning quantum computer), have facilitated expanding the role played by genetic engineering in the development of new bioweapons. Genetic engineering can be used to manipulate genes to create new pathogenic characteristics aimed at enhancing the efficacy of the weapon through increased survivability, infectivity, virulence, and drug resistance. While improved biotechnology offers undeniable societal benefits, the “black biology” of bioweapon development may be “one of the gravest threats” the United States and the world will face in the future. Consequently, the IC must devote the resources necessary to remain at the forefront of developments in biosynthesis and biotechnology. Simultaneously, the IC must retain the ongoing capability of furnishing policymakers with actionable intelligence on the capabilities of the nation’s adversaries in these fields along with the operational ability to disrupt those capabilities should events prove such action necessary. Picture, if you will, Stuxnet directed at an adversary’s bioweapons program.

The rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence represents another technological battleground that will be vigorously contested in the coming years. The business of the IC, both in its raw material and its product, is intelligence, derived from its ever-expanding mountain of collected data. It is the job of the IC to analyze, connect, apply context, infer meaning, and, ultimately, make analytic and operational judgments based on all available data. Yet, the pace at which data are generated is increasing exponentially and is stressing the Community’s collective abilities. Exemplifying this growth:

By 2021, it is estimated that the data generated by global web traffic will reach 3.3ZB/year (up from 1.2ZB/year in 2016); this corresponds to 3.5 networked devices per global capita.

The Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has publicly estimated that at the current, accelerating pace of collection, NGA will need over 8 million imagery analysts by 2037 to process all imagery data.

Given this staggering increase in collection, former Principal Deputy DNI Sue Gordon recently posed an existential question about the IC:

[I]f data exists in ridiculous abundance, and everyone – not just the national security community – understands its value, why are clarity, wisdom, insight, and answers to our most vexing national security and private sector challenges so elusive? And if it’s a world where the threats are to and through data, why do we keep being surprised at our adversaries’ and competitors’ attacks when we don’t invest in security?

Leveraging artificial intelligence and its associated sub-disciplines of machine learning and applied analytics will be essential to close the gap between data collection and productive analysis predicated upon that data. Moving forward, it is essential for the new DNI to marshal the IC’s available resources to meet this challenge, first, because data is independently valueless unless it is assembled into useful intelligence for consumers, and, second, because America’s competitors are equally dedicated to harnessing artificial intelligence in the pursuit of their own goals.

Some Final Thoughts

For four years, the nation’s Intelligence Community has been demoralized and demonized, and sometimes even endangered, by its “first customer.” The president-elect and his DNI should act promptly and assertively to reverse Trump’s mistreatment, revitalize Community morale, and, through aggressive but prudent investment in critical technologies, let U.S. allies and adversaries know that America’s Intelligence Community has the full confidence and support of the Biden administration. In turn, the dedicated intelligence professionals must ensure that the nation’s policymakers will continue to receive the most informed analysis, untainted by partisanship or politics, produced by an intelligence apparatus operating at the cutting edge of modern technology. All of this represents no small task, but the future security of the nation depends on it.

Image: Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

George Croner

Former principal litigation counsel at the National Security Agency. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a member of the Advisory Council at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeCroner.