Best Defense

Intel Under the Gun: The IC vs. Trump

The Intelligence Community is irrelevant and on the verge of becoming obsolete.



By Jim Sisco and Joseph Gochal
Best Defense guest columnists 

The Intelligence Community (IC) is irrelevant and on the verge of becoming obsolete.

Appointments in the new administration, the community’s failures to adapt methods and tradecraft to evolving security threats, and the inability to develop new sources of information make the IC even more vulnerable. The nominations of Lieutenant General Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor — a heretic within the IC with an axe to grind — and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — a business leader with a personal global network — will drive a wedge between the Donald Trump White House and the IC. The relationship is already strained over controversies regarding CIA assessments of Russian hacking and concerns about the infrequency of Trump’s daily intelligence briefings. These factors indicate a tough road ahead for the IC as it looks to remain relevant in the new administration.

Many of today’s national security threats aren’t particularly well suited for traditional intelligence collection and analysis. Mass political movements driven by decentralized and constantly shifting networks like the Arab Spring provide unique challenges for the IC and policymakers alike. The standard espionage model just doesn’t work well in these fragmented and ephemeral situations because neither targets nor the “secret” information exists in such cases. Traditional methods of espionage work best when there is an identified target of collection who has access to valuable secret information. New security dynamics require a qualitative change in the IC’s approach. Without a drastic cultural change, away from reliance on classified information and slow-moving processes, the IC’s cherished position as the U.S. government’s thought leader regarding national security issues is in jeopardy.

Compounding this challenge is the 24-hour flood of global data. The IC, slowed by the operational and bureaucratic complexities of contemporary intelligence work, has lost any claim it ever had to a monopoly on hot, new information. Policymakers can now follow from their phones events from a diverse and free-flowing set of global voices, whether it is the upper echelons of government or a crowd of angry workers and disenfranchised students. As smart and nimble as many of its analysts are, the IC cannot compete with CNN, Al Jazeera, Google, Facebook, and Twitter in providing instant commentary on breaking events around the world.

The presence of Flynn and Tillerson will underscore how out of touch the IC has become. Instead of using classified intelligence as a lens to view the broader world, they are likely to seek validation from the IC for strong personal beliefs formed by their own assessments and networks. The IC, therefore, risks becoming an echo chamber of afterthought.

To have a role going forward, the IC is going to have to change more than it has during its existence since the end of World War II. It needs to develop a voice that competes against more accessible and increasingly well-informed media outlets, think tanks, policy advocates, and personal networks of national security officials. To do that, it should focus on how to optimize its institutional and human capital advantages to adapt to this new world, even if that means sacrificing its cherished espionage identity to avoid becoming obsolete.

James Sisco, a retired Navy intelligence officer, is the President of ENODO Global. While on active duty, he co-authored “Left of Bang” with LTG Flynn and served with him in Afghanistan and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Joseph Gochal is ENODO Global’s Chief Data Scientist and former CIA analyst. While at CIA, he integrated data science techniques with traditional intelligence to assess and counter emerging terrorist networks, tactics, and weapons in Africa and the Middle East.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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