The U.S. intelligence community is sliding into irrelevance. By Josh Kerbel In the last decade, globalization and interconnectivity have turned the world of information on its head. Every industry — from journalism to telecommunications — is hurrying to adapt, hoping to outpace the creep of irrelevance. Every industry, that is, except mine: the intelligence business. ...
The U.S. intelligence community is sliding into irrelevance.
By Josh Kerbel
In the last decade, globalization and interconnectivity have turned the world of information on its head. Every industry — from journalism to telecommunications — is hurrying to adapt, hoping to outpace the creep of irrelevance. Every industry, that is, except mine: the intelligence business. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, we seem happy believing that our prevailing business model is not defunct — not a relic of another time. Unless we make fundamental changes in the way we conduct our business, the relevance of intelligence can only decline.
The U.S. intelligence community still largely operates as it did during the Cold War. In general terms, it is a secret collection-centric model. Analysts prize classified information over open-source material, which inevitably leads to compartmentalization. Data availability, rather than analytical requirements, drives their analysis. Because there are no collectable facts about the future, analysts tend to focus on the present (though there is a heavy emphasis on preventing surprises, like the next September 11-style attack). And finally, the intelligence community measures success mostly by the quantity of products it produces, not by the policy outcomes those products help achieve.
This reactive model was built for yesteryear — a more static world in which it was possible to know exactly where to look (at the Soviet Union) and why (the Cold War), access was severely restricted (secret collection was vital), and warning (especially of military action) was of the upmost importance.
Today’s more complex strategic environment offers few, if any, of those characteristics. Because a threat or opportunity can emerge from almost anywhere, there is no single point for analysts to focus on. Targets’ intentions and relationships are much more dynamic, so the context in which raw intelligence must be analyzed is far more ambiguous. Access to information is almost unrestricted, now that the world is wide open and awash in data. Furthermore, the time it takes for something to move from minor threat to devastating impact can come quickly. Potential hazards require as much attention as threat trends that are already identified.
The intelligence community has made some effort to adapt in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war. However, it’s difficult not to see most of these initiatives — starting with the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence itself — as less than fundamental. At best, they are incremental measures that suggest more change than they truly demonstrate. At worst, they are distractions that have allowed us to congratulate ourselves on our adaptability even while we continue to keep doing what we have always done. Activity has been mistaken for progress.
What’s needed today is an analysis-centric, rather than collection-centric, model that would elevate the importance of unclassified information and discourage compartmentalization. It would encourage analysts to hunt and gather data, rather than living on a restricted diet of the secret — or, for that matter, open-source — data pellets that the current collection system feeds them. Intelligence should provide context and allow imaginative hypothesizing. Most importantly, modern intelligence would need to link analysts in partnership with policymakers, abandoning the producer-customer relationship of the past. We could then help identify opportunities, and not just threats.
Amazingly, many still argue that the intelligence community suffers “reorganization fatigue” and that what it needs to do now is “let the concrete set.” To heed this notion would only compound an already large mistake. In the end, only fundamental change can stir us back to relevance. The alternative is to watch intelligence slide ever more toward the fringe of the national strategy and policy debate.
Josh Kerbel, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy and CIA, works in the Institute for National Intelligence in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not imply endorsement by the ODNI or any other U.S. government agency.
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