In Box

The Fatalist

The man reshaping how U.S. intelligence views the future.

It wasn’t announced with any great fanfare from the White House. There was no declaration of victory or "mission accomplished" moment. Yet when future historians look back on Feb. 12, 2009, they may identify it as the day the war on terror ended.

That was the day U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the "primary near-term security concern" facing the United States was now fallout from the global economic downturn. Terrorism ranked second.

The unassuming man who helped shape Blair’s testimony didn’t himself make headlines, yet Feb. 12 wasn’t the first time his distinctive intellectual imprint has moved Washington. Last fall, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) released the unclassified "Global Trends 2025" report. In it, the U.S. government departed starkly from past forecasts in predicting the country’s impending decline. And it got noticed: Shortly after Barack Obama was elected in November, its lead author flew to Chicago to personally brief the president-elect.

The influential brain behind both Blair’s testimony and "Global Trends 2025" belongs to Mathew Burrows, a Cambridge-trained historian in French colonial affairs who drafted sections of the report from his 18th-century farmhouse on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The first-ever counselor for the NIC and the No. 3 official in the U.S. intelligence community’s premier big-think shop, Burrows is a tall, understated official. In person, he calls to mind more Ivy League than Langley. But colleagues say Burrows also has the political savvy to maneuver adeptly within the byzantine corridors of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy.

When I met him for meze at Lebanese Taverna in Washington, Burrows explained his thinking. "It’s the beginning of a different role in the world for the U.S…. I hate to use the word ‘decline,’ but it’s the end of the unipolar moment."

For the often insular intelligence community, his working methods are as unconventional as his conclusions.

For "Global Trends 2025," he assembled a distinctive team, pulling experts from think tanks and academia, business and the media. Burrows also brought a small group of American analysts to Beijing to share visions of the future with their Chinese and other international counterparts. Intellectual exchanges took researchers to Singapore, Africa, and Europe as well — and saw outside experts on climate change, food security, and demographics meet with analysts from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley.

Despite casting such a broad net, there’s no question that it’s Burrows who shaped the final report. Its "structure and presentation style came out of Mat’s head," says Richard Cincotta, a demographer at the NIC’s Long Range Analysis Unit. He describes Burrows as above all a master synthesizer of information.

Some critics charge that peering so far into the future might not be the most pragmatic use of intelligence resources. But C. Thomas Fingar, the former NIC chairman who accompanied Burrows to Beijing last June, defends the endeavor. "If you’re warning, ‘Call the fire department; the house is on fire,’ it’s kind of late to do anything."

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