The Intelligence Community Faces Sharp Challenges, but No Crisis
Perhaps the greatest risk is that bitter residue from this scuffle over a single (albeit significant) analytic assessment will deflect attention from the more serious intelligence policy questions that require the government’s attention.
Weeks of partisan sparring and media speculation culminated last week in the rare spectacle of America’s leading intelligence officials presenting, in turn, to President Barack Obama, President-elect Donald Trump, Congress, and the public, factual findings and an analytic judgment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Accounts of Russian hacking and covert influence operations were accompanied by various, often contradictory, leaks about changes the incoming administration planned for U.S. intelligence. This exercise was certainly unwelcome and measurably harmful, but it does not signal an existential crisis for the strong institutions and resilient workforce that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. Perhaps the greatest risk is that bitter residue from this scuffle over a single (albeit significant) analytic assessment will deflect attention from the more serious intelligence policy questions that require the government’s attention.
The outgoing and incoming administrations should cooperate in the final days of the transition to insulate the intelligence agencies from further bruising encounters with partisan politics. The leaders of intelligence agencies (incumbents and their designated successors) should model for subordinates the thick skin and apolitical ethos demanded of intelligence professionals. And, most importantly, the new administration should lay the groundwork for a disciplined, non-public policy review that answers at least three key questions: How effective is U.S. intelligence at collecting and evaluating the information executive decision-makers require? Does the current model for governing this sprawling community of 16 agencies work? And what should the American public expect to know about the intelligence activities being undertaken on their behalf?
Surveying the Damage
A full accounting of Russia’s efforts to influence the U.S. election is not yet available to the public, or likely even to the relevant government agencies. For example, we do not know precisely how and when these activities were first detected, attributed to the Russian government, and conveyed to policy officials. Unfortunately, leakers have stepped forward and volunteered sensitive information on the collection sources to journalists. For its part, the current administration has not adequately explained why it imposed limited sanctions (while threatening more aggressive actions) on Russia only after the election was over and before it had even requested an authoritative intelligence community assessment of the events.
The declassified assessment acknowledges that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide,” and that such covert programs are currently underway. We may be assured that a counterintelligence review team has already been assembled in Moscow to comb through the declassified version of the assessment and related media reports to learn how U.S. intelligence detected these activities and linked them to Russia and its president. Based on this intelligence community review, Russia will refine its operational tradecraft ensuring that future covert programs will be harder to discover and link to the state sponsor. Similar reviews will be undertaken in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and elsewhere.
This damage is real, and it was avoidable. It is not difficult to imagine an alternative scenario in which information on Russian hacking, disinformation, and propaganda aimed at undermining the U.S. election gets conveyed to the administration immediately after it is collected and verified, appropriate warnings get shared with responsible campaign and party officials, the agencies deliver classified briefings to key U.S. allies (and prospective victims), and real unilateral and/or multi-lateral penalties get imposed on Russia without disclosing the intelligence that informs our actions.
Similarly, we do not yet understand the basis for the president-elect’s apparent skepticism of the intelligence community’s objectivity and competence or any changes he may plan for U.S. intelligence. This uncertainty has led to claims that morale at the intelligence agencies has cratered and that skilled professionals may choose to resign or retire rather than serve an administration that does not value their work.
The president-elect is entitled to be skeptical of intelligence reports and judgments, as are all policy officials. This is a familiar challenge for U.S. intelligence. A number of past presidents have chosen to ignore, challenge, or supplement from other sources the information delivered by our intelligence agencies. It is ultimately the responsibility of intelligence professionals and their new leaders to adapt to the next administration’s priorities, decision-making style, and the president-elect’s own preferences for learning about unfamiliar foreign events. The president-elect has not yet taken the oath of office, and there will be many opportunities for our intelligence agencies to build a relationship with him and demonstrate their worth. The incoming administration — which already includes a number of sophisticated intelligence consumers — will discover that our intelligence community, while not flawless, is essential in monitoring, contextualizing, and responding to fast-moving global events, and in coping with today’s exceptionally complex threat environment.
Claims of eroding morale and staff defections predictably accompany Washington intelligence controversies. They are grounded in anecdote and gossip rather than evidence. The energy and creativity that intelligence officers invest in their work does not fluctuate with the daily news cycles. The parking lots at our intelligence agencies fill early in the morning and empty late at night without regard for unfolding political dramas. Intelligence veterans know they will have countless opportunities in the coming months and years to warn and inform our elected leaders of threats and make other unique contributions to our national security. That is where their focus is and will certainly remain.
The U.S. intelligence community is uniquely connected with, and responsive to, the president and his National Security Council. This direct relationship is anchored in statutes, executive orders, and longstanding custom. The president sets the priorities for collection and analysis of information, personally authorizes covert actions, and shares with Congress the responsibility for providing resources for U.S. intelligence. All three branches of government, together with the media and non-governmental actors, participate in overseeing U.S. intelligence activities.
The incoming administration should undertake a disciplined review aimed at determining how effective our intelligence agencies are at providing “timely, accurate, and insightful” information to policymakers, warfighters, and diplomats. The findings are likely to be mixed but will at least provide an empirical foundation for evaluating proposals for structural reform, strategic investments, and human capital development. It is critical that this review not be limited to current performance, but also attempts to identify trends and anticipate future demands.
Russia’s aggressive hacking campaign punctuates the most significant challenge confronting U.S. intelligence. The digital technologies that are changing how humans relate to one another, organize themselves, and compete for advantage is also changing every aspect of the intelligence profession. This is not news to our intelligence agencies. We have passed the inflection point and are now deeply engaged in a largely unregulated competition with state and non-state rivals to develop the best tools to protect, to steal, to interpret, and to manipulate data. The stakes in this competition for our national security and prosperity are high.
U.S. intelligence has not slept on this challenge. We have developed extraordinary technological capabilities, and agencies like Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency have sought to emphasize digital technology in ongoing reorganizations. One goal of the new administration’s performance review should be to ensure that as with the emergence of the telegraph a century ago and overhead reconnaissance in the early years of the Cold War, U.S. intelligence builds and maintains an decided edge in applied digital technology.
After the new administration sets its priorities and expectations for intelligence support, it will confront the challenge of implementing these policies across a widely dispersed community. From the moment the U.S. established its first peacetime intelligence structures after World War II, debates ensued over the relative merit of a centralized intelligence bureaucracy under the control of a single leader or a federated community of agencies lodged in other cabinet departments. The most recent chapter in this debate began in 2004, when Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, informed by the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which had been charged with investigating the 2001 al Qaida attacks in the United States. The act established a National Counterterrorism Center to pool terror threat reporting, mandated greater information sharing between agencies, and established a new post of director of national intelligence to lead a more “unified” intelligence community.
The CIA did not receive the 2004 reforms warmly — its director would no longer serve simultaneously as the leader of the intelligence community. Same with the Department of Defense, which was reluctant to cede authority over intelligence elements that are geared to support military commanders. Notwithstanding an additional grant of authority in 2008 amendments to the executive order that charters U.S. intelligence, each of the four officials appointed as director of national intelligence has faced challenges in attempting to more closely integrate the intelligence community. Comments sourced to anonymous transition team members echo a frequent criticism that the director of national intelligence plays a role that is too large, excessively bureaucratic, and overly intrusive into agency operations, and that it should be at least streamlined, if not abolished.
The director of national intelligence’s relationship with the CIA director, the secretary of Defense, and other key department and agency heads, and their respective relationships with the president, will greatly impact how U.S. intelligence is governed under the next administration. The president has considerable flexibility in organizing U.S. intelligence to serve his information needs, but the director of national intelligence’s core responsibilities and authorities are embodied in a law that passed by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress. It remains to be seen whether Trump will choose to spend political capital on intelligence reforms that are likely to prove controversial, thereby accepting the political risk of dismantling or gutting structures put into place to prevent a second catastrophic attack on the United States, and that have contributed to achieving that objective.
For much of the last four years, U.S. intelligence has been embroiled in controversies triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s unlawful disclosures of electronic surveillance programs and belated congressional investigations into CIA counterterrorism activities during the George H.W. Bush presidency. Exhaustive, redundant, and expensive investigations of these intelligence activities failed to uncover conduct that was illegal, unauthorized, or that was not shared with congressional overseers. Rather, our intelligence agencies proved to be highly responsive to political direction, meticulous about following the law, and conscientious in respecting the civil liberties of American citizens.
Nonetheless, many Americans were surprised, and some deeply troubled, after learning the details of these intelligence programs. Our intelligence leaders were caught off guard by this reaction and grew concerned about the public’s apparent lack of trust in institutions that exist solely to defend them. Measured support from the White House and mixed reactions by lawmakers led intelligence officials to re-examine how agencies that must operate in secret should go about establishing and sustaining democratic legitimacy.
The director of national intelligence launched an initiative to promote greater transparency for U.S. intelligence by declassifying documents of historical and current interest, engaging the public directly through social and traditional media, and increasing intelligence community participation in academic conferences, with the goal of explaining and demystifying the intelligence profession. Agencies like CIA and NSA invested heavily in these efforts, recognizing that broad public legitimacy will be needed if they are to continue attracting talented employees, gaining cooperation from private sector and foreign partners, and commanding the attention of busy policymakers.
Because of the intelligence community’s legal and practical obligation to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods, much of what actually interests and concerns the public about intelligence work remains unexplained and misunderstood. The next administration will choose whether to continue prioritizing direct public engagement by our intelligence agencies or revert to a past practice that reinforces secrecy but encourages insularity. If these efforts to increase transparency are slowed or reversed, the intelligence agencies will be forced to rely for popular legitimacy on a steadfast defense from the White House and informed congressional overseers.
The U.S. is safer and more prosperous because of the work done by the men and women who serve in our intelligence agencies. The acrimonious transition between presidential administrations has led to uninvited, often unfair scrutiny of these essential institutions. As the new administration settles in and assumes responsibility for daily management of our foreign and national security affairs, it should undertake a disciplined review of U.S. intelligence to ensures that these agencies are capable now and in the future, effectively governed, and trusted by the public they protect.
Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images
Stephen Slick is a former member of the CIA's clandestine service, special assistant to President George W. Bush, and senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the National Security Council staff.