Since starting these Notes two years ago, I have developed an admiration for journalists who write two or three columns each week. I started several pieces over the summer, but had to conclude in the end that if I wasn’t interested in a topic, no one else should be forced to read my thoughts on it. This morning’s (October 18) Washington Post item from Walter Pincus on Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s comments at the Geoint conference in San Antonio changed all that. I encourage everyone interested in the future of American intelligence to take a serious look at this presentation, available on the DNI’s website.
As we have awaited news on anticipated budget cuts, the worst fear have been that the mistakes of the 1990s would be repeated. Among those was a tendency to take the cuts agency by agency with little central strategy or plan from the center. Secondly, we saw little willingness to accept that the cuts were, relatively speaking, a long term reality. Following from that, the agencies tended to reduce things like hiring, workforce development, and research, all functions that speak to long term health. Many of us remember the call to ”do more with less.” In translation, that often meant piling more work on employees coping (often with little assistance) with increased workloads, an exploding information environment, and a technical base unable to keep pace with either. By the end of the decade, one of my former bosses at NSA, observing the computers used by our analysts, commented that he hadn’t realized his job was to “dumb down” people with more advanced equipment at home or on their university campuses.
If there existed any hope that this time would be different it rested on the thought that those mistakes – and the consequences apparent after September 11, 2001 – were so fresh as to warn against their repetition. Add to that the continued presence of leaders, not least Director Clapper, who experienced the 1990s, and hope seemed merited. At the same time, as former Army chief of staff General Gordon Sullivan once noted, “Hope is not a method.”
According to Director Clapper, the intelligence community faces cuts “in the double digit range” over the next ten years. That’s the bad news, although “double digit” covers a great deal of mathematical ground. And ten years is a long time. Should a large public institution be prepared to deal with reductions in the 10-15 per cent range over such a period? Probably so. If, on the other hand, cuts begin to approach 20-25 per cent, all bets are probably off.
Let’s assume one other factor. In the 1990s, the main adversary of the United States had folded up shop and gone away. Even senior members of Congress were prone to such thoughts as “if you don’t have any enemies, who is there to spy on?” Let’s hope (there’s that word again) no one on the Hill believes anything like that describes our current security situation. Terrorism has not and is not going away. It remains, joined by cybersecurity, the turmoil in the Arab world, the security consequences of climate change, and a world still struggling with a potentially long period of economic instability. This list does not even mention issues such as regional conflict, civil wars, and genocide, nor the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons.
All of us who believe intelligence is critical to American security must believe that the case for intelligence can be made – to the Congress and to the public. Acknowledging both that the intelligence community has been “luxuriously funded” over the last decade and that the community has not been “as disciplined as we should have been” over that time, is a start.
The coming budgets will pinch, as doctors say when something is really going to hurt. But if effective leadership can “do more with less” by enhancing the skills of a workforce either fixed in size or growing at “austere levels,” if cross-agency systems can become the norm not the exception, and if the energies and talents of the corporate and academic communities can be brought fully to bear despite reductions in funding levels, the next ten years can advance the emergence of that “intelligence community after next” I spoke of earlier this year. Director Clapper’s commitment to protect research, invest in areas such as cyber and the overhead architecture, and language skills, are worth applause and support. At the very least, a commitment not to eat the community’s seed corn is welcome news.
Shortly before his departure from the DNI job, Mike McConnell noted that perhaps the Congress should have given him the title of “coordinator” rather than director. By whatever formal title, the DNI position, which has taken a few hits in its first decade, needs above all to be the leader of American national intelligence, in partnership with the Secretary of Defense, and supported by the agency heads. It sounds as though the GEOINT audience got a sound dose of leadership.
We may be at the starting point for the next period in the history of American intelligence. It will be a challenging period, but that will not make it at all unique. The objective must be a renewed intelligence establishment, aligned with the operational and technical environments of our time, and measured not by the size of its budgets but rather by the imagination and skill of its people.
William Nolte is a research professor at the University of Maryland and chair of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee or of AFCEA.