Near the close of this spring’s AFCEA Intelligence Symposium, I noted that we were marking a shift in the national security environment. From September 2001, that environment had been marked by three characteristics: a focus on counterterrorism, sharp increases in spending, and an information environment marked by rapid – Moore’s Law or better – change.
One of these, the budget environment, has already changed. It remains uncertain how deep the cuts in security (including intelligence) spending will be, but the more important question may be not their size but how they are managed. The reductions of the 1990s hurt the Intelligence Community, but as much damage may have been done by decisions involving the resources left behind, decisions that may have protected agency autonomy but which, among other outomes, produced a decade long hiring freeze resulting in the dysfunctional personnel profile immediately apparent on September 12, 2001.
The information environment and its continued, rapid evolution, remains a key consideration. But if the pace of change remains more or less constant, the implications of that change manifest themselves in new and challenging ways. Thus, Cybersecurity emerges as a key national security issue, contending at least for a place among anyone’s list of top national security concerns.
Complicating the situation, terrorism has not gone away. The movement from a “post-9/11 environment” will not be marked, as was the end of the Cold War, by the demise of the former principal adversary, with all that meant for changes in focus and resource allocations. Cybersecurity, proliferation, terrorism, climate change, and the upheavals in the Arab world now form, along with other issues, an extraordinary set of challenges, often interlocked. The American national security faces an enormous task in defining and reacting to this environment.
Which brings me to the demise of Osama Bin Laden. If it’s true that the three most important considerations in real estate are location, location, and location, then the analogous considerations in public affairs may be timing, timing, and timing. Policy makers may wish for a program or policy that “solves” a problem. Sometimes, solutions are needed. In other cases, however, it may be that prevailing over time may be in itself the solution. The United States and its Allies solved the problem of Nazi Germany by defeating it. On the other hand, we did not so much defeat the Soviet Union as we exhausted it, not just in material terms but in waiting for its conceptual and even moral weaknesses to run their course. Despite the generations of intellectuals who believed that Marx had the long sweep of history in his vision, it was Ronald Reagan, dismissed by many of those same intellectuals, who cheerfully – and correctly -- declared that the Soviet Union was “on the wrong side of history.”
Perhaps we will now see something of the same in the Arab and Islamic worlds post-Bin Laden. The timing of the operation that ended his life was a gift to the American people, who can now mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 without the thought that the orchestrator of those attacks remains at large. It also comes at a critical time in the Islamic world. For sixty years, from the Nasserite vision of an Arab nation, through Baathist and other variations on that theme, and through a theocratic phase most apparent in Iran, a critical part of the world and hundreds of millions of people have fallen victim to great but empty promises that have produced nothing but dictatorship and economies that export little but fossil fuels. Perhaps Bin Laden’s death marks the end not only of the terrorist vision (though not of terrorist activity) but also of the opening of a period in which the Arab nations may take a different place in world affairs.
As for the national security services, I am often asked by colleagues and students “Just what is it we get for our $80 billion intelligence budget?” I have not heard it that often this week – in the days immediately after Bin Laden’s death -- but it is an important and legitimate question. To some degree, recent events have demonstrated that one thing the public “gets” is something to which they and the media often pay little attention: the tenacious application of and integration of technology, analytic method, and operational art, across the military and intelligence communities. I am not a John LeCarre fan, but when someone said to me that the Bin Laden operation was “less James Bond and more George Smiley,” I had to agree.
Anyone walking through the headquarters of one of the intelligence agencies the day after the Bin Laden operation may have seen a few high fives. By mid-week, however, it was simply back to work, knowing that there is always work to do. Intelligence, like other national security services, should, especially in time of war, value effectiveness over efficiency. The current budget tightness may prove an opportunity to think through structures built in hasty and essential response to the events of 9/11 and to realign as necessary, preferably through actions undertaken organically and incrementally, rather than through another round of intelligence “reform.” Austerity, at reasonable levels, can enhance efficiency.The public also needs to think through what it wants from intelligence. Noting the role of enhanced interrogation in locating Bin Laden, David Ignatius has noted the “moral ambiguity” of the operation. My students spend a fair amount of time on the ethics of intelligence, and many of them complete the course still struggling with such ambiguity. So does their professor. All I can tell them in the end is that intelligence operates at the edge of what a democratic, open society confronts as the tension between its ideals and the world’s realities. Ambiguities and tensions aside, I am confident I speak for the members of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee in saying to all the intelligence and military professionals who contributed, in whatever way, to the Bin Laden operation: Congratulations and Well Done!