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Intelligence At a Crossroads

October 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The information age and the new global power structure mandate costly, massive changes.

Editor’s Note:  The interview on which this article is based took place three weeks before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The U.S. intelligence community must invest in new technologies, capabilities and personnel, or face the possibility of a catastrophic failure with national implications, according to its director.

This need for investment in new resources reflects changes in both the geopolitical landscape and emerging information technologies. Accordingly, the intelligence community’s greatest needs are for people and technology. The failure to make necessary investments now in those two areas could have severe repercussions over the next two decades.

People are an essential part of the equation for generating valuable intelligence information, and the community needs to restock its personnel rolls with expertise ranging from traditional clandestine espionage to advanced data mining and analysis.

The technology solution lies to an ever-greater degree with the commercial sector. The intelligence community increasingly will be calling on industry to develop and speed vital new technologies to the community as fast as it brings a product to market.

George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence (DCI) and head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), describes what the consequences would be if an intelligence failure occurs in the future. “The country is surprised and disadvantaged, and the president has no options because he is responding and reacting rather than thinking about how to put us in a better position. Once it has happened, it is too late.

“Then the country will want to know why we didn’t make those investments; why we didn’t pay the price; why we didn’t develop the capability. Then, there will be a ‘war crimes’ trial like you’ve never seen in your life about all the investments that were never made—and then it is too late.”

Speaking in a SIGNAL interview, Tenet emphasizes that the community needs to build an effective human intelligence (HUMINT) capability now to meet requirements emerging over the next two decades. “If you don’t build a HUMINT capability now that you are going to need in 20 years, I guarantee that in 20 years you will not resurrect it overnight.

“The challenge to us is to determine what the world is going to look like in 20 years,” Tenet offers. “The investments we make today will not benefit the current administration. They will benefit people—whom we don’t even know yet—that will be occupying leadership positions in the future.”

Tenet explains that the community’s many funding priorities are headed by the recapitalization of signals intelligence, or SIGINT. Following this is ensuring that HUMINT is as fully funded and as vibrant as needed. Other funding priorities are imagery and reconnaissance and training and retaining personnel.

“We think we have a pretty good idea about what we’re going to face,” Tenet states. “We must make those capital investments today. The country needs to recognize that this is an important asset of national strategy and policy. People have to recognize that the buck you spend here is a buck you save a lot of other places. It’s the best insurance policy you have, and if we’re serious about this, we have to step up and fund it.”

A presidentially directed study aims at determining the capabilities that the intelligence community will need over the next 20 to 30 years. The results of this study will form the basis for the community’s structure.

“We have very specific guidance, and the new administration will tell us that there are things that we cannot fail to perform against,” Tenet says. These would encompass activities that could truly hurt the United States or its forces, surprise the nation technologically, or “present the country with consequences that are absolutely unacceptable.” This review also will address other issues that may be “interesting to know, but for which we don’t have the time, money and people to think about as deeply as we might like to,” he adds.

Among the list of intelligence priorities outlined in current presidential decision directives, about 15 to 20 items “matter most to the survival of this country,” Tenet states. He cites the possible development of Iranian nuclear weapons, the evolution of China’s military, and the development of Russia over the next few years as just a few concerns that are complemented by terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons proliferation and other transnational issues.

No single challenge faces the U.S. intelligence community, Tenet observes. However, the world is technologically empowered in a way that was unimaginable until recently. A prime concern facing intelligence planners is how technology will change the environment in which the community operates. This affects people, intelligence collection and analysis. Technology is an enormous challenge that the community must use to its benefit, Tenet emphasizes.

Key to seizing this opportunity is the development of a funding profile and a strategy for the future so that national leaders years from now can still be confident in U.S. intelligence capabilities. With proper preparations made today, these future leaders could be certain that U.S. intelligence “can continue to provide senior decision makers with the same kind of unilateral advantage we provided over the first 50-plus years of our existence,” Tenet offers.

The community faces a people challenge that the DCI describes as very important. All the intelligence agencies are facing major demographic changes that are leading to a much younger work force. Large numbers of employees will be retiring over the next five to 10 years, he explains. While this younger work force will have enormous capability, the growth and depth of expertise will be taxed. The community must recruit and retain the correct people while ensuring that they have “depth and breadth of knowledge of their accounts,” Tenet states.

“Notwithstanding the dramatic collection technologies developed—spectacular kinds of things that lead us to enormously valuable information—this is a people business,” Tenet emphasizes. “People have to analyze [information], have to dissect it, and have to make sense out of it.”

The new information age has forced the intelligence community to adjust in a number of ways. Foremost among these are challenges and opportunities resulting from the explosion of open-source information. Dealing with this represents a philosophical change as well as a technological one.

Tenet cites the need for tools to enable experts to mine data from databases all over the world. This is essential for understanding the reservoir of available open-source data worldwide, he notes, so that clandestine assets and collection capabilities can be directed to obtain vital secrets based on this open-source information. Instead of using the readily available data as stand-alone intelligence, experts instead would use it to cue operational assets for complementary collection.

The intelligence community is dealing with a world that contains a lot of secrets as well as available information, Tenet continues, and this mandates a new way of collecting intelligence. “You have to be fast; you have to be agile; you have to have the best business practices of sophisticated information technology environments; you have to be able to move information as fast as commercial competitors do,” he states. “You have to be able to put a product on a policy maker’s desk that not only provides just information—because they are inundated with information—you have to provide them with wisdom about what the information means.”

“At the end of the day, you still have to provide a unique product. You still have to steal a secret, and you still have to have collection means that give you things that the new media don’t provide you and that are not on the Internet.

“That is the challenge that we have. You must operate in a realm where you are cognizant of what is openly available, and you use your tools to get at the nuggets that no one else can provide,” he concludes.

Throughout the Cold War, the intelligence community—in fact the U.S. government as a whole—was the sole repository of significant technology innovation, Tenet continues. Not only is that no longer the case, now information technology advances are driven largely by the private sector. This must be complemented by changes in the way government relates to the private sector, including partnerships through nonprofit entities such as the CIA’s In-Q-Tel (SIGNAL, April, page 64). Partnerships between government and the private sector are essential to providing the intelligence community with badly needed information technology advances. While these partnerships may not lead to high-expenditure programs, they can serve agency needs in areas such as data mining and security.

“My challenge to private industry is, ‘Come in here and tackle our hardest problems and deliver a product to help me fix things that look like they’re insoluble—and do it fast,’” Tenet declares. The community no longer has the luxury of waiting seven years for technological solutions, nor can it just throw billions of dollars at problems. The DCI is calling for private sector partnerships with firms that are willing to take some risks with the intelligence community. The goal is to obtain interesting and innovative technologies that the community can turn around quickly. “We need to have a paradigm with industry that says ‘we need quick; we need deep; and we want partnerships that allow us to turn things around fast,’” he emphasizes.

“The private sector must be able to relate to this community in an unclassified manner that allows us to develop solutions that they can then farm out for commercial equity and we can incorporate inside our respective buildings,” Tenet declares.

However, government research will still play an important role in empowering the intelligence community. Some research areas will remain in the classified government domain. The change is that the community must reinvigorate its reliance on and its partnerships with the private sector for research and development, Tenet states.

Staying ahead of the opposition is all the more important with many potential adversaries having access to the same commercial information technologies. “You have to play offense to play defense,” Tenet allows. “The world is no longer two superpowers. Everybody has encryption; everybody understands how to use the Internet; people that you worry about the most have effectively learned how to deny and deceive you from learning the things that you care about the most. You’re playing in an arena that is much more sophisticated technologically.

“The burden on us is to use the same technology we acquire to break into what adversaries have done,” the DCI continues. “It is an enormous benefit that at the same time has created enormous problems.”

Tenet cites imagery as an example of how the commercial marketplace is affecting intelligence capabilities. Where U.S. intelligence once was the only repository of useful imagery, commercial firms now are providing high-quality products that can serve many intelligence applications. Sooner or later, he says, the commercial imagery industry will be providing intelligence-level imagery to organizations and even individuals. Countering these advances will require government investments that maintain the technology lead over the marketplace.

Data mining and data exfiltration are the most important items on analysts’ wish lists, Tenet adds. These experts need tools that can make sense out of the mountains of data that they now find available.

New sensors are needed to detect chemical and biological capabilities. The government’s space-based technology must continue to stay ahead of the commercial imaging arena. And, the DCI adds that the National Security Agency needs new technology that will allow it to stay ahead of the digitized encrypted world.

Above all, these technological advances must be developed and incorporated quickly to maintain that lead over the opposition, Tenet states. “This business is not about slow and lumbering,” he emphasizes. “You must be quick and agile.”

Despite the increasing emphasis on technology for intelligence collection, the human element remains dominant in intelligence gathering, Tenet warrants. “Human intelligence is the bedrock of this business,” he declares. “There never will be a shift away from human intelligence.

“It is not an either-or proposition,” he says of the use of technology and human assets. “We must develop an open-source capability because it is vitally important to our analysts and our operators in everything that we do. But, at the end of the day, the CIA is a clandestine organization that must provide information that is based on a clandestine case officer’s ability to provide us with information that no open source can provide.”

The strategic paradigm within the CIA has been to rebuild its HUMINT capability and re-emphasize its importance, Tenet states. “It is undeniably one of the bedrock foundations for everything this community wants to do,” he continues. “It is a bedrock foundation for good analysis, for good SIGINT collection, and it is one of my top priorities.”

Rebuilding the HUMINT capability is only part of the CIA’s human resources challenge. Tenet declares that he needs scientists, engineers and information technology specialists; analysts with a depth of expertise; and a range of people who have language skills “and the savvy to take risks” to run HUMINT operations. These professional capabilities are not stovepiped within the agency, but rather they are linked to all the challenges the CIA is facing.

Demographics also play a role. By the year 2005, between 30 percent and 40 percent of the agency’s personnel will have five years or less experience. This dramatic demographic change is occurring in every government agency, Tenet notes, although at different rates.

Tenet relates that the agency’s entire recruiting process has been overhauled to make it more centralized. Recruiters are empowered to provide conditional offers of employment when they find appropriate applicants on college campuses. Pay scales for information technology specialists in critical areas include incentives such as hiring bonuses. The agency is able to recruit engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University because they also may have the opportunity to perform work that they never could do in the private sector. “We have not been disenfranchised from competing for very-high-quality people even in areas that people might think we have no chance to compete in,” he states, adding that the agency currently is having no problem meeting its recruiting goals.