Thursday, January 28, 2010
Bill Nolte

The last days of 2009 marked three important events in the history of American intelligence.  The first is the fifth anniversary of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the legislation creating the Director of National Intelligence, among other provisions.  The second is the attempted destruction of an airliner approaching Detroit International Airport.


A five-year review of the IRTPA would have been appropriate in any case; unfortunately, the Detroit incident makes it inevitable that the review will take place in a cloud of public and congressional anxiety, mixed with some measure of outrage and more than a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking.


Intelligence agencies and their leadership should be held accountable for their actions, as well as their inactions.  There is a difference, however, between oversight and finger pointing.  This is especially true in the absence of a firm public understanding of what intelligence is capable of doing and what are, in the end, unreasonable or undefined expectations.


By analogy, we do not expect police forces to eliminate crime.  Moreover, we almost certainly would not endorse the measures needed even to approach this goal.  We expect physicians to save lives, but we know, unpleasant as the thought may be, that their ultimate failure rate is 100 per cent.  We want our military to be trained and equipped to minimize loss of life and limb, but we know, however tragically, that casualties are a cost of war.


But what about intelligence?  At $75 billion per year and employing 200,000 people, according to the DNI, the public should expect good intelligence – and counterintelligence.  Are we getting it?   One can only hope that the investigations sure to occupy much of the intelligence community’s time in 2010 will help provide an answer. (A serious review of the Congress’s oversight would also contribute a measure of credibility to a national inquiry.)  


Assessing the intelligence community, and enhancing prospective metrics for intelligence performance, should be at the center of this review, and should begin with a thorough discussion of the environments the intelligence community must confront.  One important component of that is the information environment, marked as the National Security Agency has been saying for years, by a dangerous mix of “volume, variety, and velocity.”  The hard truth is that the world’s capacity for creating and moving information has exploded over the last 20 years, with no sign of decline or even a breathing space. 


From the US intelligence community’s perspective, hiring and the acquisition of new technology have helped cope with the problems of the “three V’s.”  But these measures can do only so much.  This is not the place to discuss the acquisition challenges confronting intelligence and the whole national security community, but let’s stipulate that it’s a major problem.  Hiring, for its part, solves some problems while creating others.  The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, for example, is historically challenged by small staffs and equally small budgets.  On the other hand, it benefits from a lack of clutter and mass.  I used to describe INR as “the analytic community’s counterpart to the Marine Corps,” and there’s continuing value in that.  The community needs to take a second look at the presumption that growth, in personnel or budgets, necessarily enhances performance.


The public also needs to understand the range of threats with which intelligence must cope.  A month or so before the Detroit incident, former DNI Mike McConnell appeared on “60 Minutes,” as part of a very good piece on cybersecurity.  McConnell noted that among our vulnerabilities, the loss of the electrical power system in various parts of the country, at critical points of the year, by hostile action or not, would produce significant loss of life.


So, ladies and gentlemen of the public, from which do you want protection?  Cyber threats or terrorism?  Or did I forget to mention that it is impossible to separate the two?  Or that issues such as state failure, competition for resources, and even climate change factor into any national security equation?  Or that in the 21st century all national security threats will be information and information technology related?  That all will cross foreign and domestic lines?  And that most, if not all, will be connected in ways we can only begin to foresee?


In other words, should the public expect intelligence to eliminate threats any more than they expect police services to eliminate crime?


Dealing with these issues will require a full national effort.  As in the Second World War and the Cold War, this means harnessing the capabilities and expertise of the nation, governmental, corporate, and academic.  Within days of the Detroit incident, nevertheless, the press was full of stories about presidential advisor John Brennan’s previous corporate position, a fact fully vetted when he joined the administration.  (Full disclosure: Mr. Brennan is a friend and former colleague.)  The Congress and the public need to be careful that valid concerns about conflict of interest do not become part of a “global war on contractors” and that we do not exclude from public positions the very persons with the experience and expertise to succeed in those positions.  The “revolving door” between government and the private sector threatens to become a pejorative term, when our experience in the national security crises of the 20th century tells us such an arrangement, within rules, is essential.  As for those who break the rules?  Throw the bums in jail.  But don’t break the system in the process.  AFCEA can, as it always has, help in the creation and maintenance of an ethical basis for cooperation between government and the other sectors of our national security effort.


I mentioned above three events of note in the final days of 2009.  The third of course is the deaths of CIA personnel – staff and contract personnel – in Afghanistan.  It’s easy in the Washington area to get absorbed in Washington things.  Are the DNI and Director of CIA getting along?  Will there be an authorization bill this year?  These are important issues.  In the end though, US intelligence succeeds because of the men and women who come to work at headquarters components, at regional centers around the US, at stations and liaison service locations around the world, and in places like Khost.  They do it every day.  They do it well.  And they do it knowing that they have committed to effort and even risk, sometimes great risk, in the service of the nation.  We owe them our continued gratitude and our continued support.


William Nolte is chairman of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee.