Intelligence Is at a Crucial Crossroad

October 1999
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

The U.S. intelligence community must take the initiative in developing a broad, cohesive plan for national intelligence. This effort must encompass specific funding requirements, new sensor and collection systems, information architectures and centralized authority over the intelligence community.

The sense of urgency comes from the uncertainty that is characteristic of the post-Cold-War era. This includes the lack of a single, easily defined threat and the explosion of information throughout cyberspace. International coalition operations add new requirements for collection, processing and dissemination. And, despite budget surpluses, significant funding increases are unlikely.

Theoretically, the information revolution should be providing intelligence collectors with a gold mine of data. In reality, collecting and processing intelligence now is much more difficult than during the iciest days of the Cold War. The spread of fiber optic communications, for example, has severely limited the ability to gather information through traditional means of signals intelligence.

The vast amounts of information flowing around the world threaten to overwhelm overworked and understaffed analysis cells. Tapping this data torrent is easy; extracting the correct information, processing it and disseminating it to the appropriate user in a timely manner remains a serious challenge. This is all the more important as the United States shares increasing amounts of intelligence with its allies in coalition operations.

For the Free World, the threat has now become threats. The vacuum left by the demise of the monolithic menace has been filled by a range of international criminal, religious and political groups that view the United States and its allies as roadblocks to their goals. Meanwhile, rogue governments that used to serve the purposes of Soviet imperialists now are freelancers pursuing their own hostile agendas. Intelligence requirements for keeping tabs on all of these diverse threats are increasing geometrically.

Key issues dominating the intelligence agenda include systems upgrades, availability of commercial imagery, modernizing the National Security Agency, management of tactical reconnaissance programs and the graying of the intelligence force.

Collection systems must be upgraded, but needs exceed available funding. This is especially true for imagery. Congress probably will be reluctant to support a massive upgrade program where the intelligence community’s requirements are greater than it can afford.

The availability of commercial imagery changes the equation for the intelligence community. Other countries soon will be able to purchase 1-meter panchromatic commercial remote sensing imagery that, until recently, was the exclusive purview of superpowers orbiting billion-dollar satellites. The end of the superpower monopoly on this capability will level the playing field for smaller nations and organizations. The United States may have to consider a formal policy supporting the development of more advanced commercial remote sensing imagery technologies to stay ahead of foreign capabilities.

The National Security Agency must be recapitalized. The fiber optic dilemma is just one example of how technology has changed over the past decade. The agency was designed for a now bygone era, but it is no less important in the dynamic information age.

Tactical reconnaissance is moving up the ladder of importance, especially as the military faces regional operations other than war in unfamiliar areas. This discipline has not received much investment over the past 10 years. Unmanned aerial vehicles are increasing in value and versatility, but their development and deployment lack centralized management.

And, on the top of everyone’s list is human intelligence, or HUMINT. The intelligence community historically has seen its emphasis on HUMINT assets advance and decline in cycles. Each rejuvenation effort, however, has fallen short of its goals because successive administrations did not see the process through to its conclusion. It takes more than just annual funding to develop HUMINT assets, and the process can take up to a decade.

These issues fall against the backdrop of new threats posed by rogue groups wielding weapons of mass destruction. Organizations and governments alike realize that they cannot defeat the U.S. military head-on. So, they are looking toward nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to use against forces or population centers. U.S. intelligence assets must be able identify and track these efforts well before the weapons are actively employed or used in blackmail schemes.

The key to establishing a commitment to a long-term intelligence agenda may lie in a single organizational move: strengthening the position of the director of central intelligence (DCI). Bringing the intelligence community’s diverse assets more tightly under a single umbrella could help eliminate duplication of effort while ensuring that funds are wisely spent. For example, this would permit the DCI to cancel some projects—however favored by their parent agencies—and reassign scarce funds to higher priorities.

A stronger DCI could serve the same role that the strengthened Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman did for military jointness; it provided the guidance necessary to ensure that the community’s various organizations interoperate smoothly and in a complementary manner. Stronger coordination of intelligence activities also will enhance the community’s credibility when it seeks the funding increases that are necessary to modernize intelligence operations.

The current challenges facing intelligence are a far cry from the Hoover administration days when Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson withdrew support for the military intelligence Black Chamber with the rationale that “gentlemen do not read each others’ mail.”  The disagreement lies in the definitions of sufficiency and effectiveness. Only a cohesive plan encompassing all intelligence organizations, assets and requirements will empower the community to shape its future. We have a DCI ready to execute this leadership, and he should be empowered to do so.