Ask the Expert: Next Steps for Intelligence After the Post-9/11 Era

June 1, 2014
By William M. Nolte

Q: What are the next steps for intelligence after the post-9/11 era?

A: The next steps should be a radical shift in how resources are allocated, not business
as usual on tighter budgets.

The “post-9/11” era is over. For years I’ve been telling students that a decade marked by the pre-eminence of terrorism as an issue, flush budgets and a volatile information environment has ended. Terrorism must now compete with cybersecurity, energy and other resource issues, regional conflicts and several other concerns in an extraordinary mix—or even a dangerous blending—of several issues. Now of course, we face a resurgent Russia, with all that implies for stability in both Europe and Asia.

As for flush budgets, those are a rapidly receding memory. This leaves, of the original characteristics of the post-9/11 era, only the volatile information environment, which shows no sign of slowing. If anything, its breadth as much as its pace continues to confound us as we deal with the full range of its implications—social, economic, political and legal. Every time I read an article suggesting that we have reached the limit to the amount of data we can put on a piece of silicon, I read another suggesting that silicon will be replaced by a virus or some other material ... or that quantum computing is finally about to arrive.

In my fall courses, I will add another consideration, one hinted at before but which now must be addressed directly: the American people, after years of accepting the regimens of a post-9/11 environment, may be tiring of the impositions (real or imagined) characteristic of that period. I do not notice protest movements in airport security lines nor do I expect to see the removal of the security measures put in place over the last decade. I do, however, see the Department of Homeland Security widening the field for admission of its global entry program. And I see longer lines at the airport as people take advantage of this opportunity.

I spoke in February at the fusion centers program at the Naval Postgraduate School. In a variation of an exercise I often do with students, I asked them to imagine that their centers were listed on the New York Stock Exchange. If that were so, would they buy or sell stock in their centers? Most were uncertain. A few openly said they’d sell. I did not hear from many buyers. State budgets are tight, federal support is down, and local officials are under pressure to emphasize “real crime,” not the possibility of a terrorist attack.

At the federal level, the market for intelligence also appears to be in a bear mode. Some of this is natural and possibly even slightly beneficial. After 9/11, the intelligence agencies did what any other bureaucracy or set of bureaucracies would do: they spent until they ran out of money, with the result being a set of enlarged (bloated may be a better word) establishments. Even worse, they are likely to deal with the current austerity the only way bureaucracies know how to cope with such phases, that is, a long grudging retreat into some smaller establishment.

This makes those agencies neither unique nor venal. The military services, or so it appears, are prepared to deal with austerity in the same way, protecting established programs rather than looking for innovative ways to deal with a transformed environment. No one gets promoted in any bureaucracy, private or corporate, uniformed or civilian, by being the first person to volunteer the thought that a smaller—purposefully smaller—more agile structure would actually be a better outcome than trimmed-down versions of previous selves. The Air Force will continue to pursue a new (and expensive) manned bomber; the Navy will wish for 10 or so Ford-class carriers by 2050; and the intelligence community will wish for more or less linear extrapolations of its current structure and authorities into the same period—whether the environment requires or even permits them.

For several years, I have advocated a renewal of the Hart-Rudman Commission, with its fiendishly simple methodology: examine the coming environment and make reasoned judgments based on that environment; define a strategy to deal with that environment; and then see what tools you need to implement that strategy to cope with that environment. If the old tools still work, fine. If not, build tools and processes that do. I expect to continue pressing this thought, with little result, for some years to come. We need, however, to do better.

William M. Nolte is a research professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, a former senior executive in the U.S. intelligence community and chairman emeritus of AFCEA’s intelligence committee.

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