Intelligence Challenges Grow, Available Resources Decline
External threats and public revelations are only part
of the large menu of setbacks confronting the community.
The U.S. intelligence community has suffered significant damage from a perfect storm of insider revelations and budget cutbacks. Simultaneously, the threat picture confronting the United States has grown to an unprecedented level just when intelligence organizations are hampered in their efforts to continue to protect the nation.
The threat portfolio has become more diverse and less distinct, in contrast to the Cold War when the free world confronted a monolithic adversary. A variety of devastating capabilities now are in the hands of a growing number of malefactors who sometimes defy identification, let alone detection. And, severe budget-cutting measures imposed in recent years threaten to return with even more wide-ranging deleterious effects on the ability of the intelligence community to carry out its mission.
“In the 51 years I’ve been doing intelligence in one capacity or another, I don’t know of a time when we’ve been more challenged, more beset by crises overseas, than we are now,” declares Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James R. Clapper. “We’re enduring a perfect storm. Here is the impact of the revelations—in terms of both direct compromises that have been made and conscious decisions we’ve made to throttle back—the damaging impact they’ve had in terms of foreign relationships, not to mention domestic partnerships.
“You overlay that with the budget cuts we’ve incurred—three solid years of cutting intelligence—and the bottom line is this is about accepting more risk,” he warrants.
“Even with the cuts, there are still some things we’re trying to protect and invest in,” he continues. “You always worry about resources, and ultimately it’s the Congress that is responsible for appropriating resources; and they do that and they also can be—and are—quite directive.”
Clapper notes the sequestration law goes for 10 years, and that may be among the biggest challenges. “My worst nightmare is that sequestration law is not changed,” he offers. “In 2016, unless something is done, we revert to sequestration.”
As a result of sequestration, the country’s readiness today is not as good as it was three years ago, Clapper warns. “These [cuts] are insidious things. It’s not like closing public parks or having longer lines at the airport. That’s something that people can see, feel and touch.
“The problem with intelligence, in conveying the damage that has been done, is it’s like termites—you don’t know until the porch falls down, or worse,” he analogizes. “And we’re in sort of the same mode. Some capability we cut today; you may not know the impact of that for a year or years from now.”
Even with budget cuts that affect the availability of resources, the intelligence community is not likely to cut back on its activities. “I don’t see the demand for intelligence receding at all,” the DNI posits. “If anything, I see it increasing.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to do business with less resources—that’s for sure,” he declares.
Clapper observes the country is well into a national dialogue on intelligence. Participants include the public, the media, the Congress and foreign entities. The community has tried to facilitate this dialogue “with unprecedented engagements with the media,” he adds, noting that thousands of pages of documents have been declassified to enhance this dialogue. Much of the dialogue is externally driven, and the course it takes largely is up to others, not the intelligence community.
The DNI offers that the biggest takeaway from this dialogue has been the need for greater transparency. Had the administration been more forthcoming about the need for some of these programs, then much of the controversy over them would not have arisen, he suggests.
“I’ve often said ‘transparency is a double-edged sword,’” the DNI continues. “Transparency is great, it’s healthy, and it’s good for our country. But adversaries go to school on that transparency, too,” he admits.
The recent revelations by Edward Snowden and Pfc. Manning have increased the focus on the insider threat throughout the community. Clapper says the WikiLeaks revelations have resulted in greater internal auditing and monitoring of the electronic behavior of employees, and this will become more pervasive as time goes on. Attendant to that is a change in philosophy that the community has wanted to pursue for some time—continuous evaluations for security clearances.
This would entail evaluating the same behavioral characteristics and attributes traditionally used for initially granting clearances to individuals, he explains, but this process would be carried out continuously. This hopefully would detect and deter insider threats, Clapper states, but he warns, “We cannot ever guarantee that we will completely eliminate the insider threat, human nature being what it is. People are ingenious, creative and smart. They’ll figure out a way to beat whatever mousetraps we install in the system.”
These efforts to detect and deter the insider threat are designed not to inhibit the intelligence community’s new thrust toward need to share versus need to know. The major initiative for need to share is the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, or ICITE. It will exploit cloud computing along with attendant security enhancements that couple data tagging with people tagging. In this approach, the data is labeled and managers know with whom the data is being shared. Clapper says the confidence inspired by this approach will have the effect of both enhancing security and promoting sharing.
“We have squeezed about all the blood out of the current information technology turnip we can in terms of sharing,” Clapper analogizes. “To take it to the next level, we need a single unitary information technology enterprise with the attendant security enhancements built into it.
“This also will have the effect of reducing the need for a large cadre of information technology contractors,” he continues. “It will be more efficient, in terms of savings; it will promote sharing; and it will be secure.”
The global cyber threat looms large for the intelligence community. As cyber continues to extend its reach into every corner of society and government activities, adversaries will exploit those same technologies, Clapper points out. That issue, along with the revelations of the past year, will influence what the community does in the future.
The intelligence community requires cyber experts who understand computer technology and its associated skills, the general offers, but the community also will need people who do more than detect intrusions and hack into outside systems. “In one sense, cyber and all that it’s connected with is a big new bold challenge out there,” he points out. “But, in other ways, it’s another domain that we have to operate in. In that respect, it’s not all that much different [than traditional intelligence missions]. We can apply the same processes that we normally have. I don’t think that cyber turns the whole intelligence community upside down.”
Technology will continue to play a major role in meeting intelligence challenges. Among the technologies on the DNI’s wish list are novel sensing technologies and phenomenologies, as well as the detection of these technologies; automated discovery and analysis of highly diluted information; the ability to leverage the Internet of things to support intelligence; persistent cross-platform exploitation and detection technologies; identity science and biometrics; and advanced video analytics.
Clapper cites another example: asking industry for input on how the community can use technology to avoid bulk collection. This goal emerged from an external review conducted after the Snowden revelations.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI’s) acquisition technology and facilities staff has issued a document, which Clapper describes as a first, called the Intelligence Community Scientific and Technology Investment Landscape. It covers the period of 2015 through 2019, and the community is using it as the principal vehicle for gathering communitywide needs that do not track directly to one of the individual agencies. This information would be both collected across the intelligence community and disseminated to its partners.
The ODNI issued a request for information for industry input on communitywide needs in this document. He emphasizes that the result will be what the ODNI uses as a decision aid for future investment opportunities.
Clapper does not foresee any dramatic shift in emphasis for intelligence community activities. “The array of capabilities that we try to protect and invest in have to be those capabilities that give us the most flexibility—the ability to react and respond to a variety of challenges, rather than try to predict clairvoyantly ‘we’re going to have this challenge, so let’s buy this unique niche capability.’
“What we need are those that are more universal by their nature,” he explains. “This means a robust overhead architecture, HUMINT [human intelligence] global coverage—which we’ve had, and we have to sustain that—just to name two examples.
“[We need] a general array of capabilities, in all modes—be it SIGINT [signals intelligence], HUMINT, GEOINT [geospatial intelligence] or MASINT [measurement and signatures intelligence]—and try to maintain as much balance and capability because of the unpredictability of what will happen in the future. So, when something happens, we will have some ability to adjust and respond.”
As with any sensitive endeavor, personnel tops the intelligence community’s list of greatest needs. “We must continue to bring in the great people that we’ve been able to bring in, particularly since 9/11, to join the intelligence community,” he states. “With all the other challenges, vicissitudes, budget cuts—whatever we endure, what’s going to get us through this is our people.”
Clapper emphasizes that the community’s attrition rate continues to be steady, down to between 4-5 percent. Some specialties have experienced departure spikes, but that is not unusual over time. He adds that the ODNI recently hired about 30 people from nearly 9,000 applicants, so interest in serving in the intelligence community remains strong.
He does not deny that the recent budgetary problems have generated personnel challenges. “When you have furloughs, government shutdowns, pay freezes and bonus freezes over an extended period of time, that’s not conducive to attracting people,” he states.