President's Commentary: Sorting Fact From Fiction in Intelligence
Intelligence challenges are continually evolving, but the challenges of the past pale in comparison to the depth and breadth of today’s trials. The problem is not a shortage of data or information; rather, the test is sifting through the unfathomable amounts of data and determining its veracity and relevance amidst both organized and anarchistic disinformation. Diogenes would be hopelessly befuddled in his search for truth in today’s society, but intelligence cannot afford to allow mistruths to shape its findings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore several underlying issues that otherwise might not have received appropriate attention. Society at large is operating in a restricted information environment as the coronavirus reigns. Education and telework, among many areas, often depend on the same base information infrastructure that supports the intelligence community as well as the entire country. That infrastructure is both vulnerable to adversaries and susceptible to failure owing to the lack of robustness and heretofore unattended vulnerabilities. One lesson we’ve learned from COVID-19 is that regardless of the nature of the workforce, whether academia, civilian or government, people must be able to work from diverse and often remote and underserviced locations if we are to address our national security needs and apply our intellectual talents.
In this environment, the intelligence community must rely to a greater degree on open-source information. This is where skillfully distinguishing truth from its polar opposite becomes all the more important.
To do this, the intelligence community must look at the world differently than it has in the past. First, it must increasingly seek reliable partnerships that it can leverage to offset shortcomings. One approach is a tighter coupling with industry and academia. Much of today’s industry is global, and this can be a resource if properly leveraged. Better sharing of information among industry, academia and government can benefit everyone.
We also need an intelligence focus that better understands the impact of rapid commercial and academic technological development, its potential uses and its associated effects on our interests. These technological advances are generating new types and sources of data that strain efforts to determine and discern the truth. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will lead to unforeseen consequences—many positive, some adverse—which the community must be prepared to address as it seeks an understanding of the second- and third-order effects.
Innovative technologies have led us into space, and that warfighting domain requires an increased intelligence focus. The nation needs to determine which capabilities are required to shape and control its own destiny in space, and intelligence lies at the core of that effort. Many of the challenges we face in cyber are also looming in space-related capabilities. These domains are inexorably linked with modern telecommunications and require tighter strategic coupling and integration.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic brutally illustrates the need for better medical intelligence. Early reports on the virus were all over the map, both figuratively and literally, and the inability to sort accurate findings from misinformation continues to plague medical and policy efforts to this day.
Today we seem to be witness to a time of revolutionary change worldwide. Some of it is long overdue, as past wrongs are righted and unfair barriers to progress are removed. To properly understand what is taking place requires an increased focus on economic intelligence and societal understanding, especially in secretive nations.
But amid the changes in the West are acts of violence and destruction that have little to do with the cause to which they are attached. Radical protestors are hijacking calls for policy change with their vandalism and destructive attacks on property, individuals and government. This is a classic pattern utilized in the 1970s by left-wing protest groups such as Germany’s Bader-Meinhof Gang, which sought to launch a countrywide uprising by triggering a government crackdown that would turn the public against the country’s democracy. This radical group failed for many reasons, but we’re seeing history repeat itself as subversive agitators use lies and disinformation to overcome reason. Again, truth is being pushed out of the way by misleading actions. We need to be able to distinguish between the two.
Which brings us back to the information world. The United States and others seem to have devolved into a nation of people who have sacrificed critical thinking in favor of embracing superficial ideas wrapped into 280 characters or less. Our education system is faltering. The absence of an honest broker in the information realm leaves the playing field open for those who skillfully and shrewdly deal in rumors, myths, innuendo and outright lies to support nefarious activities. We must be able to collect truthful information and, where necessary, present it to the public at large.
Ultimately, the truth will set us free.