Today's Intelligence Challenges Face 
a Distant Mirror

April 1, 2013
By Capt. D. Mark Houff, USN

The past may provide a guidelines to the future.

An established superpower is dealing with multiple threats to its interests around the world. An emerging global economic and military/naval power is making its presence felt throughout the world, particularly in Asia. The intelligence community is confronted with a complex environment punctuated by socio-economic power shifts and revolutions in communications, commerce and transportation. World intelligence organizations face internal and external terrorist and anarchist threats as well as exploding population growth and resource competition in strategically critical regions. Compounding these challenges are intelligence budgets that range from uncertain to non-existent.

Although these observations seem ripped from today’s headlines, the time in question is not 2013 but 100 years earlier—1913. The major players are different, but the challenges—and potential solutions—bear more than a passing similarity.

As the current U.S. intelligence community deals with its complex national security environment, intelligence organizations from a century ago provide excellent examples of prioritization, integration and efficiencies. A thoughtful application of 1913’s intelligence lessons effectively can guide today’s intelligence community leaders to victory.

In 2013, the U.S. intelligence community is dealing with a complex national security environment as well as extreme pressure to reduce spending. Simultaneously, the U.S. government is defining its future national security priorities to include external threats and internal fiscal responsibility. These challenges force the intelligence community to set priorities, integrate more effectively and obtain resourcing efficiencies. An examination of the 1913 intelligence structure illuminates key lessons to overcome these challenges and to guide this effort. First, the intelligence community definitively must prioritize the threats to U.S. global leadership and focus on common threads within those threats. Second, adequate numbers of well-trained analysts and cultural experts ensure success. Finally, the community’s integrating medium is data, which must be shared efficiently among agencies.

Despite some differences between the intelligence structures of 1913 and 2013—such as 1913’s relatively small worldwide and U.S. intelligence organizations; infant signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities rather than well-established ones; and expanding intelligence budgets and manpower in some countries—the similarities between the eras are more compelling. In 1913, the role of the emerging power was played by the United States, with Great Britain—and Imperial Germany to a lesser extent—acting as the world’s superpower. The world powers of 1913, much as those today, were confronted with a multitude of challenges rather than a single threat and were feeling their way towards an indeterminate—but forecast—future military conflict. Similarly, the intelligence structures of 1913 were organizing and prioritizing to meet a variety of challenges.

Today’s U.S. intelligence community likewise faces a myriad of challenges, not the least of which is budgetary. Recent statements from Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., USAF (Ret.), indicated that the community’s nearly $85 billion fiscal year 2012 unclassified budget will be reduced over the next decade with “cuts in the double-digit range with a ‘b’[billion].” Consequently, the DNI is continuing efforts, which really began in earnest around 2007, to integrate the intelligence community and make it more efficient.

Examining a variety of publicly available statements and unclassified planning documents that DNIs have issued since 2007 reveals that these efforts are categorized roughly along three main themes: threat prioritization, people and systems. Concurrently, enhanced integration and standardization of information technology systems in the intelligence community are purported to save 25 to 50 percent of the community’s budget over the same period, according to testimony for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. These themes offer excellent guidance to the today’s intelligence leaders, who are striving to make the community more integrated and efficient.

Currently, the U.S. government is consumed with codifying its future national security priorities. This is a worthwhile pursuit because such priorities are the keystone to everything the intelligence community does and everywhere it invests. In January 2012, Gen. Clapper underscored the difficulty in selecting a primary focus by noting in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that, “... it is virtually impossible to rank—in terms of long-term importance—the numerous, potential threats to U.S. national security. … Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats—and the actors behind them—that constitute our biggest challenge.”

Scrutinizing 1913’s intelligence lessons, however, demonstrates that identifying a primary threat and focusing intelligence gathering on it is critical to success—much as Frederick the Great’s oft-quoted maxim, “If you try to hold everything, you hold nothing.”

Great Britain, the 1913-era superpower, similarly was confronted by a variety of threats across the globe that were difficult to rank—particularly with a relative paucity of intelligence resources to address them. The British solution to this problem was to prioritize definitively the existential threats to its military and economic supremacy. Britain identified naval sea control by adversaries as the primary threat to national survival. Further, the country viewed the common thread among these threats as other nation-states’ shipbuilding capabilities, which allowed Britain to allocate scarce intelligence resources effectively.

In much the same manner, the two largest intelligence communities of that time, those of Germany and Russia, ruthlessly organized to focus on their primary assessed threats. Germany, for example, concentrated on developing huge intelligence networks in France and Russia to ascertain their war plans and capabilities. Russia, for its part, emphasized sources in Germany and Austria-Hungary, yet it also devoted huge resources to a perceived, internal counter-intelligence/counter-terrorist threat. Russia’s efforts were so well- focused that, by 1913, it gained an in-depth understanding of the German war plan and was able to predict accurately when Germany would be able to execute it.

The U.S. National Security Staff already is taking the first step toward appropriately transferring last century’s lessons of strategic focus and prioritization to today. In a January 2012 statement, the president and the secretary of defense mutually identified the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions, along with fiscal responsibility, as critical priorities for future security. To sustain this momentum, the intelligence community must further prioritize efforts within these areas and then select a few key actors upon which to focus emphasis. Much like Russia in 1913, the United States does not have the luxury of limiting this selectivity only to nation-states. It also must consider non-state violent extremist networks. The intelligence community can be aided in this prioritization effort by finding common threat threads as Britain did in 1913. These common threads must be prioritized according to their ability to threaten U.S. global power.

If the DNI’s unclassified threat assessment is a guide, then the primary existential thread woven throughout threats to U.S. security is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)—and with it the potential of a rogue state, extremist network or lone actor acquiring a WMD and using it against the United States. For specific focus, the intelligence community must invest more deeply in capabilities targeting Iran, Pakistan and North Korea as well as continuing efforts against al-Qaida-related jihadist movements. These states and organizations are the most likely to contribute to a WMD threat against the United States. Additionally, and much as with Tsarist Russia around 1913, today’s intelligence community must dedicate increased strategic priority against internal threats—the so-called homegrown violent extremists—who are considered a developing threat by the DNI.

Equally important to external threat prioritization is the community’s internal prioritization of resources. The Office of the DNI—supported by very strong staff research—has identified people and data systems as key integration and efficiency priorities. Further, the community is pinning high hopes for budget savings on data systems integration and standardization. Again, the lessons of the pre-Great-War era are applicable.

Foremost among these lessons is that sufficient numbers of good analysts, armed with regional/cultural expertise, are essential to success. All of the 1913 major powers created expansive networks of collectors and sources—spies—that provided large quantities of data. They also expanded their analytical capabilities. From 1909 to 1913, British intelligence was able to collect huge volumes of data, most of it overtly available, on German shipbuilding efforts but learned that the analytical verification and filtering process was essential to satisfy its customers. Similarly, Russian intelligence from 1906 until World War I was structured with personnel specially educated in a geographic area of study and fluent in target country languages, and it assigned analytic and collections duties based on this expertise.

The desire of the current DNI to continue personnel hiring in the face of budgetary reductions is reflective of 1913’s lesson about analytical quantity, and this should be encouraged. Additionally, training and regional/language expertise development should be expanded to enhance this analytical force’s quality. These steps should be taken even if they require a budgetary tradeoff against technical collection systems. Finally—as Britain did to great effect against its 1913 threats—the U.S. intelligence community should expand both relatively low-cost open source intelligence and clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) collection efforts in the focus countries within Asia and the Middle East.

In the technical systems arena, a crucial lesson from 1913 is that data is the intelligence community’s integrating medium. Common access to data drives community integration. For example, the 1913-era British Naval Intelligence Division, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence and U.S. Military Intelligence Department created large data repositories based upon what would be called in today’s terms “output focus.” The United States pioneered efforts to make these data repositories, then in the form of card files, standardized and available across that period’s intelligence community.

The current search for a single intelligence community standard information environment is an effort to create the modern card file. These attempts to expand effective and efficient data sharing across agencies must be the second resourcing priority, which will greatly complement an enhanced analytical corps. Around 1913, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia were driven to create centralized, all-source intelligence bureaus to connect existing HUMINT with greatly increased SIGINT collections because of the advent of encrypted radio communications. Similarly, cross-discipline integration should become a high intelligence community priority today. Moreover, integrated multi-INT search capabilities and cloud computing with shared resources, software and information can both improve analysis and reduce expenditures.

Capt. D. Mark Houff, USN, is deputy commander, Joint Special Operations Command Intelligence Brigade. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Navy.


Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.


Share Your Thoughts:

Sir: Thank you your insightful article. As with predicting future event's, threats, etc; It seems new and better technologies are inevitable. I think the largest variable is not technical, but psycho-social. How and for any reason we can best react to near future "event's", can (usually) not take into account our point-of-view in that future circumstance. Our "point-of-view" on 9/12/2001 was not imagined by many on 9/10/2001.

I've looked at the using social media as a real-time experimental protocol to apply an old term: Run something up the flag poll (twitter stream, much the same) and see who salutes, or is offended, or change's a point of view. That's immediate and the greater the emotional reflex, the more "unfiltered" and as factual a peek into one persons POV, and often any so called self identification an individual has with a "group". At least such social-media "experiment's" could provide insight in no way all the signet intercepts could. Someones emotional point, POV, and possible intent. As in; "OK, what do you think about "X", and what do you feel"?

Share Your Thoughts: