Building An Intelligence Community From Scratch

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on April 9 | in Big Data, Bureaucracy, Intelligence Reform

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What if you could wave a magic wand and reforge the U.S. Intelligence Community from scratch?

Former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Carmen Medina tried to capture this idea in an expansive thought experiment for Deloitte University Press that asked what the Intelligence Community might look like if it was reestablished in the year 2020. She discusses many of the themes Overt Action touches upon, and identifies the complexity of the threat landscape, transparency, and big data as the key drivers that would determine the new IC’s shape.

There’s much to chew on in Medina’s article, and we wholeheartedly agree with the first two drivers: the threat landscape and the need for better transparency. The complex international environment today is unlike the one the IC has faced during the Cold War or after 9/11, which required unity of effort and multiple layers of redundancy to protect against a single existential enemy. The IC of 2020 will need to be more nimble and less redundant, capable of adequately responding to war in Ukraine one day and crisis in Yemen the next.

Furthermore, a new IC would be built with stronger, effective mechanisms to clearly communicate with the American public. It has become clear in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures that the lack of (or perceived lack of) transparency has placed the IC on a collision course with some Americans’ general understanding of what is indeed appropriate intelligence collection in the modern world. An ever-growing amount of classified information combined with Americans with security clearances who believe, rightly or wrongly, they should reveal otherwise secret information is a recipe for disaster. Overt Action has been established with this very conundrum in mind—that there should be a better balance somewhere between the two.

On the other side of the ledger, we’re more skeptical of the third driver Medina identifies. She argues “Our new IC would emerge at a time when information is everywhere for the taking. Social media and mobile technologies produce floods of data never before imagined…Indeed, the revolution in analytics would largely determine the structure of our new intelligence community.”

In the business of intelligence, we advocate for a “big brains” rather than a “big data” approach. In a world where so much data is public and available to be aggregated, it is the access to very private data – the information from a human source or a terrorist’s email account combined with the smart analyst who can put the whole classified package together – that will set the IC apart and provide value beyond the 24-hour news coverage.

Furthermore, technology can certainly help synthesize the data available to analysts, but we don’t see technology, data, or analytics providing as much game-changing value as Medina expects. Big data cannot become a substitute for the human capacity to make sense of chaos—or as 40+ year CIA analyst Marty Petersen once noted in a classic article on intelligence analysis: “there is no substitute for knowing what one is talking about, which is not the same as knowing the facts.”

Medina’s drivers focus on threats and capabilities, but that’s only one side of the coin. One factor she neglects is the evolving relationship between the IC and its customers—the decision-making community. A critical component of this relationship is having the ear of these individuals and be taken seriously. This means the IC of 2020 has to mirror in large part the IC of this year—namely, to stay out of policy and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Or, as DCI Richard Helms said over a generation ago, “If we are not believed, we have no purpose.”

Yet policymakers are humans too. They cannot merely rely upon a steady diet of sterile Directorate of Intelligence (sorry, now “Directorate of Analysis”)-style memos and exciting-as-drywall briefs to make critical national security decisions.

Despite Medina’s intriguing points, the IC of tomorrow will probably look much like the IC of today. One modest reform, then, could be that the IC better serve its audience by co-locating or embedding many more of its officers in the places where its customers work. The personal relationships—the presence of an intelligence expert in the room to help policymakers solve tough problems—will be key to the IC’s success in the years ahead.

photo: constructing the NSA HQ building (NSA).

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