Cries of an intelligence failure following the social unrest in the Middle East sparked a furious public debate. But it also illuminated a new role for the intelligence community in a world transformed by Twitter.
It’s long been a truism of national security politics: There are policy successes and intelligence failures.
The highest-ranking intelligence officials were treated to a crash course in that lopsided lesson last winter. Social unrest, triggered by a number of factors, toppled Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali then spread to Egypt and, eventually, ousted erstwhile U.S. ally President Hosni Mubarak.
“We warned of instability,” CIA official Stephanie O’Sullivan said; her confirmation hearings to be deputy director of national intelligence coincided with the scenes of havoc flickering across TV screens. But “we didn’t know what the triggering mechanism was going to be,” she added.
O’Sullivan, who was ultimately confirmed to her position, wasn’t alone in her assessment. In the weeks and months since, as political upheaval spread throughout Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, intelligence insiders rebutted the charge that the intelligence community, or the IC as it’s sometimes known, was caught off guard. Perceptive analysis and flat-out prediction are two different things. And prophecy has never been a capability advertised by the IC.
If nothing else, the surprising events in the Middle East, the finger-pointing and public dialogue over intelligence failures may finally put to bed the misconceptions surrounding the role of the IC and also highlight the opportunities for intelligence in a world transformed by Twitter.
No Crystal Ball
The intelligence community is no stranger to claims it has failed. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, dubious information surrounding weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq War and even the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union had policymakers calling for heads to roll in the spy agencies.
But the most recent public outcry left intelligence experts baffled and exasperated. Not only did the IC give leaders timely updates about Egypt, but the clamor about botched intelligence stems from a lack of understanding of what it can accomplish, defenders of the IC said. When it comes to intelligence analysis, there is no crystal ball.
This misunderstanding has put the IC on the defensive — unfairly, many believe. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor may have said it best: For decades, intelligence reports described the “simmering unrest” in the region, but how could “anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and spark a revolution?” Itinerant merchant Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation is credited with jump-starting the tumult in Tunisia that eventually toppled two North African autocratic regimes.
In fact, Robert Tomes, an intelligence specialist and director of strategy and plan at BAE Systems, said many of the countries that later became consumed by social unrest were known to be “ripe for instability.” The New York Times revealed in February that a secret report ordered by President Barack Obama a year before the outbreak of violence identified key areas vulnerable to unrest, including Egypt.
“I know they’ve warned of the structural problems of the Middle East,” said Ellen McCarthy, a former official under Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and who now serves as president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance in Arlington, Va.
“But this doesn’t mean you can predict exactly when a regime is going to fail. As an analyst, never was I issued a crystal ball,” she added, using the turn of phrase many intelligence insiders bandied about in the wake of Egypt.
Early on, former National Security Agency analyst Bill Nolte, now a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, assailed lawmakers who claimed to be surprised by Egyptian unrest, if for no other reason than the vast media coverage the country’s instability had garnered in international press.
Members of Congress, who, Nolte said, “had no clue from the intelligence community that the Mubarak regime was aging and fragile really need to stop waiting for the intelligence community and just get a subscription to The Economist.”
Experts say the dust up in public opinion following Egypt can be explained by the public’s misunderstanding of what intelligence can and can’t do. The lack of a crystal ball is only one of them.
In his Senate confirmation hearings last July, Clapper cautioned about the limits of intelligence gathering. “Too often, people assume that the intelligence community is equally adept at divining both secrets (which are theoretically knowable) and mysteries (which are generally unknowable), but we are not,” he said. “Normally, the best that intelligence can do is to reduce uncertainty for decision-makers — whether in the White House, the Congress, the embassy or the fox hole — but rarely can intelligence eliminate such uncertainty.”
Fewer Boots, More Scrutiny
For U.S. intelligence, the publicity of its failures and the obscurity of its successes will likely only be heightened as the IC undergoes a period of transition: a scaled-back global military presence and the specter of budget uncertainty.
McCarthy, former director of human-capital management under Clapper, said she is confident her old boss and soon-to-retire Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates realize the importance of intelligence, especially as kinetic investments around the globe — boots on the ground — decrease. But this is different than previous periods of military scale-back, she said. This is no 1990s-era “peace dividend.”
“The reality is that, in some ways, you have to enhance your intelligence capabilities because you don’t have as many people on the ground who can report what’s going on,” she said. “So, it’s an incredibly delicate balance to maintain your collection capability while you don’t have people there.”
Retired Army Col. Joe Rozek knows full well the impact of boots on the ground. “As you reduce the kinetic imprint … you lose a key intelligence resource,” he said. Rozek, executive director for homeland security and counterterrorism at Microsoft, said troops on the ground are often key recipients of valuable human intelligence.
“Our intelligence capabilities are going to have to overcome that natural asset we have on the ground today in terms of our boots-on-the-ground capability,” he added.
Intelligence is also changing as it slowly emerges from the shadows. “Intelligence is more public than it’s ever been,” analyst-turned-academician Nolte said. And along with that openness, many expect accountability. “Once you say you’re spending $80 billion a year on [intelligence], there’s certainly a point where the public says, ‘And, in return, we’re getting what?’” Nolte said.
It’s a far cry from the days when NSA, officially unacknowledged by the government, earned the moniker No Such Agency.
With intelligence under scrutiny, the question of how to measure its successes is important. Because intelligence is often kept justifiably secret, how do we know when and where it’s working?
Nolte said there are two broad indicators of intelligence success. The first is in the field of counterterrorism since 9/11. Intelligence has made the U.S. a harder target for terrorists to penetrate, he said. “We have raised their cost of business dramatically,” he put it. Second, even with strong contenders, such as Israel’s Mossad and Britain’s MI6 — which, it should be noted, are both allies of the U.S. — the U.S. has the strongest intelligence system in the world, and peers recognize that, Nolte said. “This isn’t even close,” he said. “If this were an athletic contest, you’d call a mercy rule.”
Redefining the Role
Experts say the public-relations skirmishes could be akin to growing pains, as the IC evolves into its current role. The network of intelligence agencies has largely been structured around the imprint of the Cold War — the collection of secrets from organized, foreign adversaries.
But there are other tools and capabilities out there, said Andrew Chester, president of Juno Risk Solutions, a start-up focused on operating risks in overseas operations. These tools fall outside the scope of the traditional suite of classified intelligence processes, he said, and often couple those traditional practices with social-science approaches and opensource methods, such as political demographics.
In fact, the National Research Council came to the same conclusion in a recent report. Intelligence Analysis for Tomorrow: Advances from the Behavioral and Social Sciences, sponsored by Clapper’s office, urged intel agencies to adopt methods and theories from the social sciences and to develop stronger ties to academia.
Chester, who helped write the guidebook on opensource intelligence — exploiting unclassified material, such as news reports in intelligence analysis — for NATO, said he thinks there could be a better blending of open-source and classified collection.
“What I would like to see is not open sources being a bolt on to the existing community, but rather looking at what you can accomplish by partnering with industry,” he explained. And he doesn’t only mean industry in terms of contractors but also large multinational corporations that in many cases have very similar security intelligence problems as the government.
For example, a project Chester’s company worked on with the Department of Homeland Security on crossborder issues deployed the same kind of marketing intelligence “Starbucks uses to determine where to place their coffee shops,” he said.
Another opportunity is in the area of geospatial engineering and visualization technologies, BAE Systems’ Tomes said. “We’ve had a geospatial revolution ongoing for the last 15 years or so,” he said, tracing the shift to the launch of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the deployment of the technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, though, geospatial engineers are thinking outside the map, using the technology to analyze social-media networks and graph the political ideologies of groups on a spectrum.
In the evolution of the intelligence community, one thing is clear — a continued, robust role for contractors. The Washington Post reported recently that 30 percent of the intelligence workforce is made up of contractors, and 31 percent of those with Top Secret clearances hail from the private sector.
Tim Chase, a principal with Deloitte Consulting, said even the declining budget represents opportunities for contractors. “We’re entering an era where they’re likely to be asked to do more with less,” he said, which means openings for innovative industry solutions for better tools to collect and analyze.
But for an organization still carrying the baggage of Soviet-era intrigue, the IC must be quick on its feet as it evolves, learning to monitor social networks with the same intensity it once did dead-drop zones — all in an epoch Tomes called the “age of smart mobs and social media.”
However unfair the accusations of intelligence failure in the wake of the social and political unrest in Egypt, the events highlighted a new role for the intelligence community, which has been evolving since its Cold War genesis. “The big story is that communication channels and patterns have changed forever,” Chase said, “and we’re just seeing the beginning of this.”
— By Jack Moore