The Future of American Intelligence

by N. M. GUARIGLIA July 24, 2012

When preparing how to best counter future threats, the United States Intelligence Community (IC) has two primary avenues down which it can travel.  The IC can either concentrate on the probable nature of our future adversaries-or on the nature of the future itself.  Although assessing the nature of our enemies has been an important tool in the intelligence repertoire, as time goes on I suspect this method of intelligence, when applied by itself, will fall victim to diminishing returns.  Should the IC seek to continue its strategic function, it will require a greater emphasis on anticipating the technological trajectory of the world.

Though technology has redefined the boundaries of human potential, it has also forced us to reevaluate our expectations of privacy.  This has inevitably altered the nature of secrecy, which will have a significant impact on the IC in the ensuing decades.  The nature of secrecy is changing every year.  Therefore efforts to maintain secrecy, such as protective security, must also evolve.

During the Cold War, the IC was able to assess the Soviet Union's military capabilities in a comparative checklist manner (tank-for-tank, missile-for-missile).  This is no longer solely the case for a variety of reasons.  Most obviously, the nature of the enemy has changed since the end of the Cold War.  Through the proliferation of deadly technology and the asymmetrical transformation of war, our most imminent enemies are individuals capable of inflicting as much, if not more, damage on the United States than all the armies of all the past tyrants combined.  For all their butchery abroad, Hitler and Stalin never reached Downtown Manhattan. 

Which raises the question: at what point does a 9/11-type attack become "imminent"; during its phase of conception, its phase of planning, its phase of implementation-on the morning of the attack itself?  Terrorism as a tactic compels us to summon a greater sense of urgency.  Intelligence must be collected and analyzed quickly, so as to become actionable in a timely manner.

There exists the possibility, however, that a more conventional Soviet-like adversary could emerge as this nation's chief security threat this century (e.g., the People's Republic of China).  Should this scenario arise, the IC would not be excused from eluding the issue at hand.  The nature of the enemy is, in many ways, incidental.  Our enemies will always undertake that metamorphosis which best exposes our soft underbelly and leaves us most vulnerable.  The inherent differences between our potential opponents should affect our policymakers' grand strategy, but these differences should not exempt the IC from maintaining an anticipatory disposition. 

Twenty years from now, whether or not our principal opponent is a jihadist network like al-Qaeda or a state-power like China-or a combination of both-the IC should have an adequate grasp of contemporary technological availabilities, and continue to provide analysis regarding how best to protect our secrets and extract our enemies' secrets.

The underlying premise of all intelligence reform is not exclusively who we shall encounter, but rather what we shall encounter.  The natural lifespan of technology leads to its eventual dissemination throughout the world.  The history of warfare between the West and its unfree enemies has proven that unfree societies are parasitic on Western technology they did not create and cannot adequately use on their own accord.  For instance, the last two innovations to come out of the contemporary Middle East have been the suicide-vest and the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).  But the jihadist in no way invented the requisite detonators and explosive charges.  These devices began as concepts, and though never employed by the West through indiscriminate terrorism, nevertheless originated as our intellectual property before they were hijacked for deviant use.  This leads to a truism: if we can protect ourselves against our enemies' eventual technological piracy, we will have a better chance at thwarting their stated cataclysmic ends.

Developing a National Intelligence Estimate on a case-by-case basis -- one for Iran, one for North Korea, etc. -- will gradually become less advantageous for policymakers.  In the future, the status of our enemies' arsenals will become less of a mystery and more of a given, just as today impoverished American families still likely own automobiles, multiple televisions, and the newest electronics which would only befit another country's royal family.  In other words, the Western technologies of the next 10-15 years will likely be our adversaries' technologies in the next 20-25 years.  Hopefully this rapid parasitism does not apply to nuclear technology.  It remains difficult to enrich uranium and split the atom; an advanced knowledge of physics and engineering is required. 

Nevertheless, contrast the secrecy and protective security surrounding the American development of the atomic bomb in the 1940s with today, where nuclear know-how is inadvertently leaked by the U.S. government itself.  In 2006, the United States released the so-called "Operation Iraqi Freedom documents" online, which consisted of tens of thousands of boxes of documents, data, audiotapes, videotapes, and various other types of intelligence found in post-Saddam Iraq by U.S. forces.  Since the IC did not have enough time or translators to decode the documents, the IC put them online in hopes of creating a "Wikipedia-effect," whereby, over time, Arabic-speaking persons could read, edit, and translate the data, revealing new information regarding Saddam's Ba'athist regime.  The history of the war was to be gradually written using the "order-from-chaos" principle; should someone mistranslate a document, someone else would eventually correct the error.  It was the first time the IC attempted to use open-source intelligence (OSINT) in such a large-scale manner.  But just weeks into the project, it was revealed that amongst these documents were detailed nuclear weapons blueprints -- and DNI Negroponte took the documents offline.

This is part of the dangerous irony of living in an open and democratic society.  We develop astounding technologies for national security purposes.  These technologies eventually transcend their initial purpose and enter the marketplace.  They become commercialized for the betterment of our society, and are then sold in the global market to other countries.  In short, our military technology matures and is put to a civilian purpose, whereas other nations-perhaps hostile to us-take the civilian-version of that technology and put it to military purpose.  This fosters an international environment of parity and equilibrium.  And we should expect this to continue.

In what ways will it continue?  Consider the enduring purpose of the IC: to collect, gather, and protect secrets; to validate information; and to identify, analyze, disrupt, neutralize, and exploit intelligence activities targeted against us.  Let's briefly look at each activity.


Imagine a top-secret intelligence document on Joseph Stalin from 1951.  Such a document would probably contain Stalin's personal biography, his history of lies, alliances, and aggression, psychological analysis of the dictator, and the like.  Is it too far of a stretch to infer that such a document would look not all that different from the results of a present-day Google search on Stalin?  Though there might be oversights in this example, the point remains: information that was once hard to collect is now much easier to collect.  Francis Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane has given way to Google Earth.  With today's digital banking, yesteryear's "follow the money" mantra no longer seems quite so daunting a task.  Computers can freeze our enemies' financial assets; the loyalty and competence of an individual banker is no longer required.  The IC has done a good job in adopting these collection techniques, but must remain knowledgeable of future developments so the intelligence bureaucracies do not become reactive.  Cloud-computing is the next big thing.  Some technology thinkers have compared the potential impact of cloud-computing to the impact electricity generators had on the frozen water trade in the early 20th century.


In 2006, the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland published a report on the future of intelligence analysis.  Its findings were generally consistent with the views in this article.  In regards to analysis specifically, one of the key recommendations was to outsource more responsibilities to non-government experts.  Basically, as intelligence analysis becomes more reliant on new and unusual technologies, rather than create a new technical subset agency within the IC, the IC should divvy those duties to private entities that have a mastery of that specific technology.  In a way, this may lead the IC on a path that will bring it full circle. Technology may become so complicated, and so overwhelming to a single bureaucracy, that at some point the IC will claim it is being held to unreasonable expectations by policymakers, and will likely outsource the technical aspects of analysis, while reverting back to its historic roots of human intelligence, espionage, inductive and deductive analysis, and good-old fashioned James Angleton-style one-on-one intuition. 

As Sherlock Holmes said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Covert Action

The future of covert action will likely be different.  Clandestine and covert operations will continue to have a place within the context of war strategy, but the worldwide propagation of surveillance technology will continue to make these operations more difficult to successfully pull off during "peacetime."  Consider the recent Israeli operation in Dubai against a well-known Hamas killer.  The identities of the Israeli agents were compromised by hours of surveillance video throughout Dubai.  We should expect similar hurdles in the future.

Additionally, the political viability of 1950s-style covert action is already dwindling, and will likely continue.  It's become passé for a democracy to unapologetically hunt down one's enemies.  The good news is, as a tool of statecraft, the necessity of covert action is also likely to lessen.  A covert coup d'état is unnecessary when an entire oppressed population can simply use Twitter (or an equivalent) to oust the targeted political leadership.  In this country, technology is recession-proof; abroad, it will become more ubiquitous and will pleasantly sweep away many of our enemies without the IC having to lift a finger.


Counterintelligence and protective security will remain the most important responsibility of the IC.  The United States does not keep that many secrets.  Therefore those that we do keep are of utmost magnitude.  Rogue states will continue to use terrorist groups-rather than their intelligence services-to confront the United States.  Large adversarial powers (e.g., Russia, China) will likely use their intelligence agencies to challenge ours.  The IC should acknowledge this distinction, and share the task with DHS or another anti-terrorist agency.

In order to protect our secrets from Chinese foreign intelligence, the IC will have to keep up with the latest encryption code technologies.  The Central Intelligence Agency will need to act like the "De-Centralized" Intelligence Agency, and defer to private companies with proficiency in nano- and biotechnology, as well as Artificial Intelligence.  We will need to remain at the forefront of theoretical physics, particularly quantum physics.  Open-source and photo-imagery intelligence will be prevalent throughout the Internet, which will make HUMINT secrets that much more valuable. 

The IC might have to go back to an era in which our secret files were kept in file cabinets; in which secrets were not encrypted or coded, but were kept at their most pure and honest form... in the mind of a patriotic individual.

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.


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