Dave McCurdy. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 1. January/February 1994.
During the cold war, the purpose of the U.S. intelligence community was clear. American intelligence was a spyglass focused on the Soviet Union, keeping track of Soviet military research and development and watching Soviet activities throughout the developing world. U.S. intelligence caught other things only in its peripheral vision.
Now the Cold War is over. But its passing has hardly put an end to conflict instability, or history. A dozen world hot spots clamor for attention from Bosnia to North Korea, from Angola to Armenia, from Cambodia to Somalia. New areas of dispute—religious, ethnic, and national rather than ideological—-threaten to replace the U.S. Soviet standoff as the engines of world instability. At the same time, the United States has undertaken the herculean task of shepherding Eastern Europe and Russia through divisive and incredibly expensive economic and political reforms. In short, the Cold War has bequeathed an uncertain legacy to the economically and socially exhausted West; and if anything, U.S. intelligence must now come to resemble a wide-angle lens, focusing equally on a host of different countries and issues. In a time of geopolitical uncertainty and sharp cutbacks in U.S. defense spending, the flexibility and foresight provided by good intelligence may be America’s most important foreign policy and defense asset in coming years.
In this new era, many U.S. defense doctrines and institutions must be reformed—and no reforms are more important than those focusing on intelligence.
While reforms in budgeting and organization are badly needed, thinking about U.S. intelligence requirements must begin with a fundamental reassessment of what the United States needs its intelligence services to do. What kind of information should they collect? To what uses will that information be put? We must redefine the nature of intelligence itself.
A major underlying theme of the following analysis is that the U. S. intelligence community needs a new defining mission, an overarching purpose like the Cold War’s emphasis on containing Soviet expansion, that serves to focus and justify the community’s efforts.
Many short-run tasks, from peacekeeping to regional conflict, will demonstrate the importance of good intelligence. But in the long run, the leaders of U. S. intelligence will need a grander notion of what they are about, a more sweeping definition of their job. Today, that defining mission can be the same one that justified the founding of the present intelligence community in 1947: to foresee and help prevent catastrophic attacks against the United States—that is, to avoid future Pearl Harbors, of whatever type.
During his campaign and the early weeks of his presidency, Bill Clinton articulated three organizing principles of U.S. foreign policy. These points provide a sound basis for crafting post-Cold War U.S. priorities abroad, and by extension for outlining U.S. intelligence needs. They include:
- Revitalizing U.S. economic strength and competitiveness;
- Maintaining a strong defense posture; and
- Promoting democracy abroad.
American intelligence capabilities must be geared, over the next decade, to serve these goals.
Opening Up Intelligence
As intelligence has become more important, it has also become more challenging. There are many reasons for this, but three stand out. One is the advent of what might be called “the CNN—era the near-instantaneous reporting of news and events from around the world, broadcast complete with pictures and instant analysis by reporters and media-contracted experts. Intelligence must now be more rapid and thorough than ever before to allow decision-makers to respond speedily, and it must be accurate enough to allow public officials to correct the truncated, sound-bite version of events so often provided by television news. At the same time, the CNN era has broadened the American public’s interest in foreign affairs; crises that in the past might have been ignored in Washington now receive daily news coverage, focusing public attention and ensuring that decisions will have to be taken—and that intelligence will be required.
The second challenge has to do with the blurring of lines between geopolitical categories With U.S. political leaders now concerned with economic renewal and international trade, it is more and more difficult to separate economic policy from foreign and defense policy; because all of America’s relationships with other major powers now involve elements of competition and of cooperation, it is perhaps more difficult to tell friend from foe. All of this makes it more difficult for the managers of U.S. intelligence agencies to know where to focus their resources, and there is a danger that U.S. intelligence activities could become so thinly spread among various crises and issues that the quality of analysis will suffer.
America’s most basic challenge, however, relates to the way its intelligence services interact with other areas of society. Much of U. S. Cold War policy was aimed at promoting reform in the former Soviet Union, but ironically, what the U.S. intelligence community may need more than anything today is a little glasnost of its own. In many cases, the deepest reservoirs of expertise about developing countries lie in our academic and business communities. Even on the military front what is needed is in-depth analysis of a regime’s intentions, not laundry lists of its weaponry. This is especially true of the former Soviet bloc, where hundreds of U.S. firms have established operations; their experiences and observations would provide a wealth of information to intelligence analysts. American analysts would benefit from more access to colleagues outside the community and more freedom to share their impressions with people on Capitol Hill and in academia, business and international organizations. The intelligence agencies must make it possible for analysts to spend a great deal of time living in their regions of specialty, building a knowledge of the situation on the ground and making friends and acquaintances who will serve as long-term sources of information. This process will encourage analysts to cast a wider net and will help reinvigorate the image of the intelligence community among those other constituencies. Hopefully, as a result, there will be growth in the already abundant pride and professionalism within the community.
The more open the intelligence process is, moreover, the more useful it will be to its customers. A broader canvas of opinion will produce better analysis and will allow analysts, rather than bureaucrats, to work more closely with decision-makers themselves. Openness will also address a persistent difficulty faced by intelligence analysts: the uneven attention given to intelligence by policymakers. Even the best intelligence is useless if policymakers ignore it. There is no permanent cure for this problem, but an executive branch official or legislator will be less likely to ignore a warning issued from someone he or she has known for years and has learned to be reliable and accurate.
Intelligence and Economic Strength
The Clinton administration’s most important task, and the mandate on which it was elected, is to reinvigorate the U.S. domestic economy. Already the administration has proposed plans to reduce the federal deficit, invest in U.S. industries and workers and reform the health care system.
Defense and foreign policy can play an important role in domestic economic renewal. U.S. security commitments can promote regional stability and the free flow of commerce and trade. Through forward deployed military forces, the United States can defend key economic interests, such as Persian Gulf oil supplies, and nourish friendships and alliances abroad that provide leverage in trade negotiations.
Those missions require traditional military and political intelligence. But the broader connection between defense and foreign policy (and thus intelligence) and economic performance raises an important—and troubling—question: To what degree should existing U.S. intelligence capabilities be used for economic, as opposed to military or political, purposes? Should U.S. satellites and spies look for the designs of Japanese steel yards or the plans for a new German optical device rather than the next Russian bomber?
At stake in the answer to these questions, which CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Jr., has called “the hottest current topic in intelligence policy,” may be not only the mission of U.S. intelligence services, but the whole tenor of international relations. If the world’s major trading powers begin viewing each other with suspicion, hoarding economic breakthroughs like atomic secrets and monitoring each other like enemies, the world could easily slide into an economic version of the Cold War.
This issue is not at all theoretical. U.S. allies have long used intelligence services to spy on foreign firms for economic purposes, and Russia—with a vast intelligence apparatus and little idea what to do with it—may expand its decade-old program of industrial espionage. Public attention was focused on this issue in April 1983, with the disclosure that the CIA had warned U.S. defense firms of espionage directed at them by French intelligence.
Any effort to approach the problem of economic intelligence will face a variety of complications. The United States and its allies differ sharply on this issue. Many important U. S. trading partners in Europe and Asia have long viewed economic performance as a critical variable of national power and see nothing wrong with using their intelligence assets to enhance that performance. One German official reacted to the alleged French action by suggesting that “no self-respecting intelligence agency would not obtain information in this manner.”
Increasing U.S. and allied reliance on dual-use equipment and other attempts to gain the most civilian economic benefits from military spending further blurs the distinction between civilian and military initiatives. It will become correspondingly difficult to distinguish between military and economic espionage. If a Russian spy is caught looking for secrets about the U.S. National Space Plane, for example, has he or she been caught conducting military or economic espionage? What if the spy is French; is there such a thing as military espionage conducted against allies, as the Jonathan Pollard case suggested? In addition, the end of the Cold War has made it more difficult to tell adversaries from allies. Polls indicate that the American people now view Japan as a greater threat to national security than Russia. I do not agree, but that perception illustrates how difficult it will be to balance the competitive and cooperative elements of our major relationships in the years ahead.
The activities of multinational companies further cloud the picture. How is one to determine today to which country a particular business belongs? Many modern industrial giants have large operations in several, or even many, countries; which ones deserve U.S. protection? Would Washington protect from espionage all companies doing research in the Unite States—even Japanese ones? What if an American firm relocated its headquarters abroad, but kept many manufacturing sites in the United States; would it still qualify for protection?
The definition of industrial espionage also remains vague. U.S. analysts routinely look at foreign economic trends and occasionally brief U. S. executives on this information; U.S. intelligence agencies provide support to U.S. officials attending various economic summits; and the CIA keeps track of other countries’ attempts to steal U.S. industrial secrets. At what point does this activity reach a critical mass and deserve the title “industrial espionage”?
There may be some distinction between active and passive industrial espionage. Active measures would be those designed to acquire industrial secrets through spying, such as placing an agent in a U.S. defense firm and using him or her to steal the designs for new equipment. Passive steps would refer to the gathering of economic intelligence only indirectly—as part, for example, of a general national assessment or a specific operation designed to acquire political or military facts. Admittedly, while such a distinction may exist in theory, it would be hard to sustain, and especially to enforce, in practice.
What, then, should the U.S. position be on economic intelligence? Two policies seem clearly justified. One is counterintelligence. U.S. spy services must keep a careful watch on the industrial espionage conducted by other countries and warn U.S. firms that have been targeted. Defending U.S. economic secrets can reveal interesting facts itself: if a particular country is targeting a specific industry, that may indicate something about that country’s economic priorities.
Second, U.S. intelligence services should continue gathering detailed economic data about dozens of other countries. U. S. officials use this information when making various economic and trade decisions. Economic intelligence will also continue to play a major role in country risk assessments, analyses of foreign military potential, and other political-military intelligence, thereby helping U.S. leaders avoid an economic Pearl Harbor in which our major trade competitors achieve a sudden breakthrough in economic policies or practices. And the intelligence community can share more open-source information with U.S. companies, including currently classified translations of unclassified foreign publications. But these activities will not be conducted for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets.
Finally, there is the ultimate question. Should the United States place its intelligence apparatus in the service of its businesses? In 1929 Secretary of State Henry Stimson decided to close his department’s codebreaking agency; twenty years later, he explained his decision with the caustic remark that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Is our reluctance to engage in industrial espionage as anachronistic today as that sentiment had become by 1948?
I do not believe that it is. For one thing, there are the risks mentioned above: economic espionage could undermine relations among the major trading partners, making political cooperation and free trade agreements less likely and setting the stage for a return to confrontation in the West. The hope for a new concert of major powers united against aggression and tyranny would not long survive a round of economic warfare.
Even more fundamentally, however, the information gained through industrial espionage would have only a marginal impact on U.S. economic performance. Individual trade secrets are seldom profound enough to shape the activity of an entire economy. Most of the time, in fact, U.S. businesses know exactly what their competitors are doing and why it works; the “secrets” of Japanese automobiles or German optics did not remain hidden for long. Even the macroeconomic strategies of most major trade powers and their primary corporations are reasonably well known today. The problem for U.S. businesses is not so much a lack of information, but applying the tactics and techniques used by others to U.S. operations.
The world’s major economic powers have little to gain and much to lose in industrial espionage. The United States might therefore consider leading an international effort to ban active industrial espionage. This ban would be an international treaty that does for economic spying what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade aims to do for protectionism. The treaty might even actively encourage openness and the sharing of information, the better to promote scientific research, technological breakthroughs, and economic development.
Such a treaty will clearly take some persuasion and cajoling, as well as some hair-splitting definitions of what is and what is not permitted. But even an agreement that is not universal in application would be helpful in moving the major economic powers toward greater openness while providing a means of punishment if egregious violations are uncovered.
President Clinton is also dedicated to the promotion of democracy abroad. The spread of democracy and free-market economies would clearly abet U.S. interests: democracies are less likely to go to war or undermine stability than authoritarian states.
Especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the success of the democratic experiment is of vital importance to the United States.
Once again, rapid news reporting has complicated the U.S. task. Television pictures of human-rights abuses, either persistent violations or sudden outbursts such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, can inflame U. S. public opinion and mandate a U.S. response. The media played the decisive role in forcing U.S. involvement (such as it was, and is) in both the Somalia and Bosnia crises.
But the debate over human rights is seldom about ends; it is about means. The United States and many other nations would benefit from the evolution of a fully democratic China, for example, ruled by moderate and responsible elected officials answerable to their people. The question is how to bring about such an outcome.
In general, there are two schools of thought on this question. The “engagement” school contends that isolation nurtures tyranny and that opening up authoritarian states—trading with them, encouraging outside investment and communications—is the surest way to promote reform and, eventually, democracy. The “sanctions” school rejects these ideas. Authoritarian states are expert at using outside economic investment and trade to prop up their inherently inefficient regimes, this school insists. It contends that the best way to promote democracy is to isolate repressive regimes and impose sanctions until they carry out the desired democratic reforms.
In promoting human rights and democracy, therefore, our fundamental choice is whether to engage or to isolate, to encourage or to demand. In the past, the choice was often made for strategic or political reasons having little to do with democracy. China benefited from engagement, for example, because of its importance in the global balance of power, while Vietnam is left out of U. S. trade and diplomatic circles because of the POW/MIA issue.
Over time the strategic and political straitjacket that has bound U.S. policy on these issues may loosen. The United States may soon be left, then, to decide whether to promote democracy more on the merits of the case than on standards imposed by strategic or political concerns. Some observers will view this as a liberating process, but in fact it will impose new burdens on U.S. decision-makers. Already President Clinton faces this question on China: what is the best strategy for achieving his stated goal of promoting human rights, democracy and free markets? This process will be complicated by the fact that the sanctions-versus-engagement issue can only be resolved on the merits of each individual case.
In many cases, U.S. leaders will use their intelligence services to make these tough choices. They will ask about the political situation in undemocratic states, the prospects of the regimes there, and the likely effect of various U.S. policies. A perfect example today is U.S. policy toward China: reliable information on Chinese political prisoners, repression of dissent, use of prison labor, treatment of Tibetans, and related subjects such as missile sales will be absolutely indispensable to the formation of a sound U.S. policy. The same is true in Vietnam and many other cases.
Equally important will be the U.S. intelligence assessment of the status of reforms under way in countries that are attempting to make the transition to democracy and free markets, particularly within the former Soviet Union. If there is to be another coup in Moscow, for example, U.S. policymakers will want to know—and have some informed suggestions about how to help head it off—in advance. If two East European nations are about to go to war, Washington cannot help avoid the conflict if it is not aware of the risks. This sort of information will give warning of the most catastrophic possible attack of all, the most devastating replay of Pearl Harbor imaginable: a nuclear or conventional surprise attack from Russia, unthinkable today but conceivable again if the far right in Moscow comes to power.
Another broad issue facing the intelligence community is how to conduct operational military intelligence in support of America’s second pillar of foreign policy: a strong defense posture. In regional wars such as the Persian Gulf War and a host of other military operations, the United States will continue to defend and promote its interests as it did during the Cold War. But the nature of both the military operations themselves and modern warfare have undergone a profound shift, and intelligence must evolve to accommodate this fact.
The advent of instant news reporting from around the globe poses its own challenges to operational intelligence. As in the Persian Gulf War, the U. S. military will need continuing battlefield reports to keep the media and public opinion satisfied. Rapid news reporting is often incorrect or exaggerated, and at best provides only a snapshot of the real situation. It is the journalistic equivalent of a satellite photo, providing some basic, often misleading facts and very little in-depth information. Intelligence serves as a check on such clipped news reporting, rounding out the picture and giving leaders the information they need to offer a more balanced view of events. Accurate wartime intelligence can provide images of successful U.S. air strikes, interdictions at sea, or ground assaults.
All major U.S. military actions in the coming years will be multilateral enterprises. The United States will bring to such operations no commodity more valuable than its ability to collect information. Modern, broad-based, high-technology intelligence collection remains an area of unique U.S. competency, one that contributes disproportionately to the success of collective enterprises. In the Persian Gulf War, U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of Iraqi combat forces, headquarters units, supply depots, and other assets provided the coalition with a devastating advantage on the battlefield. U.S. satellite imagery has also played a central role in marshaling international concern about the North Korean nuclear program.
But multilateralism will also pose new challenges for the U.S. intelligence community. Perhaps the two most pertinent questions are what information should be shared with allies, and how that sharing should be facilitated. The impulses of the community itself are not always helpful: in the North Korean case, former CIA Director Robert Gates had to overrule powerful objections and force the agency to share satellite photos with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and once he left his post CIA analysts promptly made a new attempt to undermine the policy. Promoting intelligence sharing among allies will also be an uphill battle as long as national defense procurement systems continue to downplay collaborative defense programs in such areas as command, control and communications.
Leaders in the U.S. defense establishment and intelligence community should fight against both of these biases. The new emphasis on openness should extend not only to the U.S. government, but also to the coalitions. alliances and international organizations that will legitimize and support U.S. military action in the future. For the most part, the resulting international cooperation and solidarity will far outweigh the risk of leaking secrets about U.S. intelligence capabilities.
U.S. intelligence requirements are also profoundly affected by the growing prominence of peacekeeping and “peace enforcement” missions. U.S. military forces in the years ahead are likely to conduct far more operations like those in Somalia and Bosnia than that of the fill-scale Persian Gulf War. Peacekeeping operations call for new and unfamiliar forms of information—detailed knowledge of the political, economic, and geographic topography of dozens of developing countries. Long-term socioeconomic assessments should help us predict famines, civil strife, the collapse of governments and other events related to peacekeeping. Our difficulties in Somalia have again highlighted the need for better intelligence in such efforts.
Finally, the nature of large-scale warfare is changing dramatically. New technologies are transforming the way militaries fight, an effect seen dramatically in the Persian Gulf War. But the high-technology precision weapons used there represent just the first wave of new equipment that will produce what many are calling a “military-technical revolution.”
The most telling features of this new era in warfare will be speed and precision. Modern technologies significantly increase the tempo of war: while before it might have taken hours, days or even weeks to relay a message to deployed military forces, today battles are a real-time affair. The information loop of war, running from the detection of enemy forces to intelligence analysts, command headquarters, and eventually to friendly troops in the field, must now be compressed into a matter of minutes.
In order to remain relevant to this accelerated process of war, battlefield intelligence must be acquired, processed, analyzed and disseminated with incredible speed. In fact, the distinction between intelligence and operations is becoming blurred. The revolution in warfare means that a number of military functions—intelligence, surveillance, targeting, and command and control—are collapsing into one another. This trend is graphically represented by such aircraft as the Airborne Warning and Control System and the Joint Surveillance and Targeting System, single platforms that perform many of these functions at once.
Operational intelligence must therefore become more readily available to combat forces and their commanders. Moreover, they should be fully integrated into the conduct of battle. At the same time, the providers of military intelligence must give more attention to the unique challenges posed by humanitarian, peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions in the developing world.
In a larger sense, this same operational intelligence will be of great value in preventing other countries from achieving a decisive military advantage. By keeping track of the technologies, weapons and tactics employed by potential adversaries, we can ensure that none of those capabilities will take us by surprise in a major war, that U.S. weapons will not suddenly be rendered obsolete by a stunning technological advance in another country. In this sense, operational intelligence will help us avoid a military-technical Pearl Harbor.
A New Approach to Intelligence
The diffusion of intelligence requirements among a dizzying number of countries and issues highlights the value of a somewhat more centralized process of intelligence management. We need a stronger, unified hand at the helm of our analytical agencies, or we risk fracturing our efforts and duplicating our analysis at a time when our shrinking intelligence budgets make such inefficiency especially dangerous.
In many cases the forms of intelligence needed today cannot be gathered by high-tech satellites or aircraft. U.S. decision-makers will more than ever need accurate estimates of the software rather than hardware of international politics—the beliefs, thought processes and intentions of potential adversaries. Human intelligence, the much praised but still neglected aspect of our intelligence apparatus, should receive more emphasis in the years ahead. This does not call for a profusion of new spies aimed at foreign governments, but for more analysts on the scene who understand the local dynamics.
Finally, any effort to reform the process of intelligence must keep in mind that the U.S. intelligence community is not a series of wire diagrams; it is a community of people. Their ability, dedication, and professionalism will determine the quality of the analysis that the community produces. The primary focus of any new plan for the intelligence community should be to improve even further the already admirable quality of its analysts, in part by making intelligence a more rewarding, stimulating, open and uncontroversial career.
To do so, we must expand the exchange of information between analysts and colleagues outside the community; conduct more congressional briefings in open hearings (as was done with the CIA’s July 1983 summary of conditions in Cuba); institutionally separate, to the degree possible, analysts from covert action; make individual analysts available to policymakers on a more regular basis; invite respected academics for sabbatical years or other short-to medium-term stints in the community; and encourage the wider use of open-source data and a reduction in the classification levels of intelligence-community material. Each of these ideas carries risks, but they combat a greater danger—the gradual alienation of the intelligence community from policymakers, the academic and business communities and American society as a whole.
The intelligence reform legislation introduced in 1992 by Senator David Boren (D-Ok.) and me was designed to address these needs. It would have created a new position at the head of the U.S. intelligence community—a director of national intelligence (DNI)—who would have been responsible for the preparation, submission, and execution of a single budget for all elements of the U.S. intelligence program. The DNI would have had two deputies, one for the intelligence community (responsible for human, signals, and imagery intelligence—in short, the operational side of intelligence) and one for analysis and estimates.
More than any specific aspect of the plan, our goal in this legislation was to encourage bold thinking about U.S. intelligence needs and organizations and to create a climate in which the leaders of the intelligence community would take it upon themselves to reform the community from the inside. This strategy would not have worked without a reformist director; and to his credit, former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates reviewed community activities across the board, in part through a series of task forces dealing with specific issues. Current DCI James Woolsey seems intent on keeping the spirit of reform alive, and the stewards of defense intelligence have developed a comprehensive reform plan aimed at improving effectiveness and streamlining military intelligence agencies. Combined with the mandate of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1983, these steps have produced important—if still incomplete- -intelligence reforms.
Several of the recent reforms have contributed to the goal of openness. The recently expanded dialogue about the U. S. intelligence process has hopefully served to increase public awareness of intelligence issues. As recommended in our legislation, moreover, former director Gates created an “open source coordinator” to review information available in unclassified sources and disseminate it to users within the intelligence community.
In the area of central control, no fundamental steps have been taken; the powers of today’s director of central intelligence are much like those of his predecessors and do not approach those of the director of national intelligence we suggested. Still, the Intelligence Authorization Act did authorize the DCI to participate in decision making at NSC meetings; past directors could always have done so, but it is hoped that the statute will encourage the practice. The act also gives the DCI veto power, and thus de facto control, over all budget reprogramming within the community. The trend toward a stronger DCI has thus been partly established.
Finally and perhaps, in terms of precedent, most importantly the Intelligence Authorization Act created a stronger National Intelligence Council that reports to the director of central intelligence. The council achieves in microcosm many of the goals of our legislation: it is a small think tank of sorts, made up of some of the top analysts in the intelligence community, that reviews and debates high-level national estimates before forwarding them to decision-makers. The act provided the council with greater autonomy and a stronger staff. The council is also intended as a means of drawing outside experts, as visiting scholars or permanent staff, into the analysis and estimate process and thus broadening the scope of thinking within the intelligence community.
By itself, then, the council achieves a number of key goals. It makes analysis more independent from the operations of the intelligence community, perhaps encouraging more intellectual honesty and offering a less controversial route for academics to play a role in intelligence. By including outsiders and working closely with policymakers, it promotes a more open intelligence process. And by its location and charter, it is designed to be more in touch with the needs of decision-makers in the executive and legislative branches.
Our First Line of Defense
The world is changing, and the way in which the United States targets and gathers its intelligence will change as well. The post-Cold War era calls for a leaner, more integrated, and above all more open U.S. intelligence community, with stronger lines of communication both to nongovernmental experts and to intelligence consumers. As suggested by the foregoing, this is an enormously difficult task. But the needed reforms have already begun, and with proper guidance, we can mold U.S. intelligence services into what they must be: our first line of defense against a disorderly world.