In January 2009, the next administration will enter office facing a wide range of serious national security threats. At the top of this list will undoubtedly be Iran’s budding nuclear program, the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates, and the unstable situation in Pakistan.
While it’s hard to argue that these should be the top priorities, as the last eight years have made clear, in today’s world, the threats to the US can evolve rapidly. New threats can emerge quickly and top-tier threats can fade.
The next administration’s success in the national security arena will certainly be judged in part by its ability to tackle the most obvious threats confronting the US. Equally important, however, will be its ability to accurately identify and appropriately respond to those threats that are emerging as well as those which are in decline. This is not an easy task, particularly for a large, plodding bureaucracy such as the US government, which is often slow to adapt.
The possibilities of what the next serious threat could be are almost endless. Will the threat of a crippling cyber-attack grow, as some experts are predicting? Will a new rogue regime or terrorist group appear on the scene which has the capability to inflict major damage to the US? Will terrorist groups move closer to acquiring WMD capabilities? Could climate change have far reaching national security consequences in the years ahead? And on the flip side, could, as some senior US government officials are predicting, al Qaeda be defeated within a matter of years?
The primary responsibility for getting this right will likely fall to the US intelligence community, as the US national intelligence strategy of 2005 makes clear. One of the five key pillars of the strategy is “anticipating developments of strategic concern,” in part through the newly created strategic analytic unit in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The strategy also states that to succeed in this effort, the IC must have expertise on “every region, every transnational security issue and every threat to the American people.”
For the intelligence community, anticipating the emerging threats - while challenging -- may be easier than mobilizing to address them. The primary responsibility for driving and focusing the sprawling IC against new threats and away from declining threats will fall to the Director of National Intelligence. This will not be an easy task.
If the DNI, for example, becomes convinced that an entirely new threat looms large on the horizon, will he or she be able to order the 16 agencies of the IC, including the Department of Defense agencies, to make the necessary changes in focus and prioritization? And if the DNI determines that an intelligence community agency has essentially ignored his instructions, will he or she take aggressive action to bring the agency into line?
While the DNI possesses far more powers over the IC agencies than his predecessor in that position, the Director of Central Intelligence, the authorities are still limited in scope. This is particularly the case because most of the intelligence offices, such as State, Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security, are located within Cabinet agencies and their primary reporting lines are to a Cabinet secretary, not to the DNI (though a new executive order does give the DNI some additional power over all intelligence agency heads).
Furthermore, mobilizing the IC may be the easy part in comparison to persuading policymakers to dramatically shift course. The resistance that the IC would likely encounter from policymakers would not be without reason. Intelligence is hardly a science, and is often vague, contradictory, difficult to interpret, and sometimes wrong. Making significant policy changes based on this type of incomplete intelligence picture is risky. Devoting resources and time to a threat which turns out to be overstated will divert focus away from the many serious threats facing the US. But not doing so can present even greater risks, as the September 11 story made clear.
So how can the next administration try to get this difficult balance right and make sure that it’s prioritizing the most serious threats, whether existing or emerging? There are a few keys to success. First, the IC must make sure it’s well positioned to identify new threats. As the intelligence strategy outlines, this requires having broad expertise across the board, including personnel with the necessary language abilities and cultural understanding. Beyond the difficulties in finding and obtaining security clearances for people with these unique backgrounds, the IC’s task will likely be made even harder by policymakers pushing the IC to devote additional resources to their respective priorities. Pushing back against this pressure will often be difficult, but necessary.
Second, it is critical for the IC to explain to the policymakers in great detail what they know and what they don’t know - not just on the National Intelligence Estimates, but when presenting any intelligence picture to policymakers. It can sometimes be difficult for the IC to admit its gaps, but this is key for decision-makers to know and understand as they engage in their policy deliberations.
Third, the next administration should resist the urge to centralize intelligence analysis further. While some of the intelligence analysis taking place at the various IC agencies may appear to be redundant or overlapping, it is important for policymakers to hear divergent views and perspectives. The “Groupthink” phenonemenon is much less likely to occur with this set-up in place.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the IC must maintain its independence from policymakers. This will undoubtedly be difficult, particularly since the DNI reports to the President and is his chief intelligence advisor. It is a tough balancing act for the IC leadership, trying to satisfy policymakers’ demands and needs for intelligence support while at the same time providing them with an unvarnished intelligence picture. Difficult though it may be, it is a balance that must be struck.
One way to make this more achievable might be to make the intelligence leaderships more obviously non-political. Giving the DNI and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center 10 years terms, similar to the FBI Director, specifically so that they are not tied to the Presidential cycles, might be one good step towards achieving that important goal.