The importance of intelligence
31 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today is the golden age of intelligence. It’s a great time to be an intelligence officer. If our intelligence services were for-profit enterprises, investors would want to make long-term investments in them. Business is that good.

Why is this the case? It’s the coming together of two important developments. The first is that the number of critical national security issues facing US senior policymakers has never been greater than it is today. There have been times of greater danger—the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example—but there has never been a time in when the sheer number of issues has been so large.

Just think about the national security and foreign policy issues that President Obama and the senior leadership of our allies, including Prime Minister Turnbull, face every day—international terrorism; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; cyber warfare, espionage, and crime; drug trafficking and human trafficking; the crisis of governance in the Middle East and North Africa; Iran’s pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East; the saber rattling of North Korea; the aggressiveness of Russia, the rise of China, and on and on.

The second is that, for the vast majority of these issues, policymakers cannot understand them, they cannot make policy with regard to them, and they cannot implement that policy without first-rate intelligence.

Think about it this way: it’s possible, even easy, to find experts outside of intelligence services who can provide real insights on Japanese politics, Chinese foreign policy, or the economic, national and security implications of Brexit. But only an intelligence officer, only an intelligence service, can provide real insight into Iran’s nuclear warhead weaponisation work; the status of North Korea’s long-range missile program; and the plans, intentions, and capabilities of terrorist groups to attack us in our homelands. No, for those kinds of issues, intelligence, and in particular the collection of information that our adversaries don’t want us to know, is an absolutely necessity for senior leaders.

Here’s a second way to think about it—the way Mike Hayden, a former director of both CIA and NSA, likes to put it. Hayden says that during the Cold War, the enemy—say a Soviet tank battalion in Eastern Europe—was easy to find but hard to kill. You could see it from the ground or from space but you couldn’t destroy it without starting World War III. Today, just the opposite is the true: the enemy—say a terrorist in an internet café in Yemen—is easy to kill but very hard to find. Intelligence is all about finding. Intelligence specialises in the hard to find.

To me, there are three implications of the importance of intelligence. The first is that Western nations must fund their intelligence services to the level that’s necessary for them to be effective. Yes, intelligence services need to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money, but they must receive what they need.

It’s my view that, in the US, we’re short-changing our Intelligence Community. In fiscal year 2010, ending 30 September 2011, the US IC received $80.1 billion in funding. In this current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September 2016, the US IC is operating on only $67.9 billion—a 15% decline in only six years in a world that’s placing more demands on intelligence than it did in 2010.

Second, intelligence services worldwide need to work closely together. The issues facing us all are simply too numerous and too complicated for one intelligence service to deal with on its own. A big part of my job as deputy director of the CIA was to build those relationships. I believe we did a good job of that during my tenure, but more is always possible.

And, third and finally, western intelligence services have a responsibility to work to enhance the capabilities of their partners who are the front lines of the toughest issues we face—those services in the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia. We need to expand our understanding of the threats and challenges we face by expanding the intelligence capabilities of all our allies and partners.

Publicly, leaders often only talk about their militaries when discussing the critical tools of national security. It’s time to add intelligence to that discussion.