U.S. Intelligence’s Moment of Reckoning

National security intelligence agencies have one overriding mission: to provide timely, relevant, accurate, and actionable intelligence to the nation’s decision-makers. These are decision-makers carrying the weight of responsibility for defending the nation and keeping millions of Americans safe from harm. It’s easy to imagine the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) rushing highly classified information to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council (NSC) during an evolving international crisis that threatens America’s interests at home and aboard.

Now imagine that highly classified information had to be rushed to Mark Zuckerberg for the defense of Facebook.

That’s not a far-fetched scenario. When Russia invaded Ukraine, alarms rang in Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center in Seattle, warning of a newly discovered malware attacking Kiev’s ministries. Within hours, Microsoft was in “constant and close coordination” with the Ukrainian government, U.S. officials, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Union. Tech company executives, with recently issued security clearances, are included in secure calls for briefings from the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command. Today a trove of actionable intelligence is being uncovered by companies including Google and Microsoft which can see information, in real-time, flowing across their vast networks.

That’s why Amy B. Zegart’s latest book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence, is so timely and relevant now. This thoughtfully written, insightful, and well-researched work examines both the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and the challenges the community faces coming to grips with threats from adversarial nations and malicious non-state actors. New technologies that include Internet connectivity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and synthetic biology, Zegart argues, have created challenges the IC has never faced. In her words, the eighteen U.S. agencies that collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence are today facing their “moment of reckoning.”

Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, is a respected academic who has previously served on the staff of the NSC, been an adviser to the IC and policymakers, and is the author of other solid works on intelligence. This book elaborates on ideas and observations she first captured in an article for the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: Why U.S. Intelligence Agencies Must Adapt or Fail,” a piece she coauthored with former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell. That article appeared in 2019, and it speaks volumes about the complexity of creating a private-public partnership in the IC that more than two years later Zegart is still arguing the case for intelligence agencies to adapt.

Failure to Adapt

Zegart explains this failure to rapidly adapt by citing four factors. The first is the widespread lack of understanding about the IC among most Americans, and even members of Congress. Very few Americans outside the Washington D.C. area know a career intelligence officer, information about the community is shrouded in secrecy and, alarmingly, the public shapes its views of the community by what they see in the “spytainment” offered up by the entertainment industry. The result: “spy-themed entertainment is standing in for adult education,” fueling deep state, rogue agent, and conspiracy theories including those of intelligence agencies “waging a secret war against our own country.” Some Americans, including key decision-makers in business and industry, are suspicious of the reach, power, and intentions of the IC.

The second factor is the very evolution and nature of the IC itself. In describing this factor, the author offers readers an excellent short history of American intelligence. U.S. intelligence traces its roots to spymaster George Washington and his masterful use of agents to gather human intelligence (HUMINT) and practice counterintelligence (CI) during the Revolutionary War. After that, American intelligence grew in fits and starts, driven in most cases by wartime necessity; ignored and nearly non-existent in peacetime. Although the Army and Navy created small intelligence units in the 1880s, the full flowering of a permanent intelligence establishment took place after World War II, when the United States became a world power and assumed a burdensome peacekeeping role.

Zegart’s previous work on the evolution of the IC, Flawed by Design, neatly sums up how American intelligence grew after the war. In Spies, Lies and Algorithms, the author successfully argues that today’s IC is still hamstrung by its history of halting development, organizational fragmentation, and democratic tensions. Eleven of the current eighteen IC elements, including the CIA and NSA, did not exist until after WWII.  The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created in 1961 at the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara after President Kennedy lost faith in the CIA after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. DIA now collects, analyzes, and disseminates military and defense intelligence in its role as a combat support agency (CSA). The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), another CSA, was stood up in 1960 to design, build, launch, and operate the U.S. spy satellite system after the Air Force flubbed its satellite program. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), also a CSA, was established in 2003 to meet the nation’s requirements for photogrammetry, photo interpretation, and geodesy, following years of planning to consolidate the patchwork of agencies that provided imagery intelligence (IMINT).

The DNI’s office was created in 2004 in the wake of demands for IC reform after 9/11, to streamline the IC and create unity of effort. The proposal for a DNI ignited a fierce fight for resources, power, and control across the community and resulted in several compromises in the final language of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Today, fifteen of the agencies the DNI is supposed to oversee report to six different cabinet secretaries the heads of the Departments of Defense, Justice, Treasury, Energy, Homeland Security, and State. An estimated three-quarters of the nation’s entire intelligence budget goes not to DNI, but to IC agencies inside the Department of Defense including all the military service elements, DIA, NSA, NRO, and NGA.  Over it all, Zegart argues, lies the “consistent uneasy tension between secrecy and democracy, between the need for a government strong enough to provide security but restrained enough to protect individual rights.”

It’s one thing to be the recipient of timely, relevant, and accurate information from U.S. intelligence. It’s another matter to decide to act on it.

Secrecy, Democracy, and Congress

Congress is supposed to weigh the balance needed between secrecy and democracy, and Congressional oversight is urgently needed, Zegart claims, to push the IC to adapt to the new threat landscape. Good oversight is non-partisan, sets national strategic priorities, provides resources to those priorities, monitors results, and then demands accountability from the IC’s agency heads. Done poorly, oversight micromanages, distracts attention from important issues, and often is little more than a blame game “when things turn ugly and cameras start rolling.”

Zegart demonstrates convincingly that Congressional oversight of intelligence “has rarely worked well because the sources of dysfunction run deep—in information, incentives, and institutions.” Even basic information about the IC—like the budget—is secret. Unlike other federal agencies that produce voluminous reports for the public (reports read voraciously by industry associations and public policy watchdogs), the IC reports are classified and access to them is highly restricted. Congressmen without cleared staff members must leave their offices to go to a secure area to read classified reporting.

Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) cannot bring pork home like members of other committees can. There is no electoral incentive to do the hard work of intelligence oversight; intelligence oversight does not create jobs, federal procurement contracts, or bragging rights back home. Most members do not consider intelligence committees attractive assignments. So, both the House and Senate have used term limits for committee service to appease members and those term limits preclude members from developing expertise for intelligence oversight. Nor can these committee members wield the power of the purse to direct the IC. Neither the HPSCI nor SSCI can control IC agency budgets; the House and Senate Appropriations Committees do that.

The author also believes that the IC has entered an “era of strategic weakness” that began with the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of national security threats from adversarial nations and non-state actors. Zegart’s previous book, Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11, described how the fractured IC lacked strategic focus—direction from the Executive branch and Congressional guidance—to mobilize its considerable resources against the growing terrorist threat. The 9/11 Commission’s report branded congressional oversight before the attacks as “dysfunctional.” Zegart is even more scathing in her assessment in Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: “Two decades after 9/11, almost none of the commission’s recommendations to improve intelligence oversight have been adopted. The least reformed part of the U.S. intelligence enterprise isn’t the CIA, FBI, or NSA. It’s Congress.”

Today’s Cyber Threats

At the heart of Spies, Lies, and Algorithms is the author’s call for the IC to adapt to a radical change in the threat landscape. The digital age has handed America’s adversaries affordable cyberspace weapons. Today, highly trained operatives and proxies of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea regularly launch cyberattacks designed to steal, spy, disrupt, destroy, and deceive. The U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations reports that 77 percent of all suspected state-sponsored cyberattacks were launched at the behest of these four countries. The attacks targeted not just military networks (Pentagon networks are attacked millions of times each day), but also banking and financial networks, power grids and other infrastructure, telecommunications, online commerce, and social media.

Zegart claims, with ample justification, that the IC has failed to adapt to this new threat landscape because it has yet to come to grips with the full ramifications of the digital age. The sheer immensity and ubiquity of the technology that confronts the IC is the fourth factor that creates a daunting challenge. Technological breakthroughs constantly change the threat landscape, embolden adversaries, and empower the weak; the Internet is not just the realm of the strong. The digital age has democratized information and unleashed a flood of data. The World Economic Forum reported that in 2019, Internet users posted 500 million tweets, sent 294 billion e-mails, and posted 350 million photos on Facebook every day. Zegart points out this is a problem of staggering proportion for IC agencies that collect and use open source intelligence (OSINT), which has become an increasingly valuable source of unclassified information.

New technologies also threaten the secrecy that is the IC’s stock in trade. Secrecy is vital for the protection of intelligence sources and methods of collection and for gaining decision-making advantage. The secret world of U.S. intelligence is operated and managed by military and civilian professionals who have passed through initial and periodic special background investigations. The close-mouthed community has its own acronym-packed language; only insiders speak it fluently. Information is classified at one of three levels, and often further restricted and compartmented in special access programs walled off to all except a few selected intelligence officers with a special “need to know.” HUMINT tradecraft has been finely honed to ensure anonymity for agents and their handlers. Even citations for distinguished service and meritorious achievement are scrubbed clean of classified information. The insiders in this secret world always, and often of necessity, regard the outside world with suspicion.

In the digital age, however, secrecy is bringing greater risk because emerging technologies are blurring nearly all the old boundaries of geo-politics. Increasingly, national security requires intelligence agencies to engage the outside world, not stand apart from it.

Securing advantage in this new world means that intelligence agencies must find ways to work with private sector companies to combat on-line threats and harness commercial technological advances. They must engage the universe of open source data to capture the power of its insights. And they must serve a broader array of customers outside of government to defend the nation.

Former Principal Deputy DNI Susan Gordon is convinced the IC must be fundamentally reformed to produce intelligence for private sector leaders and the broader public. This will require a wholesale reimaging of how intelligence operates and for whom it operates. “Our business isn’t secrecy,” Gordan said in an interview for this book, “Our business is national security,” and leaders in the private sector and people who are targeted by malicious influence campaigns are now making decisions that affect national security.

In pages of Spies, Lies, and Algorithms, Zegart does a masterful job explaining the troublesome factors that plague any attempt to reform and reimagine the IC. The active participation of reluctant decision-makers in the private sector and an often dubious public is not assured. It’s one thing to be the recipient of timely, relevant, and accurate information from U.S. intelligence. It’s another matter to decide to act on it.