The US Intelligence Community Needs a ‘Wild Bill’ Moment

Ellen McCarthy, Former Asst. Secretary of State for Intelligence & Research

Cipher Brief Expert Ellen E. McCarthy was appointed by President Trump to be the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Prior to serving in that role, McCarthy served as President of Noblis NSP, and prior to that, served for more than 25 years in the IC which included serving as COO of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Matt Scott, Co-Founder & President, MissionTech Solutions

Matt Scott is an Army intelligence veteran, and co-founder and president of MissionTech Solutions. Prior to founding MissionTech, he held leadership positions at Booz|Allen|Hamilton and PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The recent release of the 7th edition of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report highlights the challenges facing the United States and the U.S. intelligence community (IC) over the next twenty years.  While this report is usually not uplifting, this edition in particular warns of “more intense and cascading global challenges” ahead.  Is the IC poised to provide the insights necessary to shape the strategic environment for the United States during the next two decades?  We believe that the answer to that question is a clarion call for a “Wild Bill” moment.

Wild Bill Donovan
Photo Credit: OSS Society

At another critical moment in America’s history, in 1941 as the world accelerated into war, President Franklin Roosevelt worried that America’s intelligence organizations were not up to the tasks ahead.  Nazi Germany, for example, was utilizing new forms of warfare including propaganda to great effect across Europe, leaving America’s existing intelligence organizations struggling to coordinate their efforts and explain what was happening at a strategic level.  To provide critical insights to American leaders and to facilitate covert operations which could help win the war, Roosevelt appointed William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan as the White House’s first Coordinator of Information and head of the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Wild Bill had a reputation for seeing the world clearly, for diplomacy, for bravery, and for imagination.  He also had a reputation as an American “cowboy” who would take on seemingly impossible missions to accomplish what needed to be done.  Bill was not warmly embraced by the government bureaucracy – he was a disruptor.  To help the US and its allies win World War II, Wild Bill and his colleagues overcame many obstacles – bureaucratic, technical, political and physical — and led the first organized effort by the United States to implement a centralized system of strategic intelligence.  The organization they created became the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Today’s President should similarly worry about whether his IC is up to the tasks ahead.  The Biden Administration has provided a glimpse into its National Security Strategy expected to be released in June.

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance avoids calling out “Great Power Competition” specifically, but recognizes that in 2021, the threats facing America and our vision for the world are grave and in many ways unprecedented.  The threats go beyond China, Russia, North Korea and violent extremism to include challenges in South America, the Middle East, Africa, climate change, the cyber domain, digital threats, international economic disruption, humanitarian issues, and weapons of mass destruction.  To meet the threat, the strategy will itself break new ground to go beyond defense to include economic security, environmental security, health security and cyber security.

Given the dynamism of these challenges and our national strategy, this is again not a moment that calls for stability or incremental improvements in the IC.  This is a moment that calls for a “Wild Bill” approach.  In 2021, America faces different threats than it did in 1941, but the costs of intelligence failure in human, economic and political terms may be equivalent, or worse.  These threats are made more dangerous by the failure of today’s IC to reinvent itself to be effective in an information-driven world.

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The IC today faces at least three existential threats to its ability to accomplish its missions to provide the insights and covert operations that US leaders need at their disposal to steer the country safely forward.  These threats include: 1. Overwhelming data, 2. Contesting information sources, and 3. Politicization and acceptance of multiple ‘truths.’

At the core of these threats, data is overwhelming today’s leaders and the IC in sheer volume and in the technological advances necessary to sort what may be useful from the noise.  The problem is much more challenging than finding a needle in a haystack.  Today, we are not certain which haystacks to search, and by the time one stack is searched, 10 more have formed.  Today’s IC collectors and analysts are not sure what data to attempt to exploit, and often lack the digital infrastructure and tools to exploit the data fast enough for the results to be useful for policymakers.  We believe this is probably equally true at the macro IC level where leaders attempt to decide what data and technologies to invest in, and at the more micro analyst level, where officers attempt to decide how to answer specific intelligence questions from the resources available.

Intelligence officers are amazingly resourceful; however, and many produce insights of value to America’s leadership daily despite the challenges in doing so.  When they do, their products face a second existential threat:  competition for our leaders’ attention from the news media, social media, and private-sector companies.  In its legacy model, IC officers drop off briefing books and present insights every day at 7am.  But increasingly, other sources bombard leaders all day long.  These sources often do not apply the same analytical and objective rigor to their information as the IC does, which can lead to misinformed policy decisions.  But sometimes, their information is better.  A recent example of this may be Bellingcat’s investigations of poisoning attempts across Europe.

The third threat to the IC’s ability to assist in protecting America is the post-truth era.  Inscribed in stone in an entryway to CIA headquarters are words quoted from the Bible, saying “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  Many intelligence professionals see those words as a call to objectivity, and perhaps, speaking truth to power.  But what happens when truth is determined by American political affiliation?  Despite extreme efforts by its leaders, the IC played a role in politics multiple times during the last administration.  Whether right or wrong, if American leaders do not trust the IC, then there is little point in having one.

Overcoming these threats to be able to aid America’s leaders, and citizens, in winning the 21st Century will require an approach more akin to that taken by Wild Bill Donovan than to the standard fare from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the 18 existing intelligence bureaucracies, and Congress.  The world has entered an information revolution, and for the IC, no amount of bureaucratic evolution can catch up.

To meet these threats, the IC, led by individuals dedicated to all-out reinvention in the spirit of Wild Bill, must take at least three bold actions.  These actions are: 1. An embrace of open sources, 2. A data “moonshot,” and 3. a radical change to the intelligence delivery model.

If intelligence in Wild Bill’s 20th Century was all about stealing secrets, we believe intelligence in the 21st Century is all about drawing insights from data, and most of the world’s data is basically “open.”  Today’s IC leaders often talk about how useful open sources can be in complementing classified sources.  But this is backward.  It’s expensive, aging, slow and dangerous classified sources which should complement insights derived from open data.  The combination of data accessible from the Internet, including commercial and academic sources, with the analytics possible through cloud environments and AI, can answer many, maybe most, of the nation’s key intelligence questions.  Open sources also have the added benefits of being easier to share across government, the private sector, and allies, and can be worked by the nation’s top talent, not restricting the IC to the top talent willing to navigate an arcane clearance process.  The IC currently relies on a hodgepodge approach to open source, including lackluster community leadership from the CIA.  This model must change.

Of course, open sources can only be used at a meaningful scale by the US Government if the IC is able to process massive amounts of data through a democratic values-consistent lifecycle.  This doesn’t mean copying the Internet into standalone government networks or one-upping the Chinese in their attempt to monitor their citizens’ every moves.  An intelligence data moonshot starting in 2021, would mean a clear-eyed vision and plan for how a modern, values-based democracy securely harnesses data to solve global challenges like climate change, threats from disease, and WMD while winning a great power competition.  Such a strategy would require partnerships across the whole of government, the private sector, and our allies around the world, as well as technological capabilities across public and private networks which do not exist today.  It would also need to tackle head on, the evolving expectations of privacy in the present time.  The IC cannot help America win if policy prevents the exploitation of the depth and breadth of the world’s data in a meaningful, continuous, and timely way at the same time for-profit companies surveil Americans with near impunity.

Finally, the IC requires a new delivery model for its products that meets the needs of American leaders.  This probably means more frequent interaction than one morning briefing to senior leaders – it may mean co-locating some analysts with consumers.  The IC will need to deliver its insights through new formats and should retool to prioritize types of intelligence questions where the IC can maintain competitive advantage against the media, including the intentions of foreign leaders, global challenges, and practical insights to current government initiatives.  But even more challenging, this also means establishing trust among America’s leaders and citizens that the insights the IC is delivering are ‘true.’

These are not easy actions to take, but we believe they are necessary for the well-being of the country and the continued relevance of the IC.

Practical first steps today might include the stand up of a new OSS-like entity, one that is not tied to existing bureaucracies, led by someone who is highly-trusted by the President and Republicans, and who is not afraid of overcoming bureaucracy.  The OSS-like entity might try piloting a new capability focused on trusted content delivery but using an entirely new collection, processing and dissemination model and infrastructure, perhaps designed from successful private sector endeavors. Key to this new office would be the ability to rapidly scale new technologies coming out of America’s emerging technology incubators, and truly harnessing America’s digital economy.  Thinking outside the box, another option in the spirit of the OSS might be to fund and empower the State Department to be the public sector side of a new public-private information partnership.  The State Department’s current embrace of open sources could further remove challenges associated with information sharing and classification.

Whatever approach this administration chooses to take it’s clear that stability and incremental investments will not be enough.  We are in a global moment where the threats are incredible, and the American Intelligence Community is not currently up to the tasks ahead.  We need a ‘Wild Bill’ moment.

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