#NatSecGirl Squad: The Conference Edition White Paper — The Role of the Intelligence Community in National Security and Defense

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Editor’s Note:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted a conference in Washington D.C. at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  Over the coming months Divergent Options, as a partner for this event, will be deviating from our traditional content and publishing a series of white papers in various formats that capture each panel at this event.


Abigail P. Gage is a U.S. Army Veteran.  She recently earned a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins SAIS.  Previously, Abigail worked for the House Armed Services Committee and served on active duty in Iraq and Germany.  She continues to serve today in the U.S. Army National Guard. Find her on Twitter @AbigailPGage. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Panel Title:  Creative Problem Solving: The Role of the Intelligence Community (IC) in National Security and Defense

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Abigail P. Gage is a national security policy professional with defense experience in the military and on Capitol Hill. This paper is the result of her work with the #NatSecGirlSquad Conference edition, where she designed a panel exploring modern challenges faced by the IC.

Background:  When most people imagine life inside the intelligence community, they either picture high-paced, action-filled adventures, or the tedious life of a computer-bound analyst. In reality, the IC is constantly and simultaneously shaping U.S. international relations, responding to the ever-changing diplomatic environment around the globe. There is an unprecedented opportunity to harness new technology and digital communication platforms, including social media, to solve traditional problems, while also anticipating new issues before they become problems.

Exploring these issues at #NatSecGirlSquad Conference edition, Erin Simpson, Director of Strategic Analysis at Northrop Grumman, led three panelists through a discussion on the modern IC: Paula Doyle, Professor at Georgetown Security Studies and former Associate Deputy Director of Operations, Central Intelligence Agency; Kirsten Gnipp, Chief, Homeland and Prevention Planning Group, Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning, National Counterterrorism Center; Cortney Weinbaum, Management Scientist, RAND Corporation.

Significance:  The IC plays a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, enabling diplomats and policymakers to respond to ever-changing global conditions by providing crucial information on both U.S. allies and enemies. The IC can analyze a world leader’s Twitter to understand how she makes decisions, can use YouTube and Instagram to track a terrorist group’s growth, and can even track financial transactions to understand how a rogue state is financing itself. But how do these new tools support decision-making? The key question is: “How is the IC using new technology and tradition tradecraft for creative problem-solving in the modern world.”

Issue #1: Optimization of Technology for the IC mission.

Whether it is a question of using technology to enhance the IC’s recruitment cycle, improve information processing workflows, or uncover new threats, the IC can use technology to increase efficiency and accuracy. Technology enhances the IC’s recruitment cycle by enabling operations officers abroad to pre-identify individuals prime for targeting – using big data to find foreign assets who are accessible to local case officers. Once recruited, technology also allows the IC to validate people and their information. In this way, the IC is already successfully harnessing technology to improve productivity and accuracy in their work.

On the other hand, the IC might be missing a major opportunity to create new, unclassified workflows – theoretically decreasing insider threat risk by distributing the open-source workforce away from centralized Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities. Given the growing length of the security clearance process, reducing the number of people who have to be cleared because they work in a specific space, not because of the work they do, could lead to increased productivity and decrease costs for the taxpayer. It could also have the effect of increasing the pool of analysts – after all, does everyone want to live in the Washington DC commuting area? Despite these benefits, the IC will have significant cultural barriers to overcome to implement a distributed workforce, including reconsidering how they process human resources information such as time-cards. More significantly open-source intelligence work would have to be siphoned off, generating an addition silo operating in isolation from the rest of the IC.

Finally, there are the ever-present questions: How do we discover if there is or is not a new threat? How do know if there is or is not a new organization? The IC was slow to recognize the threat posed by the emerging Afghan Taliban, which started out as a student group. Then the U.S. National Security apparatus collectively misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State until they were advancing rapidly through Iraq in the spring and summer of 2014. In both cases, the organizations were savvy about their use of digital media. The latter literally announced its moves play-by-play through social media, spreading its regime of terror like the wake before a storm. If the IC is to remain a player in today’s modern, digital environment, they too will have to master social media and information operations – both in the following and delivering.

Issue #2: Cyber Operations

The opportunity for the IC to increase its social media and digital presence leads to a second issue, managing cyber operations in national security. This can take the form of overwhelming amounts of data or complicated legal limitations. Leading cyber operations during the height of the Iraq War, Paula Doyle recalled rarely, if ever, having a name to match the large data sets they tracked – and yet her team was confident that they were tracking enemy operations. They found, over time and with increasingly refined the data sets that they could positively identify a target even without a name. The IC had to culturally adjust, to learn to manage without names. Historically, targets would be named with home and work addresses. Now it was the opposite. A target was no longer a name, the team might never know “who” it was, but had an email address or cell phone to target and track.

This increasing power of cyber operations is not without limits or risks. Boundaries do not exist on the on the world-wide internet as they do the geographic globe. Most intelligence agencies, with rare exception, are barred from domestic intelligence work. When it comes to running sources and traditional, physical collection techniques, these guidelines work well. After all, most were created in a pre-cyber era. But when faced with technology and national security efforts domestically, members of the IC have to consider ethical and legal questions, ensuring they respect national borders on a platform that does not have clear boundaries.

The biggest limitation could be considered consent. For example, Virginia uses drive-by boxes to test vehicle emission. This is a form of government surveillance, but people consent because it is easier than going for an inspection at a pre-designated location. As government surveillance expands, some experts worry about a slippery slope, envisioning a world where the psychological thriller Minority Report could become a reality. Digital data companies are already building comprehensive online pictures of each internet user: who she is, what he wants. We give away much of our privacy to the private sector giants like Amazon and Google. How much of our privacy will we eventually grant to the government?

Furthermore, if we can already surmise, through social media, emails, or even google searches, what an individual is thinking about doing, how long will it be before the IC, law-enforcement, or Google figures out how to predict what people will do. Then a new question arises: can the government ethically pull information on individuals to predict and prevent violence. Historically this is a nation-wide Catch-22: when the government is known to invade our privacy, Americans demand a rollback of intelligence programs. But if the government fails to uncover and prevent an attack, we demand answers to the perceived intelligence failure.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.



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