What should the big shifts in US intelligence policy be under Biden?

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Ex-DIA chief warns of new spying, tech challenge

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, US (photo credit: LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, US

(photo credit: LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

The West, Israel and the US are now confronting unprecedented challenges in the world of spies and intelligence, former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) chief and CIA official David Shedd wrote on Tuesday in a major paper published by the Heritage Foundation.

Though Shedd’s focus is primarily on US challenges from China and Russia, the paper notes that Iran and others do and will pose parallel threats in a world that is only becoming more multipolar.

One major issue the paper confronts is how the US can continue to collect intelligence in an age when new technology has been developed by adversaries to out spies with even the best cover stories.

“Spy tradecraft—the art of collecting secrets—needs to be adapted to match today’s threats,” writes the former DIA chief.

He states that, “China is investing vast sums of money in cutting-edge dual-use technologies that will enable the government to track its own citizens.”

“These same technologies are being used to uncover the plans and intentions of China’s adversaries including the US,” he explains.

According to the paper, “Facial recognition and biometrics more generally make the use of alias operational tradecraft nearly impossible. Human intelligence collection must therefore continue to evolve both to address the counterintelligence threats to securely running foreign human spies and to protect its own operational capabilities from the watchful eye of our adversaries.”

Further he endorses a separate report which said that, “US spies are no longer being tailed by foreign governments in about 30 different countries because advances in facial recognition, biometrics and artificial intelligence have made it almost impossible for the agents to [maintain a false identity].”

Moreover, “A major shift in how human intelligence operations are conducted is required. While not easy, and while tradecraft must be applied, online (or cyber-based) human intelligence operations must be increased to spot, assess, develop, recruit, and handle human sources.”

To keep up with adversaries in intelligence, Shedd writes that it is insufficient merely to develop artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities.

Rather, he says these capabilities must be immediately leveraged to out increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks by adversaries, who sometimes spend months or years perusing classified networks.

Part of the shift involves a post-post 9/11 mentality of shifting back from a focus on terrorists to nation-states.

The former top CIA operative says that, “The pivot of 2001 toward combating Islamic extremism as the top intelligence priority and away from a focused attention on the rise of China and the geopolitical aspirations of Russia has shaped the mindset of today’s [intelligence] collectors.”

“For two decades, an entire generation of intelligence operators has not been schooled in how to conduct traditional operations against state actors, much less against our near-peer competitors,” says the paper.

Quoting a former CIA human intelligence operator in 2017, Shedd writes, “Over the past 15 years, this ‘global war on terror’ mindset has become the default at the CIA. After accusations that it was stuck in the Cold War, the agency began to trade concealment devices and human sources for military hardware… The Cold War was over; we had a new enemy to defeat.”

According to Shedd: “To address the security threats posed by China, Russia, and their allies effectively, our experienced operators and analysts must be re-prioritized to meet customers’ demands for accurate, relevant, and timely intelligence related to capable adversaries.”

Put simply, after 9/11, intelligence had to shift from a nation-state focus to a counter-terror focus and now it needs to switch back.

Next, with personal experience in setting up a new system to encourage intelligence sharing between rival US agencies, Shedd says that this sharing has come a long way, but is nowhere near where it needs to be.

He says that mainly post 9/11, he and others succeeded at getting US domestic-focused and foreign-focused intelligence agencies to share information to avoid another 9/11 scenario where one agency knew about a threat, but did not warn the other.

However, he says that beyond that general improvement, intelligence sharing is still like pulling teeth.

“Notwithstanding advances over the past two decades, mission-essential information sharing remains too restricted within the IC due to the propagation of data stovepipes and absence of user-based permissions,” he writes.

The paper adds: “Fear continues to drive the risk calculus by the so called owners of data (the agencies that obtain the classified information).”

Shedd says that the Director of National Intelligence, “needs to establish a needs-based information-sharing model with appropriate auditing functions to enable enhanced data access by all intelligence professionals with a need to know.”

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is the future recruitment of the new kind of intelligence people needed themselves.

“Removing barriers to hiring and retaining America’s top talent is essential to addressing complex national security challenges,” he writes.

The paper indicates that, “The good news is that the IC [intelligence community] has no problem attracting prospective personnel with extraordinary skills and backgrounds. The bad news is that the IC lacks the ability to hire them quickly enough, and significant expertise is lost because the hiring process [including security clearance vetting] can take as much as a year.”

Even once in the system, the US, like Israel, faces an unprecedented brain drain of its top technological talent into the private sector.

He warns, “once in the IC, talented officers leave because they become disaffected by bureaucracy that discourages analytic dissent or by elements that discourage joint-duty career-enhancing assignments among the IC’s 17 components.”

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