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Cafe Society to discuss challenges faced by intelligence community

By Staff | Mar 3, 2017

The Cafe Society discussion on Mar. 7 will focus on the U.S. Intelligence Community and the many challenges it faces in making its essential contribution to national security. In today’s increasingly politicized and globalized world there is no question about the critical role that a competent and fully responsive intelligence capability plays as an integral component and often controlling element of state craft.

It is an extremely dynamic profession that is heavily impacted by rapid advancements in technology and the exponential growth in alternative means of communication in which small organizations, even individuals now possess capability previously only enjoyed by dominant nation states.

The expectations and demands placed on our intelligence community are often unreasonable and the results of their work are frequently subject to miss-interpretation or manipulation. Like the famous “Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, in today’s political chaos the U.S. Intelligence Community has been moved to center stage to an unprecedented extent. It is increasingly difficult for our intelligence operators to function behind the necessary veil which heretofore has been widely accepted as a vital attribute of their work.

These informal discussions are held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each Tuesday in the Rumsey Room of the Shepherd University (SU) Student Center. They are an integral part of the SU Life Long Learning Program and are intended to facilitate a dialog on current issues between the students and older members of our community. There are no fees or registration requirements.

Facilitator Mike Austin said, “The U.S. system itself is extremely complex and some believe out of control (despite creation of a new powerful Office of the Director of National Intelligence) in that each of the 17 separate and distinct agencies essentially pursues its own agenda in response to the guidance provided by its parent organization. Following 9/11 many of the existing entities expanded dramatically and entirely new ones were create. Precise figures are difficult to find but the number of government personnel engaged in our intelligence efforts is reportedly well over 200,000. This does not included a substantial number of contractors that may approach a similar number in total. The price tag, equally difficult to ascertain is around $75 billion. And as, one might expect, there are inevitable turf wars to defend budgets, personnel, critical avenues for collaboration both nationally and internationally, and protected information, sources and methods (all masked by rigid security classifications). The simple process of gathering data is in itself a daunting task due to the order of magnitude of the collection effort.

“The National Security Agency alone intercepts 1.7 billion internet messages daily which are stored in 70 different data bases. And of course this more exotic (high tech) data must be melded into a vast array of information from traditional human intelligence and operational security sources to be synthesized in the analytical reports that serve the needs of our national leaders.

“While the ‘devil is in the details’ the reports served up must go through an excrutiating process of condensation, and manipulation (even spin) to meet expectations. Many of the assessments simply maintain a comprehensive awareness of baseline information that might serve as a reference point that will highlight an anomaly that tells us something out of the ordinary is going on. Others tell cognizant decision makers when there are important changes in organic capability of nations (personnel as well as equipment or functional capacity). Of course in this asymmetrical threat era (which simply means that we don’t know specifically where to look) the focus is on ‘defense against transnational violent extremists.’

“And while efforts to combat terrorism are more sensational and news worthy and address growing national xenophobia, garden variety international disputes such as Chinese assertion of questionable rights in the South China Sea and North Korean missile launches are equally compelling. And, of course data on the activities of friendly nations and allies as well as performance of international organizations is not ignored.”

Austin concluded, “It is always interesting to see how well (and how quickly) any new U.S. Administration manages to forge a productive working relationship between the incoming entourage of political appointees and other supplicants in the patronage system and the career civil servants who have their own well-established methods, resources and clients. The hiatus in terms of mutual trust and productive cooperation creates a period of vulnerability. What makes the speed and effectiveness of this transition so daunting is that the substance of our essential foreign policy and national security intelligence work is not, and cannot be open and transparent. While failures and missteps in intelligence efforts are always sure to make the news and lead to political recrimination and post-event criticism, success and highly effective and productive intelligence efforts are seldom disclosed.

“Countless Hollywood productions and book plots, as well as sensational journalists have successfully exploited the actual or imagined escapades of the intelligence community so there are many preconceived impressions and distorted expectations about this important governmental function and its dedicated practitioners. But good, bad, or indifferent, we of course hope and expect that “ours” will always be better, faster, and even more disruptive and deadly than “theirs”. This attitude is reinforced by recent revelations about the extent to which Russian cyber warriors are now targeting our open democratic procedures.”