Both China and Russia now rank as great powers and antagonistic competitors—and they are not alone. To cope with this reality, the military is shifting its primary focus from defeating international terrorism to prevailing in a great-power competition. U.S. intelligence must do the same.
During the Cold War, America's spies could focus almost exclusively on the USSR and its communist allies. But when the Iron Curtain crumbled, our political leadership—intent on harvesting a "peace dividend"—allowed these intelligence capabilities to hollow out.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the slimmed down Intelligence Community (IC) focused on a new mission: preventing another mass casualty attack at the hands of Islamist extremists. The IC rose to the occasion and, for nearly 20 years, has prevented coordinated attacks on the homeland.
Obtaining intelligence to warn of, prevent, and—as needed—respond to actions of an adversary remains unchanged as a core IC mission. The foundation of U.S. intelligence remains sound, yet globalization has left our national security landscape more complicated than ever. Even as the IC dramatically boosts the attention given nation-state adversaries, it cannot take its eye off the threats still posed by non-state actors such as al-Qaida, ISIS, and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, China and Russia are presenting new, more sophisticated threats—in some cases, outpacing America and the rest of the free world. For example, they are now mastering technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) and using those technologies to build new systems to undermine our security and economic interests around the world. China alone will invest an estimated $1.4 trillion in the next five years to lay fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, install cameras and sensors, and develop AI software. And both state and non-state actors are refining ways to leverage mass-media outlets to shape hearts and minds around the globe.
Today, America's spy agencies are ill-postured to meet these emerging threats. Yet as demonstrated after the terrorist attacks of 2001, America's IC's can adapt to meet new threats, reshaping their capabilities to meet adversaries on our own terms.
What does the Intelligence Community need to meet the new challenges posed by great-power competition? There are four areas where the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) can enhance the role of intelligence to meet the new security landscape:
Job One is talent acquisition and personnel retention. Extraordinary talent is readily available, but getting them on the job takes far too long. The DNI needs to establish universal hiring policies among spy agencies and overturn what is an arcane security clearance process. Those actions alone will prevent the loss of an untold talent that would bring badly needed foreign language, cultural, and technical expertise to the spy agencies.
The DNI must also improve Information-sharing among the nation's 17 intelligence agencies, which is still woefully inadequate. Current rules governing what information should be shared, when and with whom, need clarification. Making sound analytical judgments hinges on having timely access to all pertinent intelligence. Of course, information access and sharing must be paired with appropriate auditing functions to protect sensitive information from being abused.
America's counterintelligence needs work too. Its reach must be extended beyond the traditional mission of ferreting out spies to include identifying how and where our foreign adversaries manipulate information to shape American public opinion. Our adversaries increasing activities in this area demand that we reshape counterintelligence to identify the "how" they manipulate mass and social media to undermine U.S. security.
America's Intelligence Community no longer holds an advantage over its competitors in the area of technology or innovation. For that reason, the DNI should require each IC agency to provide a plan for how it will increase its partnerships with the private sector to acquire cutting-edge technology and infrastructure support. Each plan should detail specific goals and include a timetable for adopting the desired technology.
The alarm has sounded. Great-power competition is back, and it's here to stay. This new reality requires America's intelligence organizations to significantly shift in both their mindsets and their actions to deal with new, sophisticated national security threats. This shift will require resolve, creativity and taking meaningful steps to break down the bureaucratic walls among the elements of the IC.
America's national security deserves nothing less than a federated Intelligence Community that operates with unity of effort, coordination and interdependence. It is the only way to effectively confront the rapidly evolving capabilities of our adversaries.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear Defense