Friday, May 24, 2019

Why U.S. Intelligence Agencies Must Adapt or Fail

From Amy Zegart and Michael Morell, at Foreign Affairs, "Spies, Lies, and Algorithms":

For U.S. intelligence agencies, the twenty-first century began with a shock, when 19 al Qaeda operatives hijacked four planes and perpetrated the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil. In the wake of the attack, the intelligence community mobilized with one overriding goal: preventing another 9/11. The CIA, the National Security Agency, and the 15 other components of the U.S. intelligence community restructured, reformed, and retooled. Congress appropriated billions of dollars to support the transformation.

That effort paid off. In the nearly two decades that U.S. intelligence agencies have been focused on fighting terrorists, they have foiled numerous plots to attack the U.S. homeland, tracked down Osama bin Laden, helped eliminate the Islamic State’s caliphate, and found terrorists hiding everywhere from Afghan caves to Brussels apartment complexes. This has arguably been one of the most successful periods in the history of American intelligence.

But today, confronted with new threats that go well beyond terrorism, U.S. intelligence agencies face another moment of reckoning. From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI), rapid technological change is giving U.S. adversaries new capabilities and eroding traditional U.S. intelligence advantages. The U.S. intelligence community must adapt to these shifts or risk failure as the nation’s first line of defense.

Although U.S. intelligence agencies have taken initial steps in the right direction, they are not moving fast enough. In fact, the first intelligence breakdown of this new era has already come: the failure to quickly identify and fully grasp the magnitude of Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That breakdown should serve as a wake-up call. The trends it reflects warrant a wholesale reimagining of how the intelligence community operates. Getting there will require capitalizing on the United States’ unique strengths, making tough organizational changes, and rebuilding trust with U.S. technology companies.


Russia’s multifaceted “active measures” campaign ahead of the 2016 election was designed to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, sow divisions in American society, and boost public support for one presidential candidate over another. Much of this effort did not go undetected for long. Almost immediately, U.S. intelligence agencies noticed Russian cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the sharing of stolen information with platforms such as WikiLeaks, and attempts to penetrate state and local voting systems. Pointing to these events, intelligence officials warned President Barack Obama well before the election that the United States was under attack.

Yet the intelligence agencies missed Russia’s most important tool: the weaponization of social media. Studies commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of a Russian “troll farm” show that the social media operation designed to undermine the U.S. electoral process may have begun as early as 2012 and was well under way by 2014. But although U.S. intelligence officials knew that Russia had used social media as a propaganda tool against its own citizens and its neighbors, particularly Ukraine, it took them at least two years to realize that similar efforts were being made in the United States. This lapse deprived the president of valuable time to fully understand Moscow’s intentions and develop policy options before the election ever began.

In October 2016, one month before the election, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, took the unusual step of issuing a public statement about Russia’s interference in the election. Even then, the full extent of the Russian effort eluded U.S. intelligence; the statement did not mention social media at all. Johnson later stated that Russia’s social media operation “was something . . . that we were just beginning to see.” Likewise, Clapper wrote in his memoir that “in the summer of 2015, it would never have occurred to us that low-level Russian intelligence operatives might be posing as Americans on social media.” Indeed, the intelligence community did not understand the magnitude of the attack, which reached more than 120 million U.S. citizens, until well after the election. The Senate Intelligence Committee noted in 2018 that its own bipartisan investigation “exposed a far more extensive Russian effort to manipulate social media outlets to sow discord and to interfere in the 2016 election and American society” than the U.S. intelligence community had found even as late as 2017.

It was with good reason that the intelligence agencies did not have their collection systems trained on social media content within the United States, but Russia’s social media attack was carried out by Russian nationals operating on Russian soil. They were assisted by several Russian intelligence operatives sent to the United States in 2014, with the express goal of studying how to make Moscow’s social media campaign more effective. Whether the Kremlin tipped the balance in a close presidential race will never be known. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s nefarious use of social media went undetected by U.S. intelligence for too long and that this failure is just a preview of what lies ahead if the intelligence community doesn’t adapt to today’s rapid technological breakthroughs...
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