U.S. intelligence agencies face new, evolving threats spurred by advances in technology that require them to become more agile, innovative and technologically superior to maintain America’s global edge, the director of national intelligence says in the 2019 edition of the National Intelligence Strategy.
While traditional adversaries like Russia and China remain the largest threats to American national security, DNI Dan Coats points to new, evolving challenges — “particularly in the realm of space, cyberspace, computing, and other emerging, disruptive technologies” — as a key area of focus for the intelligence community (IC) over the next four years.
“We face significant changes in the domestic and global environment; we must be ready to meet 21st century challenges and to recognize emerging threats and opportunities,” Coats says in his opening letter for the strategy, released Tuesday. “To navigate today’s turbulent and complex strategic environment, we must do things differently.”
As the strategy explains, technology has proliferated worldwide and evened the playing field for many smaller nation-states without traditional intelligence resources. Emerging tech, like artificial intelligence, high-powered computing and others, “enable new and improved military and intelligence capabilities for our adversaries,” the strategy says, adding that “advances in communications and the democratization of other technologies have empowered non-state actors and will continue to exponentially expand the potential to influence people and events, both domestically and globally.”
So that means the IC must invest in its own innovation and information technology capabilities to stay ahead. The new strategy sets enterprise objectives over the next four years of driving innovation and improving information sharing across the community.
“Innovation—through technological advancements and improved business practices—is critical to ensuring that the IC can provide the strategic and tactical decision advantage that policymakers and warfighters require,” the plan says. Leadership “must be prepared to boldly accept calculated risks to attain high-value results, and accept the fact that initial failures may precede a successful outcome.”
That resonates with what many in the IC have been preaching in recent years. Andrew Hallman, head of the CIA Digital Innovation Directorate, said in 2017 AI and machine learning “can fundamentally change the way we do business.”
Sue Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, explained that the IC wouldn’t be as advanced in the cloud if her predecessors hadn’t taken the risks they did. “The cost of getting virtualized, getting to the cloud was borne by people who didn’t immediately benefit from it,” she said last August at FedTalks 2018. “And so that was probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, the cost to be present.”
Undoubtedly, the cloud has set the IC up for better information sharing internally and with allies globally. But challenges persist, particularly the “ability to collect, process, evaluate, and analyze such enormous volumes of data quickly enough to provide relevant and useful insight to its customers,” the strategy says.
To make sure people get the right data at the right time to thwart threats to national security, “the IC will take a cutting-edge approach to appropriately access information, regardless of where the information resides,” the plan reads. “Information that is better organized into appropriate data formats and tagged with metadata to increase its quality and usability will aid the transition to information-centered intelligence processes. … To do this, the IC must continue to adopt modern data management practices to make IC data discoverable, accessible, and usable through secure, modernized systems and standards.”
Indeed, data is an invaluable resource for the intelligence agencies — CIA CIO John Edwards recently called data “the lifeblood” of the intelligence community.
“Data is the new tip of the spear. Increasing the edge over our adversary, our operational advantage will be determined by the speed at which we sense, collect, ingest, condition, analyze and characterize data of the representative threat. This means developing and maturing the digital capacity of mobile platforms, interoperability, real-time sensing, data integration and real-time signature management,” he said. “Computing at the edge, the point of mission execution is increasingly important. This is particularly true for the CIA given the high operation tempo at the mission edge and the digitally immersive environments in which we operate.”
With so much data available, the tools agencies use to collect, tag, analyze and share data must improve. Scott Bean, assistant director of the FBI’s IT Infrastructure Division, ties it back to stopping the next 9/11 — but he said not much has changed in terms of the tools and techniques the IC uses in the past 17 years.
“We all lived through 9/11, and we all lived through the criticism that we got after 9/11 about not connecting dots,” Bean said. “Well if you think about what our collections looked like in 2001 [compared] to where we are today, we’re orders of magnitude collecting more data across the entirety of our mission space than ever before. And we’re still applying the same tools and techniques that we used and developed prior to and immediately following 9/11. And those tools and techniques are just not getting us where we need to be.”