Intelligence: We've Lost Our Edge

By John Seely Brown and Jeffrey R. Cooper
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The U.S. intelligence community faces immense challenges that demand both a strong technology base and an effective research and development strategy. Unfortunately, the research and development path it is currently following will not allow it to meet those challenges.

It's understandable that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq intelligence failures and a series of highly critical reports on its performance, the leadership of the intelligence community would direct its research and development resources to projects with sure-fire, tangible, short-term payoffs. By innovatively drawing on the "queue" of available technology, it is providing new capabilities to support important missions. But the intelligence community no longer seeks the kind of gigantic jumps in capability it once did: leaps forward that depend on fundamental scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Such breakthroughs have, over the years, been created by farsighted U.S. policies that supported research that paid off not today or tomorrow but in the long term. Nowadays, by failing to stretch its technological reach or to adequately replenish the current technology queue, the nation's intelligence agencies are making a dangerous bet that they can meet tomorrow's challenges simply by producing modest enhancements to today's technologies -- by relying on incremental increases in the underlying knowledge base.

In the past the United States developed an impressive capability to gather crucial intelligence by penetrating the closed-off "denied areas" of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. It did this by exploiting its deep and lavishly funded scientific and technical base to invent various sensors to observe key activities, and by supporting the operations of human spies. Those capabilities were radical in their time, but the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the key threats they were designed to address.

Useful intelligence about the new threats we face requires something quite different. It is no longer a matter of assessing the technical capabilities of advanced weapons systems or determining the size of forces secretly deployed in denied areas by lumbering bureaucratic states. The new challenges are more complex, more subtle and harder to recognize -- and they cannot be addressed by simply refocusing old capabilities on new adversaries.

Meeting the challenge demands more than improvements in episodic coverage of large fixed targets by remote collection systems. Nor can the threat from both state and non-state adversaries be met by incremental improvements in current capabilities, no matter how significant those improvements may seem to be. The objective must be to penetrate not only denied areas but "denied minds," in order to gain an understanding of the intentions and motivations of hostile individuals and small groups in cultures that are unfamiliar to us.

The new intelligence capabilities must allow analysts to quickly recognize the dynamic activities and emerging behavior of loosely coupled networks. These may be networked terrorist groups or "flash mobs" of citizens seeking better political and economic conditions, as were recently seen in Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan. These new patterns of activity create intelligence challenges that could pose threats or opportunities. In either case, we need to know all we can about them. How much is known will determine whether U.S. officials are acting or simply reacting.

The intelligence challenges posed by non-traditional forces (which may have access to the deadliest of weapons) demand a persistent approach to both collection and analysis. Better use of new cutting-edge research in the social, cognitive, nano and computational sciences will provide a better understanding of human, organizational, cultural and political relationships and behaviors. Better collection is not enough -- whether by human spies or sophisticated technical systems. Much more emphasis is need ed on analysis and deep understanding, and that will in turn demand more attention to truly innovative tools for making sense of information. It will also demand more effort to come up with new ideas and hypotheses, more "visualization" of information and arguments in the interest of better comprehending them, and more cultivating of new information sources that are better matched to the new threats.

In a time when research funding is constrained, we need to develop what we call a "use-inspired" research strategy, with the goal of producing breakthrough capabilities matching those we achieved in meeting the Soviet challenge. We not only need fundamentally new ideas and technologies but also fundamentally new ways to discover and invent them. Use-inspired research can achieve this goal. It can effectively support both short- and long-term programs by eliminating the distinctions between basic and applied research.

Use-inspired research requires that researchers be deeply connected with solving real-world problems and then pursuing these problems to their roots. It balances the desire to exploit technology through applications development with an investment in research on deeper understanding to create true breakthroughs.

The new leadership of the intelligence community can do better than to just continue with its increasingly self-constrained, short-term, applied focus. To meet the new intelligence needs, it must change course. It must craft a more radical use-inspired strategy, and stop eating its seed corn.

John Seely Brown is former chief scientist of Xerox Corp. and co-author of "The Only Sustainable Edge." Jeffrey R. Cooper is chief scientist at a professional services company in Northern Virginia.

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