While intelligence professionals must continue working as usual during the coronavirus crisis, their jobs must change post-crisis in four fundamental ways: The scope of mission must be broadened; public information relied on much more; taxpayer dollars used with greater effectiveness; and our battle against foreign disinformation intensified.
First, our intelligence community must adopt a broader definition of national security that reflects the United States’ true vulnerabilities. Of course, we should carefully watch adversarial nuclear-armed regimes, as well as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Still, the likelihood of nuclear conflict is extremely low. The serious threat of terrorism has been managed, and it was always unlikely to produce nationwide loss of life.
By contrast, the consequences of non-military and political threats — such as economic, health or climate disruptions — are significant and must be assigned a high priority. The public health crisis and devastating economic shutdown from covid-19 are proof that our national well-being relies on more than what have traditionally been considered national security issues.
Our intelligence community has developed sophisticated methods of collecting information and possesses deep, analytic expertise on wide-ranging matters, including terrorist groups and Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean military doctrines and weapons systems.
Comparatively speaking, however, we know little about the progress of China’s advances in bioengineering, robotics, metallurgy, quantum computing or artificial intelligence. Nor do we know enough about supply-chain risks across scores of industries that can affect U.S. national security, such as how much we rely on rare minerals or pharmaceuticals coming from overseas. The coming crises caused by climate change also have not received sufficient focus.
This leads to the second needed change: Our spy agencies must rely more on gleaning insights from ever-increasing amounts of publicly available information. These agencies were designed to dig for secrets held by U.S. adversaries, so this will require a significant culture change.
As the scope of national security is broadened, we must recognize that information about the economy, health, supply chains and other public activities is far more likely to come from open sources than clandestine ones. Technology has made enormous amounts of meaningful information instantly available. Open-source information cannot wholly displace covert information-gathering but can deeply enrich it. And, of course, we will need to use public and private data in a manner consistent with U.S. values and respect for civil liberties.
The third change is resources. The intelligence community doesn’t have the budget to take on these new requirements; arguably, it is underfunded for everything it is already asked to do. The CIA, for example, has marginally more staff employees than it did in 1991, though the world is much more complicated than it was at the end of the Cold War.
While the intelligence community should look at internal savings and reallocations, the broader national security budget should also be examined. Reallocating just 1 percent of the Defense Department budget could increase the intelligence community budget by 10 percent, undoubtedly yielding a better national security outcome.
Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has made clear that understanding the scope of disinformation pushed by U.S. adversaries must become a permanent top priority. U.S. intelligence cannot limit itself to worrying about Russian influence in the 2020 elections. The coronavirus crisis has both precipitated and revealed a new level of Chinese aggressiveness — marked by claims that the virus is a U.S. biological weapon gone awry, that authoritarian governments have been better able to deal with the crisis, and that only China has the capacity to help the rest of the world, in contrast to the United States and European Union.
This is a harbinger of our future — disinformation surrounding every major event and trend. In a field fraught with challenges, our intelligence agencies will need to work more closely with law enforcement and the private sector to help the United States fend off foreign attempts to weaken our democracy and global influence.
This isn’t a plea for more powers to our spy agencies but, rather, a call for imaginative new ways of achieving the Constitution’s requirement that the government “provide for the common defense.” The changes outlined here would better position our hard-working intelligence community to deliver on that constitutional requirement.