Panel: U.S. spy agencies hampered by poor collaboration, inadequate cyberdefense


A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters in McLean, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The scientific research efforts of the U.S. intelligence community are poorly coordinated, and agencies have struggled to develop adequate defenses against emerging threats including cyberattacks, according to a national commission that released its findings Tuesday.

One of the panel’s central conclusions was that U.S. spy agencies pursue often-competing research agendas, with no overarching strategy to make sure that spending and resources are being aimed at the most critical U.S. intelligence needs.

“The commission found that there is inadequate [research and development] planning and inadequate awareness” among spy agencies of how their resources are deployed, according to the report, which was assembled by a team of lawmakers, current and former U.S. officials, and academic researchers.

Overall, the commission concluded that U.S. agencies are too focused on developing ways to stop cyberattacks and restore networks, rather than anticipating intrusions and protecting intellectual property.

The 37-page unclassified version of the report made no mention of Russia, China or other countries accused of cyberespionage. But members of the panel, called the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the U.S. Intelligence Community, said the cyberthreat is explored in greater detail in a classified document that has hundreds of additional pages.

The report provides a rare but limited — at least in the version released to the public — examination of the secret research activities of departments within the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies.

Members of the panel described these departments as so isolated that no U.S. official could provide a list of research programs or estimate their total cost across the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

When senior researchers were asked about collaboration with other agencies, “most of the time, we just got puzzled looks,” said Gilman Louie, a member of the commission who previously served as chief executive of In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit venture capital firm established to help fund research that could assist the CIA.

One of the panel’s main recommendations was to create a more powerful position within the office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee research, redirecting money to the most promising projects and pulling the plug on others.

The report was assembled before the capabilities of the National Security Agency were laid bare in a series of leaks by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

As a result, the tone of the report — which depicts U.S. spy agencies as struggling to harness technology and fend off adversaries — can seem difficult to reconcile with massive surveillance systems exposed by Snowden.

But panelists said that the far-reaching nature of the collection Snowden revealed underscores a failure to develop more targeted abilities to mine data rather than assembling as much of it as possible.

Doing so would allow U.S. agencies “to have a more narrow aperture but get more information that is valuable,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Snowden leaks could pose other complications, panelists said, damaging trust with Google, Yahoo and other companies to such an extent that they curtail cooperation on research and become more reluctant to participate in cybersecurity programs.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.

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