Last year, the budget for the intelligence agencies of the United States (excluding tactical battlefield intelligence) came to $60 billion. It is a big number and looks even bigger against the backdrop of history. Eighty years ago, that number was zero. Historians agree that for most of its history, America saw no need for a national intelligence capability because this country, protected by two oceans, faced no credible threats. [Strictly speaking, that was not true. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. Washington created, absolutely from scratch, a complex and effective spy network directed against the British. It included America’s first overseas intelligence operations run by Benjamin Franklin in Paris. At the end of the war, the head of British intelligence commented: “Washington did not really outfight the British; he simply outspied us.”]
Recent history changed suddenly and dramatically with the outbreak of World War II, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. government created a new agency, the Office of Strategic Services, which was tasked with mastering the dark arts of spying, sabotage and psychological warfare. Most of that effort was focused on the European theater and our teachers were the British — with their long history of intelligence operations conducted to protect the empire.
At the end of the war, the threat posed by Germany and Japan was replaced with an equally lethal challenge from the Soviet Union and its satellites (initially including China). America needed new agencies and legal authorities to fight “the long twilight struggle” against the KGB. These came in the form of the National Security Act (1947) that created, inter alia, the National Security Council and the CIA. Other notable institutions followed, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency (repository for codebreaking, electronic surveillance and cyber capabilities). It all added up to an intelligence community (IC) — multifaceted, highly capable and expensive.
Funding on the current scale poses the question — is it worth it? A full attempt to answer that question is far beyond the reach of a short essay. What we can say is that the world is an ever more dangerous and challenging place. The pace of events increases daily, as do the capabilities of real or potential adversaries. What intelligence professionals describe as “warning time” shrinks remorselessly. Today’s IC has to track traditional and advanced military threats, terrorist networks and cyber threats across a vast array of domains from corporate theft to penetration of entire national IT networks.
The best way of appreciate the key role of the IC is to examine major cases in the news.
- Russia. The Mueller Report has been delivered to the Justice Department, but its content, except for a very brief summary, remains secret. However, we already know, from an array of indictments and court filings, a great deal about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election. We know that U.S intelligence has penetrated Russian attacks; we know who conducted those attacks, where they work, the techniques and technologies they use and the chain of command right to Vladimir Putin, himself. Moscow has long prided itself on the ability of Russian intelligence to conceal its clandestine operations — and yet, American intelligence has laid it all bare. When the Russians tried to assassinate a former KGB/FSB agent living in Britain (using an ultra-potent nerve agent) they clearly expected that their role would remain concealed. But British and U.S. intelligence exposed it all.
- North Korea. North Korea has long been regarded as the hardest of “hard targets” for U.S. intelligence. However, with Pyongyang committed to a strategy of threatening the United States with nuclear-armed missiles, understanding what was going on in North Korea became urgently important. The North Korean regime made this as difficult as possible by burying nuclear and missile facilities deep under mountains. But when Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, the North Korean leader offered to dismantle a few facilities, expecting the United States would be satisfied, while keeping other key facilities hidden. Trump observed that Kim “was probably surprised” when the United States revealed just how much it knew about North Korea’s hidden capabilities.
- Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a young crown prince eager to project an image of an enlightened reformer. Not a few, including President Trump’s son-in-law, swallowed this story hook, line and sinker. However, after the murder of a Saudi journalist working in America, U.S. intelligence revealed that the prince had ordered the operation and that he ran a clandestine hit squad out of the royal palace working with a long list of critics the prince wanted dead. It clearly came as a great shock to the prince to learn that his actions were fully known to U.S. intelligence, including communications between the prince and his assassins.
- China. Beijing poses the most serious challenge facing U.S. economic and strategic interests. What makes China special and dangerous is its mastery of the most advanced IT technologies and its determination to use that capability to supplant the United States as the world’s leading economic and military power. The current case receiving the most serious attention is the digital giant Huawei, which seeks to leverage highly capable technologies plus copious amounts of cash to penetrate and effectively monopolize digital infrastructure, not just in Asia and Africa, but Europe, as well. Currently, the U.S. government relying on the IC’s understanding of Huawei’s agenda and capabilities is attempting to block part of that penetration agenda. Let there be no doubt that Huawei is not a “private” corporation; it is fully under the direction of China’s own intelligence agencies.
All this adds up to a positive portrait of American intelligence. However, there is a dark shadow; this President has routinely disparaged their work. He does not read their product and he publicly rejects their conclusions when they clash with his agenda. U.S. intelligence is founded on the principle of “speaking truth to power.” If truth is unwelcome, where does that leave us?