National Security

Keeping Intelligence Smart: Reflections from the Intelligence World

April 22, 2016  • Homeland Security Program

Key Points

  • The work of intelligence agencies is mostly kept secret for very good reasons. That said, they have to strike a balance between confidentiality and gaining the public's trust, as well as collaborating with like-minded organizations across the world.

Above, watch John McLaughlin, former acting and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and John Scarlett, former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, discuss the challenges facing analysts in today’s ever more complicated security environment.

There are numerous examples of “getting it wrong” on fundamental questions of intelligence and policy. When intelligence failures happen, the results are can be catastrophic and public, resulting in loss of life and headlines in newspapers around the world. But how fair are the judgments? What information do intelligence agencies owe the public?

“People say that there are two kinds of outcomes: policy success, and intelligence failures,” said John McLaughlin, former acting and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Global. “But these are very hard to judge. Intelligence often succeeds when nothing happens.”

From the perspective of the United Kingdom, John Scarlett, former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, said that, “for obvious reasons, intelligence is meant to be secret … failures are learned about, but the vast majority of successes can’t be known about, and shouldn’t be known about.”

There have been many recent criticisms of intelligence agencies, especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, ranging from the sentiment that intelligence agencies should have been able to predict and prevent the events of 9/11, to the accusation that they have become too close to politicians to remain impartial.

Scarlett rejects these accusations, noting that during his tenure, intelligence agencies have become more centrally involved in government because of their contributions of knowledge and expertise, “but what do we want? For them not to be involved? For them not to get policy right?”

McLaughlin said that intelligence agencies have to walk a fine line when working with governmental officials.

“You have to be the one who walks into a room and says when something isn’t working, speaking truth to power. And sometimes power doesn’t like it, but you have to do it.”

When intelligence is successful, say both McLaughlin and Scarlett, their recommendations are incorporated into policy, which typically happens behind the scenes. McLaughlin cited the 2004 Libya disarmament, when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to eliminate his country’s weapons of mass destruction program, as a key example. The agreement was seen as a diplomacy effort, but it in fact was preceded by six months of intensive intelligence work.

“Intelligence successes are woven into successful policies, in invisible ways,” said McLaughlin.

Agencies are also working to adapt to new sources of information, like aggregating data from Twitter or other platforms, to analyze trends and predict world events, like uprisings or unrest. There are several challenges wrapped up in working in these platforms, particularly the sheer amount of data. McLaughlin said that intelligence agencies are searching for ways to effectively categorize and dig through all of the information.

“It’s a work in progress for us. There is no question that intelligence understands the importance of these tools for their potential to change the world. Volume is a problem … things get lost because of the explosion of information.”

But he notes that intelligence agencies are constantly adapting to new technologies, and this is no exception. The CIA was taking photos from space before Google Earth was invented, and using cell phones in their work way before the iPhone, he said.

“Our technology always has to be ahead of what’s available publicly. Because our adversary has what’s available publicly. This task has become harder in the era of Silicon Valley, when so much sophisticated technology is being evolved in garages,” said McLaughlin.

With these more public platforms, there can be new expectations for intelligence agencies, one being that the public gets to see the intelligence behind a decision. This, however, is complicated. Ideally, according to McLaughlin, the public would trust in congressional oversight of intelligence agencies. However, when that fails, “intelligence has to earn public trust,” said McLaughlin. “The Iraq issue set it back considerably … the dilemma is, if you put it all out there, you lose the edge. And if you don’t put it out there, you probably struggle with public confidence in issues of controversy.”

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, both Scarlett and McLaughlin agreed that collaboration is already important, but even more crucial moving forward in a more globalized world. Scarlett noted that there is already a huge amount of collaboration in different forums and contexts, but spreading information can be risky.

McLaughlin added, “Sharing intelligence information involves a risk that you will compromise and lose some of your information because you put it out more broadly. But [after 9/11] the risk of putting it out there [can be] bigger than not sharing.”