President Obama wants a Blackberry.A seemingly simple request in this age of information and very much available.
In the fine tradition of Washington’s intelligence bureaucracy, dozens are no doubt scrambling to supply a new Presidentially “secure” tap-proof one.Many more intelligence types think that the new President is foolish and will soon learn that security trumps convenience and needs for information must surrender to secure containment.
Yet, the outstanding fact remains: the President of the United States has to push a multi-billion dollar bureaucracy to get a Blackberry – no doubt, a “secure one” costing thousands of dollars versus $200 for a RIM.
And wait for the arguments over how many senior staff gets similar ones.
The U.S. Intelligence Community is a first generation business lost in a new market; like the old IBM hanging on to mainframes in a PC world.Information was the Intelligence Community’s game.Control of information was its business.And unique access to others’ secrets was its advantage.Sadly, the Soviet Union is gone and the information technology explosion of the 1990’s happened.Twitter has replaced teletypes.
Today, we have information available to all by the trillions of bytes. The Obama Administration people swim in this world of total access. . Some, such as former chief US intelligence analyst, Dr. Mark Lowenthal, have openly questioned the intelligence community’s continued blind loyalty to the old classified system and wonder how open source can best be used.
The majority of the American intelligence community, however, still views this world through its secrets’ optic – anything unclassified cannot be trusted.Oddly, the rest of the world makes its decisions everyday with such tainted information which it accepts or rejects pretty much the way professional intelligence people do – can it be trusted for accuracy and is its source somehow biased?
The new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair -- who serves the President as his chief information and chief analysis officer, has his work cut out for him.A military man with a healthy respect for the power of the new total information world will be going head to head with an intelligence system wedded to the importance of classified information.They will also attempt to persuade Blair how far they have come in the last few years to ease secrecy and loosen the compartmentation of information.
Blair will also discover the IC is nearly ten years behind the private sector in terms of sorting through and making sense of the vast world of electronic information – from the millions of blogs, to the vast capabilities of instant communication like twitter
to ever proliferating set of new “news services” around the globe.All of this is crucially important to follow as American media slowly sinks away from its overseas insights; reducing overseas staff and relying on stringers or local news services
Blair will also discover, however, a gem in the relatively small CIA based Open Source Center (OSC).Based on the remnants of the old internal news-clipping Foreign Broadcast Information Service, the OSC which has tried to overcome all the odds by presenting unclassified information to IC customers.Delving deeply into the Internet, OSC has tried to provide American intelligence with real world context and understanding.But, its efforts are often blunted by an intelligence apparatus devoted to costly clandestine collection systems and the primacy of deeply classified information.
The new President and the new DNI need look no further than how the IC accesses information to see why intelligence analysis can all to easily go off the mark.Nearly one-third of the FBI has no direct access to the Internet.The main body of the Intelligence Community restricts access to the Internet by analysts fearing the questions they ask on the net will expose too much about the greatest areas of interest to US intelligence, even though the President and his appointees publicly discuss these questions.
In other words, every kid with a laptop and a cell phone in the US can access information more freely than our most highly cleared professional intelligence analysts.The security regime, built to protect the system, is strangling it.This is a world capsized by new technology.
So how can the new Administration and the new DNI push forward an intelligence bureaucracy hindered in its Cold War past?
·First, before the bureaucracy takes control of your lives (and they will do everything in their power to show you how good they are), the DNI and the NSC should prepare a series of Executive Orders that lay out clearly what access the U.S. government needs to information and how it will be able to obtain it.From the get go, American intelligence must understand that in the Obama Administration security must be a facilitator not a roadblock.
·Second, this revamping of intelligence gathering and analysis cannot be done in a vacuum.The DNI needs to seek out best practices in private industry.Corporate firms large and small have been dealing with the same challenges of information gathering and analysis for many years.The consequences they face are severe and swift – going out of business, for instance.Some sectors, such as the hotel and soft drink industries, have come up with some interesting practices to support their efforts to stay in business and prosper that recognize the need for speed, accuracy, and appropriate sharing of information and analysis.
·Third, speaking of consequences, there must be consequences within the intelligence community for inaction.Nothing any government bureaucracy likes to do better to a new group than stifle it through the appearance of action and production of interim reports; and the IC has perfected passive aggressiveness.The DNI needs to make a few well-placed replacements of the recalcitrant to make sure the bureaucracy understands the seriousness of the problem and the serious nature of the Obama Administration in solving it.
·Fourth, the gathering, provision and analyzing of our new world of total information may need to be moved outside the intelligence community;A best practices idea from American business holds that a new enterprise needs to have some fresh perspective; away and part from the “old” group. This could even mean setting up a separate agency based on the Open Source Center to deal with the new information world.The entire U.S. government needs access to this information, put in proper context, and easily available.An intelligence community wedded to a classified past and encumbered with ancient security rules will only do its level best to strangle open source exploitation.
·Finally, and most important, the Obama Administration cannot let the old style government by bureaucratic boxes get in its way.Providing good intelligence and good analysis is a job for everybody in government at all levels in this day of immense national security challenges.What the CIA once claimed as its domain may now matter as much to the Center for Disease Control or a local policeman at the border in Blaine, Washington.
At the bottom line, the Obama Administration is a tech savvy one.They have come to office balanced of the wings of email partners and have already publicly complained about the backward electronic state of the White House.They cannot and should not allow outmoded approaches to information collection and analysis to needlessly endanger 300 million Americans.We can’t count on Cold War era solutions to neutralized threats of the Internet Age.
Ronald Marks is a former CIA official and was Intelligence Counsel to Senate Majority Leaders Robert Dole and Trent Lott.