Intelligence community must adapt to era of vast data, study says

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Defense Department

The digital information revolution has handed the U.S. intelligence community a slew of new challenges that are nowhere close to resolution, a new study says.

The 21st-century problems range from mountains of data to accelerated pace of change to competing information flow from nongovernmental sources to fears of violating privacy and civil liberties, according to a paper, “Expectations of Intelligence in the Information Age,” released Thursday by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit that brings together experts in the public, private and academic sectors.

The paper drew praise from Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who spoke at a banquet in Arlington, Va., to mark the paper’s release.

“Because policymakers now have access to rich, new sources of information and knowledge at their desktops and via mobile devices, they will expect the [intelligence community] to develop techniques to quickly and accurately integrate these new sources of information with those upon which they have traditionally relied,” the authors said. “The challenge for the [community] is to sustain its relevance beyond the stolen secret in the era of global access to diverse and rich sources of data and information.”

The paper recommends that policymakers engage the intelligence community on the new roles of open source and traditional intelligence; that the legislative and executive branches create new civil liberties protections; and that a coalition of experts be empaneled to propose practical ways to meet the challenges the digital age presents for collection, analysis, validation and dissemination of openly sourced intelligence.

In an interview with Government Executive, report author Stephen Cambone, who was undersecretary of Defense for intelligence under George W. Bush administration Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, said as the United States “pivots to Asia from the Middle East and changes sources, the places where information is coming from are changing, too, and not all threatening behavior is animated by governments.”

Nonstop news coverage increases the speed and volume of “the ecosystem of information,” which increases pressure on officials, Cambone said. “The trick will be how to satisfy policymakers’ expectations and temper them at the same time. If we can’t validate intelligence for policymakers, they will say they’ll simply make up their own mind, which is the last thing we want,” he said.

The intelligence community is still grappling with ways to exploit open source and new media data “socially, legally and economically so that there is no misuse,” he added. Protecting users’ civil liberties can mean not exposing the government’s interest in the data, Cambone said: “There’s no yes-or-no answer -- it will take a long time to work through.”

Co-author Len Moodispaw, a National Security Agency veteran now head of KeyW Corp, noted that with social media, “people can put out falsehoods, and the intelligence officials have to be quiet, even though they may look like idiots.”

Third author Carmen Medina, a former director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence now with Deloitte, said, “the big data revolution’s digital exhaust” requires intelligence professionals to consider that in the future, what will be classified are the methodologies for analyzing data rather than the data themselves. “A lot of intelligence is like political punditry,” which is in danger of being overshadowed by data analytics, she said. The civil liberties challenges mean that “if there’s no way for us to adjust that is congenial, we may have to just live with it, but let’s have the conversation.”

The white paper, executed by a task force of intelligence luminaries seeking to “rebalance” the nation’s spy apparatus, was hailed as “spot on” by DIA chief Flynn. He gave the dinner audience the example of a recent citizen uprising in Uganda that was reported to U.S. observers by participants using Twitter, noting Africa today represents 47 percent of the world’s cellphone market.

Having assumed his post only in July, Flynn gave a preview of DIA’s Vision 2020 strategic plan for adaptations to a changing intelligence environment for use by the next several administrations. “Intelligence centers are being renamed intelligence and operations centers,” he said, “because intelligence in the first half of this century must drive operations.” He said changing demands will require a reorganization of DIA into a model that emphasizes “integration, interagency teamwork and innovation of the whole workforce, not just the technology but the people.” That means not adding more people but investing in them, he said.

Flynn noted that 5,000 of the “global scouts” that DIA has in Washington and in 140 countries are combat veterans, “which is the new normal.” The new vision includes plans to “decentralize decision making to those closest to the edge” who get a “fingertip feel of the environment,” he added. “Intelligence at the edge is better than intelligence at the center. You can’t get it sitting at headquarters.”

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