The Next Four Years

What a Romney presidency could mean for the intelligence community.

If Mitt Romney becomes the next president of the United States, how much are intelligence policies and programs likely to change? Not much. One of the most remarkable features of the past decade in the intelligence community has been the continuity from one administration to the next. 
Romney likely would stay the course when it comes to the intelligence tools at the president’s disposal. These are the secret collection programs and clandestine operations that are the nearly exclusive domain of any commander in chief. But some big question marks loom for candidate Romney—as they do for Obama. Chief among them: how to manage the intelligence community in a time of shrinking budgets and how to curtail the nuclear ambitions of Iran. 
What Will Stay the Same 
Drone strikes. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become the pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, and they’re going to have a tremendous influence on foreign policy and military strategy in the years to come. Obama, like George W. Bush before him, sees drones as a way to save the lives of U.S. forces, because the robots go into battle where humans can’t. No president would discard this tool. Also, by September 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration must allow drones to fly in U.S. domestic airspace. So we might see robot aircraft patrolling the skies over the White House in the next president’s term. 
Cyberwarfare. Washington now understands that the Internet is both a strategic asset and a risk for the U.S. economy and the government. Cyber defense has become a central operational mission of the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. (It always was for the Homeland Security Department.) And the intelligence community has demonstrated, with a cyberattack on Iran, that it has the capability—and the will—to unleash computer viruses on America’s adversaries. Expect more of that. 
Special operations. The CIA, in concert with the military, has become an effective global killing force, dispatched on presidentially approved missions to fight the battles that drones can’t, at least not alone. The successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden solidified the role of special operations in fighting terrorists. 
What Might Change
The size of the intelligence community is a moving target. As of this writing, the outcome of the battle over a potential budget sequestration is undetermined, but presumably it will be settled after the November elections. Budget reductions would scale back or cut some defense and intelligence programs. Ellen McCarthy, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, has said there will be layoffs in the intelligence community workforce. But a President Romney would submit a new budget. And despite his apparent interest in shrinking the size of government, that doesn’t necessarily preclude saving—or even expanding—some intelligence programs.  
Wild Card 
Despite a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, international inspectors report the country has accelerated its enrichment of uranium. Romney’s position on Iran and its alleged weapons program has been hard to discern. He has said containing Iran, which means accepting its construction of nuclear weapons as inevitable, is not a viable option. 
But former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, recently wrote: “Even if Mitt Romney wins, there is no guarantee U.S. policy could change quickly enough to stop Iran.” Romney’s position on how to counter Iran is muddled. But the same is true for Obama.
Shane Harris, a former staff writer for Government Executive, is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State.