FRANK J. CILLUFFO
ast week, the president signed Executive Order 13467 placing the director of National Intelligence as the sole overseer for security clearance investigations and related policies regarding access to classified information for all federal agencies. While seemingly a mundane bureaucratic exercise in paper shuffling, this order significantly augments the authority of the DNI and should allow for faster security clearance processing for our intelligence professionals. Within our vast 16-agency intelligence community, there is no more important beneficiary of the order than the dedicated men and women coordinating human intelligence activities through the National Clandestine Service and other intelligence offices.
The sluggish pace at which security clearances are processed within the intelligence world is one of the main reasons why the CIA and other agencies simply have not been able to recruit the best and brightest Americans to serve abroad in some of the most sensitive areas collecting vital information on our adversaries. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks laid bare the desperate need to hire more intelligence professionals to better understand the nature of global security threats. As CIA Director Michael Hayden noted in 2007, “Fifty percent of the agency has been hired since 9/11.” While the CIA and other agencies should be commended for staffing up, we should be more concerned with the quality of our intelligence officers rather than simply their numbers.
The role of intelligence cannot be minimized; it is Uncle Sam’s lifeblood in the campaign against terrorism. Intelligence underlies all elements of statecraft, and is crucial not only to providing indications and warnings, but also to identifying key exploitable vulnerabilities. This has been repeated so often that it has become a cliche, but it’s important to remember why intelligence is vital. If we had somehow become aware of Mohammed Atta preparing for the 9/11 attacks in Hamburg, the appropriate response would not have been to attack Germany with the 1st Armored Division. Careful intelligence work to identify, locate and capture the cell would have been needed instead. The rise of transnational terrorism has greatly increased the need for an intelligence apparatus that can respond effectively to this new threat. The next terrorist plot will be identified and thwarted not by overwhelming military might, but by careful and patient intelligence work.
Just as the new threat demands a new response in which intelligence plays a greater role, it demands changes in the ways intelligence is collected and used. But confronting a decentralized threat like al Qaeda requires intelligence officers who are more comfortable blending into a local community - getting to know the guys at the gym or playing soccer, speaking the language in its local dialect and slang and entering Internet chat rooms - than working the cocktail circuit and smoke filled lounges replete with foreign officials and diplomats.
Quality intelligence starts with recruitment. Because intelligence involves understanding the motivations, thoughts and plans of one’s enemies, it is imperative to recruit individuals who not only look the part, but are part of communities around the world from which the threat emanates. This means hiring native Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Russian and Chinese speakers (at a minimum) who not only know the languages, but understand cultural, societal and ideological nuances crucial to penetrating our adversaries’ networks. While those inside and outside the intelligence community have been calling for greater language and cultural awareness within the CIA and other agencies, it is crucial that security clearance procedures do not turn away those with the skills and abilities needed most.
The next generation of case officers will need to be well versed and grounded in the language and culture of the region under investigation and will not operate out of our embassies, but rather under nonofficial cover. In an era when a few key strokes on a laptop computer or a quick call on a satellite phone can launch attacks, our officers must have a deep familiarity with technology and the ability to wield and counter it effectively. Our technological age requires the intelligence community to develop innovative synergies between human and electronically collected intelligence. Officers will also need the dexterity to deal not only with government officials but also with shopkeepers and the like. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, they will need to “walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch.”
Beyond recruiting a talented pool of knowledgeable intelligence officers, it is incumbent upon community leadership to provide appropriate and necessary backing. This means empowering officers by providing the right tools to understand and penetrate networks, and allowing them the flexibility to wield those tools in disparate environments from European soirees to the remote Central Asian steppe. After all, James Bond never had to fill out paperwork. If our officers are to be even half as competent as 007, a fine balance between supervision and micromanagement, as well as risk and caution must be struck. With a falling retention rate and recognizing officers are putting their lives at risk, full organizational support cannot be overlooked.
If the Sept. 11th attacks taught the intelligence community one lesson, it is that there is no substitute for experienced and knowledgeable human intelligence specialists. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate the importance of timely and accurate data and contextual analysis. However, intelligence is a means to an end - a mere support function - and not the end in itself. It is not a substitute for poor policy or flawed decision-making. Yet any success in the campaign against terrorism is entirely contingent upon a robust intelligence capability. That capability must start with a human intelligence work force that can exploit our adversaries’ vulnerabilities and is prepared for tomorrow’s unknown challenges.
m Frank Cilluffo directs the Homeland Security Policy Institute at the George Washington University. Aaron Resnick contributed to this article.