What the United States’ top spies worry about the most

National intelligence chiefs discuss national security at public conference in Washington

CIA director John Brennan at George Washington University on Tuesday.
CIA director John Brennan at George Washington University on Tuesday.YURI GRIPAS (REUTERS)

A contingent of black all-terrain vehicles with tinted windows and rooftop aerials was lined up outside the entrance to George Washington University’s (GWU) Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday morning. Inside, the heads of the United States’ top security and intelligence agencies were holding a panel discussion about the challenges facing their profession.

The meeting attracted hundreds of experts, students and journalists. In Washington, all kinds of talks involving high-ranking officials go on every day, but rarely do they tackle such clandestine issues.  

Today, all online networks and telecommunication are global and connected to one another”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

The event marked the second year that GWU and the CIA have come together to co-sponsor a university conference about trends in national security.

Entitled “The Ethos and Profession of Intelligence,” the discussion was headed by CIA Director John Brennan; National Security Agency (NSA) director Admiral Mike Rogers; and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, alongside others.

In the hallway, literature about the CIA, as well as job applications, were available for students and the public.

Here are 10 lessons that the United States’ top spies revealed about national intelligence at the event.

1. Reducing uncertainty

“Why do we carry out intelligence [analysis]?” asked National Intelligence Director Clapper, whose office oversees 16 intelligence units and government departments. “We do it to reduce uncertainty for the people who make decisions.”

2. The impact of the internet

According to Clapper, the rise of the internet has altered the “fundamentals” of obtaining intelligence data. During the Cold War, there were only two clear networks of communication: that of the United States and that of the Soviet Union. “Today, all online networks and telecommunication are global and connected to one another,” he said. “This makes our job much more difficult.”

3. The rise of the social networks

Doug Wise, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, focused on the rise of the social networks and their impact on the internet. He said these platforms have helped the likes of Islamic State (ISIS) “channel” their message and encourage “lone wolves” to carry out terrorist attacks. “It has given advantages to groups that would never have been a threat before,” he said.

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4. The best of times, the worst of times

“This is the best time for intelligence work,” said NSA director Admiral Rogers, who is also head of US Cyber Command and chief of the Central Security Service. “We have never been more necessary.” But he added: “It is also the worst time, because the complexity of carrying out missions has never been greater.” Among the reasons he cited were the public’s mistrust of the government’s role in monitoring people’s movements and budget cuts to the intelligence communities.

5. The cyber-attack threat

Asked what caused him to lose the most sleep at night, CIA Director Brennan cited the threat of cyber-attacks. He underscored the “tremendous capacity” of some nations and groups of individuals to carry out such attacks, adding that he hoped that, as the internet expands, countries would come up with an international legal framework and security measures to repel them.

Brennan has first-hand knowledge of such attacks. Last week, a teenage student hacked his personal email and whistleblower organization WikiLeaks published some of the extracted correspondence, which included personal information such as the Social Security and passport numbers of family members. “I was certainly outraged by it,” he said. “I certainly was concerned about what people might try to do with that information.”

6. The Middle East is the most complex region

Brennan noted that the Middle East was the region where the CIA had had to change its strategy the most in the past five years. The Arab Spring, which brought a wave of protests and led to the downfall of several governments across the region in 2011, “has totally changed the political, social and security landscape in the Middle East,” he said. The consequences were weaker institutions, loss of government credibility, and a rise in “transnational phenomena,” such as ISIS. “These circumstances make our work in the United States much more difficult.”

7. Resurgence of expansionist states

NSA director Rogers said intelligence agencies now face a new challenge in the form of a “resurgence” of nations with expansionist ideas, such as Russia and Iran. While this has occurred in the past, Rogers said the phenomenon was now coming back after several years in which the only main threat to the intelligence community were stateless groups such as Al Qaeda.

8. The Snowden effect

The hundreds of thousands of secret US government documents leaked to journalists by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the extent of US monitoring of telephone calls of its citizens and foreign politicians. The NSA was forced to come up with its own policies that limited the gathering of such data and increased transparency.

Now is also the worst time for intelligence because the complexity of carrying out missions has never been greater”

NSA director Mike Rogers

Clapper, who oversees all US intelligence agencies, reaffirmed that no law was broken, but he admitted that mistakes were made. The key was to win back the public’s trust with more transparency and ensure that any type of espionage falls within certain “ethical standards,” he said.

9. Fear of mistakes

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, warned about the risks of being too cautious when it comes to espionage. Because there are fears that agents won’t pick up all the possible threats, “we now receive messages about everything,” he said. “There is a danger of over-protection because of worrying about future mistakes.”

10. Sometimes the old ways work best

Rhodes defended how developments in technology have helped agents gather intelligence, but also noted that in some cases traditional methods can be more effective. For example, he noted that the United States had detected a slight change in the political discourse of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a result of analysis by people closely following the current situation in the country.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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