Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Is the Intelligence Community Staying Ahead of the Digital Curve?

| Aug. 10, 2021

A Survey of its Highest-level Customers and Leaders on the Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Executive Summary


Is the Intelligence Community (IC) staying ahead of the digital curve? Over eight months, the authors conducted in-depth interviews to probe this question with over 45 current and former high-ranking national security professionals, including the leaders of five U.S. intelligence agencies, Cabinet-level officials, two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Congressional leaders. This study finds that while the IC is overwhelmingly critical to U.S. leaders in the Digital Age, it has fallen behind the digital curve. There was unanimity in the imperative for the IC to radically transform many aspects of its business to accelerate through the digital curve and continue to remain relevant.

“How does the IC sustain relevance in an open, transparent world? We struggle with that because we are prisoners of our past successes. Tsunamis of information are assaulting decisionmakers, and the challenge to be relevant is different from our predecessors. I worry that the IC is being complacent about our future relevancy. It isn’t that the sky is falling, but it’s darkening.”
Former Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), Mr. Robert Cardillo1

The IC has made enormous progress since 9/11, but it is facing unparalleled challenges on many fronts. The challenge for the IC is to continue excelling at its day-to-day mission while simultaneously evolving for the future. The IC is in the midst of shifting the enterprise focus from counterterrorism to the far more complex Great Power competition with China and Russia. The fluidity and lethality of this new global battlespace requires a demanding pace of technological innovation to stay ahead of our adversaries, keep our workforce armed with state-of-the-art skills, and remain focused on a kaleidoscope of emerging threats like pandemics, quantum computing, and climate change. This study laser focuses on areas for improvement to ensure the IC not only remains relevant in the Digital Age—but thrives in it.

“The IC doesn’t get to shut down the Saturn plant for three years to re-tool while it’s trying to make big cosmic changes.”
Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Lieutenant General James Clapper2

Interview Methodolgy

The authors conducted 18 interviews with officials who regularly use intelligence products to make strategic decisions—termed “IC customers”—and 18 interviews with leaders inside the Intelligence Community—termed “IC leaders.” The authors also had eleven more targeted discussions with experts from the IC, the private sector, and the Department of Defense, including a former Secretary of Defense. There was some overlap in the questions the authors asked both datasets but key differences as well. For IC customers, the focus of the interview was on the IC’s utility to decision-makers. For the IC leaders, the focus was on the challenges they are facing in modernizing the IC for the Digital Age.

Key IC Customer Findings

For the IC customer dataset, there was a stark dichotomy between the highest-level customers at the Cabinet level, who offered glowing praise for the IC, and customers a few echelons below, who gave the IC mixed to poor reviews. Military leaders across the board largely had nothing but high marks for the IC and foot-stomped the criticality of the IC’s analysis to their decisionmaking processes. On the otherhand, Congressional customers surprisingly noted that only a small sub-set of Congress values intel products; they claimed that large swaths of Congress do not seek out classified products, preferring the ease of access to unclassified information. Despite these differences in the dataset, all of these customers resoundingly saw the IC as credible and unbiased on the wholeThe only major caveat was on Afghanistan, where a fair number of customers perceived some bias in analytic assessments and collection priorities.

These IC customers recommended three areas of improvement for the IC that all coalesced around strengthening partnerships—with allies, within the US government, and with the private sector. These customers anticipate that the IC needs to reimagine new ways of sharing information and leveraging data with partners to keep pace with the ever increasing complexity of the world. The first recommendation is for the IC to create a new intelligence sharing architecture for the 21st century. The second is for the IC to build whole of government partnerships to ensure it is tapping expertise and leveraging data that already exists in the U.S. government, and the third recommendation entails generating more outreach to the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Key IC Leader Findings

There was significant commonality amongst the eighteen IC leaders the authors interviewed from the highest echelons of the Office of the DNI to the heads of five intelligence agencies to its military and civilian intelligence leaders. The IC’s leaders are juggling a dizzying number of priorities, and they are making solid progress on transforming the IC into a more agile and flexible version of itself for the Digital Age.Yet, these leaders voiced their recognition thatthe IC remains in a catch-up game on a grand scale. Even after almost a decade of trying to make our IT systems interoperable, opening up the spigots of data, and layering artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) tools on top, enormous work remains to be done.

The interviews coalesced around challenges on eight common fronts.There was significant agreement on the way forward on six of the eight challenges, such as igniting cultural change at all levels of the IC, broadening the scope of national security threats the IC covers, developing and scaling AI/ML, elevating the importance of open source as an intelligence discipline, designing new paradigms for sharing with the private sector, and creating a more adaptive, mobile and technically competent workforce.

The two areas that evoked disagreement among IC leaders were the appropriate degree of IC integration necessary to modernize tools and platforms and whether it is actually necessary to create new intel sharing constructs with allies. On the latter point, several IC leaders opined that the additional flexibility necessary could be achieved within existing sharing constructs.

Areas of Convergence & Divergence Between IC Customers & Leaders

IC customers and IC leaders largely were optimistic —yet frank —regarding the magnitude of the current and coming challenges the IC faces if it wants to remain relevant within the decision cycle of the national security enterprise. Unprompted, over 20% of the interviewees emphasized that despite some public and elite opinion, the IC is not broken, and most of these luminaries conveyed a protective attitude to the IC, which they clearly valued.

There was significant commonality between the IC customer and IC leader datasets, with little daylight between both datasets on the shared vision for the way forward with the exception of two areas of disagreement.

First, IC customers view the IC’s intel sharing partnerships as archaic and not well-suited to respond to the modern national security environment. Yet, a solid number of IC leaders stated their preference for strengthening the FVEY alliance rather than developing new intel constructs. Only a few IC leaders acknowledged actively pursuing efforts to reimagine the IC’s intelligence sharing architecture with allies or with U.S. government partners.

Second, many IC customers judged the IC is in a stiff competition with publicly available media and industry information as they warned they are finding products of equal value to the IC’s analysis. Nonetheless, IC leaders largely do not perceive that non-IC products are of the same caliber and do not have the IC’s objectivity and policy neutrality.

Overview of Recommendations

The authors proposed eight broad areas of recommendations to help guide the IC through its digital transformation ranging from igniting cultural change to retooling human resources to strengthening partnerships with allies. They are focused on what is do-able within the existing resource constraints of the community. In many cases, continued and consistent leadership accompanied by intellectual imagination will be the two most valuable components to drive digital transformation.

1 Phone Interview with Mr. Robert Cardillo, January 7, 2020.
2 In-Person Interview with LTG James Clapper, March 4, 2020.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Leyne , Elizabeth and Yvette Nonte . “Is the Intelligence Community Staying Ahead of the Digital Curve?.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 10, 2021.